Pioneer Profiles: Charles Fox Gardiner

Why would a sickly child who grew up in New York City want to come to Colorado and be a doctor in the wild country when he grew up?

Charles Fox Gardiner grew up in a rich family where he was coddled and spoiled. Because he was weak and unhealthy, his parents didn’t force him to go to school, instead taking him with them as they traveled in Europe. It was during one such trip in 1870 that he found himself looking out his hotel window into a makeshift field hospital in Germany during the Franco-Prussian War. He wandered down and made himself useful transporting water and bandages, and soon he was given the right to help with the patients, even holding limbs during amputation. This experience at the age of 13 was the spark to the tinder for his love of medicine.

He studied medicine in Vienna, Berlin, and London, returning to the U.S. for his internship. He thought the city was too crowded and foul, and that his skill-set was too small, so he asked to be a surgeon at the local jail, where he learned a lot more about a wider variety of illnesses and broadened his experience. During this time he also learned some dentistry and veterinary care, skills that would serve him well later in life.

Despite his five-foot-seven, 110-pound stature, Gardiner became an avid outdoorsman who loved to box, canoe, and hike. He had studied about the explorers as a kid, so to satisfy his sense of adventure, he traveled  west. In 1882 he ended up in Crested Butte, Colorado. He fell in love with its rugged beauty and decided to stay. He was the third doctor in town, so at first he made his living through dentistry. He had the most up-to-date training of the three doctors, though, and soon he became known as the “doctor on skis” because he would travel for miles in the snow to treat all kinds of illnesses and wounds from mining and ranching accidents. He even traversed a 13,000-foot mountain to get to a cabin on a cliff. He had to crawl on his knees across a precipice to get to the door. Yikes!

One story has it that he built himself a little one-room cabin right next to the local saloon. He realized the mistake of setting his bunk up too close to the outer wall when late one night, as he was tending a sick person at the hotel, a fight broke out at the saloon. Hearing gunshots, he ran outside to see what was going on. After helping two wounded fighters, he went home to his cabin and sat down on his bunk to remove his boots. He looked over and discovered bullet holes in the wall near his pillow. If he had been home and asleep, he would have been killed. Needless to say, he didn’t waste any time building a retaining wall between his cabin and the saloon.

There were no vets in Crested Butte, so Gardiner was asked at times to perform surgeries and other veterinary services. One miner begged him to remove a tumor from his mule’s shoulder. Reluctantly, Gardiner removed it, remarking with his usual wry humor that the only winner in the situation was the dog that stole the tumor as it lay on the ground afterward.

After two years in Crested Butte, Gardiner was tired of conducting a long-distance romance with his sweetheart, so he went back to New York, picked up his fiancée Daisy Monteith, and brought her to Colorado Springs to be married. Daisy also had the “pioneer spirit,” and she was more than willing to travel with her new husband into the Colorado back country. They moved to Meeker, where Gardiner was the only doctor for 100 miles in every direction. Instead of the doctor on skis, he became the “doctor on horseback.” He became quite well known for riding at least 75 or more miles every day. Less than a year after their arrival, Daisy was ready to give birth. Gardiner took her over Berthoud Pass to Colorado Springs, where her family welcomed their son Raynor to the world. They went back to Meeker, but it was determined that due to Daisy’s health and Raynor’s education, living in Colorado Springs was a better choice.

Moving to Colorado Springs was a turning point in Gardiner’s career. Daisy, after contracting tuberculosis from her sister, died after their daughter Dorothy was born in 1893. The city was becoming famous as the “City of Sunshine”, and losing his wife was the impetus Gardiner needed to specialize in the treatment of tuberculosis. He determined that fresh air, sunshine, and a healthy diet rich in protein were the keys to recovery. Besides developing a healthy regimen for his patients, Gardiner also developed an eight-sided tent that he modeled after Ute tepees he had seen near the city. Each structure, known as a “Gardiner tent,” housed one person. Equipped with a bed and other small amenities, the tents afforded the sick person the isolation he/she needed to combat the disease. It worked, too. Sixty percent of patients recovered–remarkable in a time before antibiotics.

Left: The interior of a Gardiner tent in an exhibit at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum. (Credit: DeLyn Martineau) Right: A Gardiner tent in 1925. (Credit: Penrose Library Digital Collection)

Even though Charles Fox Gardiner was a small man, he lived large, making a lasting impact on the world of medicine with his revolutionary approach to frontier medicine and tuberculosis treatment. His healthy lifestyle must have been the reason he lived until age 90 in an age when the average life expectancy was between 50-70. He never caught tuberculosis, either. Even then, he must have known the secret to a great life is living in Colorado.

Photo By: Penrose Library Digital Collection