Thomasville Times Enterprise

Local News

January 13, 2014

Disease rampant in Colonial America

THOMASVILLE — A program entitled “Colonial Medicine” was presented by Doris Davies at the John Lee of Nansemond Colonial Dames XVII Century meeting on Wednesday.

She told members that what we know about 17th century medical practices is limited for three reasons —  the first reason is that available records are sparse; the second reason is the distortion of statistical bias in what historical sources exist and third, is the reason that some of the terms and spellings in the old writings may be confusing and misleading.

Most of the information available speaks primarily to the American Colonies in Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

These were the Europeans and these early settlers found that the promise of “milk and honey” did not match the advertising.  They were often ravaged by starvation and disease.

Life expectancy in the 17th century was 35 years of age. More than 80 percent of the Virginia colonists died in the first years and 50 percent of the Massachusetts settlers died on the first winter.  Colonists who survived for as much as a year or so became “seasoned” and their mortality rate was decidedly lower.

Many families lost children and mothers due to the dirty hands that delivered these babies after physicians had examined the diseased and dead and knew nothing of sanitary practices.

The theory and practice of medicine was reflective of the theory and practice in Europe.

The chief medical person was the housewife who armed herself with folk remedies, superstitions, family tales, Indian lore and homegrown herbs.

Disease was thought to be the caused by too much or too little of the fluids in the body.

The four humors — blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile — were the bases of Western medicine-based on the ancient Greek principles.

The healing of hot, cold, dry and wet preparations along with a variety of plants and herbs were also highly regarded. People called on “bone setters” and surgeons who had no formal training to attend them.  Bloodletting was one well known treatment.

Medical practices began to change in the 17th century when scientists started to ask “how” things happened.  They observed occurrence and conducted experiments to collect data.  Unfortunately, the incredible growth of information did not spread.

By 1776, the colonies had 3,000-4,000 individual practitioners of medicine; however only 300 to 400 of them had doctorate of medicine degrees and they were in urban areas. Two medical schools were established during the colonial period.

One was the College of Pennsylvania and the other was King’s College which became Columbia University.

Most practicing physicians were initially trained as apprentices called “doctor’s boys.”  After a three to six year apprenticeship to a physician they received a certificate. The other emerging profession was that of the druggist and apothecary entrepreneur.

Hospitals first appeared in the early 18th century.  They were built to confine contagious diseases and were mostly in seaport towns. The alms houses were established for the poor.

The Colonial and early Federal periods marked the height of “heroic medicine” where purging, bleeding and high doses of toxic drugs like calomel constituted treatment for almost every condition. These cures may have killed more than the disease themselves.

Samuel Thomson popularized the taking of herbs and drinking herbal teas.  Samuel Hahhmann started homeopathy while Andrew Taylor Still started osteopathy.  These were the reactions to “heroic medicine”. There were hydropaths and “faith only” healing as other reactions.

Some diseases that they treated were Typhus or “Jail Fever” were introduced by the bite of a louse; Typhoid spread by contaminated excreta, food clothing and bedding and dysentery or “diarrhea” were thought to be caused by drinking contaminated water, bad food and exposure to cold or wet.

Diphtheria/Scarlet fever was thought to be an “infection in the air” treated by bleeding and a gargle of alum dissolved in honey and vinegar.  Most of these diseases were caused by unsanitary conditions.

Yellow fever —Great sickness, American plague, Barbados distemper or Bilious plague — was prevented by boiling vinegar to keep away mosquitoes and the use of oral tobacco grew as preventatives.

Settlers did identify the swampy areas as bad living conditions and, if they could afford to move to higher ground, they did.

There was a treatment for malaria “intermittent fever” of ground Peruvian bark that was drunk as a liquid. This was successful because it contained quinine and quinidine.

Consumption and tuberculosis were untreatable. Rotten teeth were pulled by anyone willing. And venereal diseases were treated with saltpeter, sumac root as well as mercury.

Davies contributed another interesting side note that Dr. Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphia physician, was an advisor to the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

The expedition left with 600 Rush pills or “thunder clappers” with them.  The pills contained calomel (purgative and insecticide), mercury, chlorine and Jalap (cathartic drug made from the morning glory plant). The pills were used as a fever preventative.

The use of these pills allowed us to trace the original route of the Lewis and Clark expedition because this purging caused mercury to be left in the ground.

Davies is a registered nurse and holds her bachelor of science degree from Florida State University.

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