Living history

DO produces PBS documentary on Lewis and Clark expedition medicine

The film, based on David J. Peck, DO’s book “Or Perish in the Attempt,” will debut on Montana’s PBS station next year.


In 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark embarked on a two-and-a-half-year, 8,000-mile trek to explore the western U.S., from Missouri to the Oregon coast. Despite grueling conditions and adherence to the era’s often-primitive medical practices, Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery lost only one member—a 21-year-old man who died of appendicitis. At that time, the illness would have been fatal anywhere in the U.S., since appendectomies were not yet routine.

David J. Peck, DO

The Lewis and Clark expedition has fascinated David J. Peck, DO, a retired family medicine physician in San Diego, since his childhood summers in East Helena, Montana, not far from areas the explorers charted in 1805. In 2002, Dr. Peck published a book he authored, “Or Perish in the Attempt: The Hardship and Medicine of the Lewis & Clark Expedition,” which explores the medical thinking of the early 1800s and how those beliefs played out during the explorers’ journey.

Several years later, Dr. Peck began working with the Lewis & Clark Foundation to create a documentary, “Lewis and Clark: Or Perish in the Attempt,” based on his book. The hour-long film will be broadcast on Montana’s PBS station this winter or spring; once it airs, PBS stations around the country will have the option of picking it up.

As an adventure story, the Lewis and Clark expedition is unparalleled, Dr. Peck says. “The wilderness adventures and incredible hardships the Corps of Discovery experienced are the epic of the American wilderness story,” he writes in the foreword to his book. “This expedition was manned by amazingly prepared and toughened individuals—prepared in every way, except medically.”

In this trailer for the documentary, Dr. Peck discusses the medical treatments of the time.

Making the documentary

After beginning the documentary project, Dr. Peck enlisted Emmy-winning filmmaker Craig Wirth to write the script and provide narration. In addition to offering physician insights on camera, Dr. Peck shot much of the documentary’s scenic video in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana, consulted on the storyline and played banjo and piano on the soundtrack.

The Lewis and Clark expedition was rife with medical hazards, Dr. Peck notes, including extreme weather conditions, parasites, food- and insect-borne illness, and dangerous wildlife, including rattlesnakes and grizzly bears. “Unfortunately, most of what medical influencers believed at that time was just wrong, so treatments tended to be pretty horrible,” Dr. Peck says. For example, the treatment for dysentery, a common illness among expedition members, involved bleeding the patient and giving medications to induce sweating, urination and vomiting. “For a person who’s severely dehydrated, that’s exactly what should not be done,” Dr. Peck says.

David J. Peck, DO, photographs a scenic vista in western Montana.

Key takeaways

Keith Bortnem, DO

Dr. Peck and Keith D. Bortnem, DO, an orthopedic surgeon who also appears in the film, hope that viewers of the documentary will come away with an appreciation for the remarkable hardships and accomplishments of the Lewis and Clark expedition. “How more of those guys didn’t get killed or succumb to illness, I don’t know,” says Dr. Bortnem, who practices in Great Falls, Montana. “Think about the clothes we have now to go skiing—they didn’t have anything remotely like that. It’s just remarkable they were able to survive the winters and illness.”

Because medicine is constantly evolving, Dr. Bortnem says, physicians in the distant future may view the medicine of 2016 with a critical eye, just as we view the medicine of the Lewis and Clark era. “Hopefully, treatments for illnesses that are devastating today, like Alzheimer’s disease, will advance so much that physicians in 50 or 100 years will look back and think our methods are very primitive,” he says.


  1. Adam F. Dachman, DO, FACOS

    nice work guys. I wish I could have helped with the score. If you do another project please let me know as I am passionate about music for film and documentaries. Lewis and Clarke were amazing and the story is intriguing from a medical perspective.

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