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  Did the Sulfur Water from the “Magic” Spring Cure Sacagawea’s Illness?

One of the myths that surround the epic journey of Lewis and Clark, is the recovery of Sacagawea from a possibly severe illness near present day Great Falls, Montana, in mid June, 1805.  She suffered from severe abdominal pain, apparent inability to eat or drink anything for days, “twitching” of her fingers, and severe prostration.  She underwent bloodletting on several occasions, was treated with laudanum (opium mixed with whiskey) and various other medications brought along by Lewis and Clark.  Within days of being administered some sulfur containing water under the treatment of “Dr.” Lewis, the young woman began to recover.  Was it the result of the seemingly magic waters?

Any possible benefit derived by Sacagawea from the Sulfur Spring water certainly was not the result of any type of “antibiotic” effect that it had, or the result of any great ability of the water to rehydrate her system.  The spring water was not equivalent to any modern electrolytic oral rehydration solutions such as Pedialyte or Gatorade, or intravenous salt solution such as normal saline.

There were some possible benefits from the minerals contained in the water.  These benefits were minimal at best, as their absorption in the small intestine would have been limited due to the lack of glucose in the spring water.

Absorption of water in the small intestine is absolutely dependent on absorption of minerals (electrolytes), in particular sodium.  The absorption of glucose (products of carbohydrate digestion), or amino acids (products of protein digestion) is also dependent on a sodium-driven electrochemical gradient between cells lining the small intestine and the food solution inside the intestine.

Absorption of potassium from the diet is passive and does not require any specific transport mechanism.  If there is a more concentrated potassium concentration inside the intestinal food solution, there will be movement of this mineral from inside the intestine into the body’s circulation.

There is also “nutrient-independent” transport of some electrolytes in the distal large intestine.  In people suffering form some diarrheas, if they become severely salt-depleted, a hormone from the adrenal glands (aldosterone) can increase sodium (and chloride) absorption in the distal colon.  This in turn can encourage more water absorption at these sites as well.  In general, the large intestine is more able to reabsorb water into the body than the small intestine.

Electrolyte absorption in the intestines is without question, best accomplished in the presence of amino acids and sugars in the diet. 

The mineral water administered to Sacagawea makes a more interesting story from the expedition than it did as an effective medicinal or rehydration solution.  She probably would have recovered in the same way that she did, even without the “magic” waters of the Sulfur Spring.
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A Life of Accomplishment and Giving: Dr. Benjamin Rush
The Strange and Mysterious Death of Captain Meriwether Lewis
The Medical World of Lewis and Clark
Hypochondriasis and Malaria
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Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting and Lewis and Clark College, Unfinished Journey, The Lewis and Clark Expedition is a 13 part series, narrated by Peter Coyote.  This landmark series was carried nationally on over 80 NPR stations and covered a diverse number of topics relating to the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  Dr. Peck was a featured participant in two of the episodes.  These episodes are featured here in their entirety for your pleasure, courtesy of Oregon Public Broadcasting, Portland Oregon.
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