The question of how to streamline, share and protect medical records in an electronic age is high on the agenda for health care reform. In the mid-nineteenth century, however, record keeping was far less complex and more likely to reflect the idiosyncracies of the health care providers of the day. Take, for example, the account book of physician-druggist John H. Brown. Born in Greensburg, Kentucky in 1832, Brown was raised in Illinois, where he took up his profession in the Mississippi River town of Cairo. His account book, dating from 1856-1862 and now held by WKU’s Special Collections Library, offers a unique look at his trade with the local population, and how he kept track of a rather curious pageant of customers.
In particular, names were not always a necessity for Brown. His book tallied charges for a “Little Scotchman” who purchased unspecified “Pills and powds.” There was the “Old Gentleman who lived beyond Mr. Givins” and his modest account for “Tonic Powds.” Brown sold some “medicine” to “Pastry Cook John” and similarly dosed the daughter of the “Dutch sausage maker.” The aforesaid Little Scotchman must have provided a good recommendation, because soon afterward Brown sold a toothbrush, pills and “solution for mouth” to the “Big Irishman who stays with little Scotchman.” No doubt the “Sore mouth gentleman at Mr. Hanes” required the same relief, although his account also included a bottle of “sherry wine.” Sales to various customers “on boats” provided evidence of Brown’s ongoing trade as a riverside pharmacist.
But Brown’s account book was not as chaotic as it might seem, for at the front was an index allowing one to easily find “Gentleman, Old who lives beyond Mr. Givins” on page 59, “Boy at King’s brickyard” on page 62, or “Irishman, Big who stays with little Scotchman” on page 61.