University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Introduction: Thomas Jefferson to Meriwether Lewis: “bring back your party safe”

“To your own discretion therefore must be left to the degree of danger you may risk, and the point at which you should decline, only saying we wish you to err on the side of your safety, and to bring back your party safe even if it be with less information.” —President Thomas Jefferson to Meriwether Lewis, June 20, 1803

Bison and Elks

Bison and Elks. Tableau 47 by Karl Bodmer. Courtesy of the Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska. Gift of the Enron Art Foundation.

“[B]ring back your party safe …,” orders Thomas Jefferson in his instructions to Meriwether Lewis in preparation for one of the greatest explorations in United States history, what would become known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It was a daunting command. The West was an unknown entity. Lewis and his co-commander, William Clark, were armed with very little information about the obstacles and dangers they would encounter. However, they were to keep their party safe—not just for the value of human lives—but also, as Jefferson writes, in order to protect the information they would acquire.

Amazingly, Lewis and Clark achieved this lofty goal. Upon completion of the expedition, Lewis writes to President Jefferson that returning in good health was one of the most “pleasing considerations of the voyage.” Of the entire Corps of Discovery, only one man died, not of injury or accident, but probably from appendicitis, an outcome that was inevitable in the early nineteenth century. This exhibit explores the medicine and medical theory Lewis and Clark employed to promote health and recovery. It also examines the trials the explorers faced due to disease, accident, and injury.