7 page Medicine in Colonial America Term Paper

Medicine in Colonial America

The period we can call Colonial America can be the period from 1497 to 1776. The examination of medical practices during the period, first with the original natives of the land, and then the medical practices that came in with the settlers from the various countries, and finally the establishment of an orderly and institutionalized medical practice that was the foundation of modern medicine have to be examined in minute detail. To go beyond the colonial days is necessary to establish the earlier state of bliss health wise and other wise that existed and the attendant confusion that came with colonization. This is necessary to reconstruct the scenario of the development of this important branch of human activity. The pre-colonial America has its own tribal medical practice, and left to their own devices often perhaps found herbal remedies for their ailments. (the History of Medicine in America: The Settlers Arrive)

The colonization of America offered a very fertile field for the new ‘doctors’, ‘surgeons’ and ‘theorists’ and their theories. Simultaneously the medical investigations in the Continent especially Britain brought forth new methods of attending to the sick, which was tried out on the settlers and the natives, thus aiding and abetting death in his duties. The medical history of the colonies all over the world is nothing but a record of a number of unsung and unknown early graves that gave rise to various schools of medicines, and further more creating competition among the practitioners. As the singular hall mark of the economy which embraced capitalism, competition seemed to have thrived in the medical corridors. In fact, a signatory to the constitution Dr. Benjamin Rush actually had warned that the bill of rights need to have an article on the ‘freedom of choosing medical care’ and the reason that was advanced was simply that in future on school of medicine might monopolize the medical horizon killing off other forms of medicine. Incidentally Dr. Rush introduced Psychiatry to America. (the History of Medicine in America: The Settlers Arrive)

Ignorantly Healthy

The natives of the Americas, long before Columbus sailed over, we can assume on a statistical probability, had their share of illness. They have on record some medicines that suit such ailments. These medicines are called ‘alternate remedies’ today, albeit with a tinge of suspicion. It is argued that these medicines based on herbs and a sprinkling of religion thrown in is unscientific. But we can observe that the indigenous people have managed very well with this form of health remedies, otherwise there would not have been so many tribes to battle with in the first place. The settlers came from a different suite, with a different climate and bacteria not found in the local areas. That was the first health problem. It can be argued conclusively that “the Europeans who settled in the new land encountered animals that were strange to them and also germs that came in contagion. They had also to put up with the changes which did cause a general health condition.” (Samuel, 25)

Alternately probably the natives both human and animals were introduced to exotic diseases from over seas. As proof that perfect medical systems existed before people from overseas came to carry the ‘white man’s burden’ we can consider the Oglala Medicine in detail. It is claimed by researchers that the system consisted of a ritual which set the “biological and social rhythms in motion by the manipulation of neuro-physiological structures. It is imbedded in a cognitive matrix with myth, an almost infinitely diverse elaboration aimed at explanation and control of the environment.” (Lewis, 73) This ritual combined with what later came to be called ‘Herbalism’ made up for the demands of the sick. Even to this day families in the United States, have one or the other “treasured herbal remedies. Few communities were without a grandmother who could prepare a root or leaf with alleged curative powers. The same is generally true of Oglala families. “Medicine roots” are sold by vendors at the Dakota fairs and in the small grocery stores.” (Lewis, 77)

Not that these were effective only for the cold one got while fishing, but they were used extensively and some still consider it effective for a variety of diseases like heart disease and tuberculosis. Any disease that was diagnosed probably has some root or the other to match it, along with the appropriate rituals. The proof that the indigenous system was quite sufficient for the population before the settlers can be seen if we consider the career of Robert Holy Dance, who was a celebrated Herbalist from the Rosebud Reservation. And he is not from the times of Columbus but was living with us recently till 1968. In the modern days he has earned a reputation using ‘botanical remedies traditional in the community,’ and with the traditional “drum, song, and prayer. He was an empirical thinker. He developed his skills from case to case” (Lewis, 124) Thus rests the case for the indigenous medicine which is still waging a war with the powerful modern medicine, which because they did not include the item required in the bill of rights ousted traditional medicine from the citadels of respected research.

The development of ‘Imperialist’ medicine

The first things that came over with the legions of settlers of course, apart from the germs were religion and the identities that they brought along. The identity definition from the western world, namely what Michel Foucault says “places its own point-of-view at the origin of all historicity [and] which, in short, leads to a transcendental consciousness.” (Sutphen; Andrews, 51) This identity and its effects created a banding together of groups, creating a group identity. Feminists of today use this theory to substantiate their stand. However when the colonial America was being built, the identity groups had spread into religion. The missionaries actually colonized America long before the Kings and Emperors. The notion of making everything “civilized” before they can be Christianized, the missionaries sought to recast the whole of native culture in a Western European mold.” (Axtell, 110)

The Christian reforms changed the native’s lifestyle and wiped out the old customs. That is the simpler part of the story. The more intricate part is that during the colonization, modern medicine itself was in chaos, not only at home but also in England and France and Germany where it had its roots. Since the Catholic Church forbade physicians to perform surgery, and the then current ban on the study of anatomy created two separate practitioners, the Physicians who prescribed remedies and the surgeons who were the executors of surgeries if so required. The surgeon and the barber were often the same person. It was logic that if the barber can cut hair, pull teeth and tinker with the body, they also could do surgery. It was when Protestants protested that the barber became alienated from the surgeon, who then began to be housed with physicians. (the History of Medicine in America: The Settlers Arrive)

There was the beginning of modern medicine, but it was in the infancy and the experiments stopped at the courts and streets of Europe and perhaps the neighbors. Medical ideas traveled slowly to the colonies and the settlers meanwhile had to simply do without medicines or treatment, or try local remedies. Conventional medicine thus was something that ordinary people could not afford. It was costly and only those who made enough to pay the physicians could afford the luxury. Many colonial citizens may never even have seen a physician all their lives. Child birth even, for example was a n affair that women of the community attended to, and the physician could not even attend the patient. (the History of Medicine in America: The Settlers Arrive) Some famous physicians of the day like Miles Standish, “an officer in the British army, was also a magistrate, an engineer, an explorer, an interpreter, a merchant, and a physician.” And later he became famous for what was Heroic Medicine. (the History of Medicine in America: The Settlers Arrive) the most famous was Dr. Samuel Fuller. He was a surgeon as well a physician. The ‘physicians’ and ‘surgeons’ practiced medicine which however, lacked the scientific basis of enquiry. Science at that time was in its infancy. Many scientific schools of thought were just being born in Europe. Thus theories of the time did not require having proof, or verification that is now required to be passed on as a discovery. You needed to be convincing enough. Most beliefs came from the ancient Greek system of medicine and included therapies like “bleeding, purging, either by emetic or by enema, blistering,” and any other improvisation. (the History of Medicine in America: The Settlers Arrive)

Doctors in the modern sense and even the term doctor were coined in the colonies after the year 1769. During the Revolution very few doctors had formal training or degrees. Most learned from other doctors or were self taught. These specialists attended to the affluent. The doctors were ineffective on account of the absence of proper medicines, pain killers and even the simple instruments of the trade like the thermometer and stethoscope. (Medicine and Health)

The conditions of life in Colonial America – Health Issues

All was not well with the colonial settlers. People died very young from various ailments like influenza, pneumonia, tuberculosis, smallpox, malaria, rickets and a host of waterborne diseases. We can attribute this to the pressure on land, and the unhygienic conditions that were prevalent at that time. The average life expectance was only twenty five years and many did not survive their teen age. Unhygienic conditions were the prime cause, and the colonial cities and homes did not have a bathroom, running water or hygienic closets as of today. The people relieved themselves in pots and semi-open structures which caused the facial matter to somehow contaminate water. Added to this, the animals which were reared in close proximity contributed to further confounding the issue. Baths were a luxury that could be indulged in by a few. The squalor coupled with the unhygienic disposal of human and animal waste and the absence of any method of controlling the spread of epidemics took its toll regularly. (Medicine and Health) Those who could among the settlers asked for advice in medical issues from correspondents in England. Many tried the native medicines which included “herbs, minerals, and animal products. Home remedies for a variety of symptoms included ingredients such as snail water, opium, herbs, honey, wine, vipers, licorice, flowers, and berries. The alignment of the stars was believed to affect the healing properties of medicine.” (Medicine and Health)

The sick person’s best friend and medical adviser was the mother, grandmother, housekeeper or the friendly neighborhood mistress at the plantations who had a stock of herbs and concoctions and was the administrator of remedies. Nursing as a simple practice, like charity, began at home. The ladies administered the medicines and treated and nursed the sick. When they seem to fail they called in the barber, surgeon or the physician in that order perhaps considering expenses, which then bled the patients and did other acts of mercy. Midwives were popular in delivering babies and were more popular and respected perhaps more than the gynecologists of today, because the colonial homes had more births as compared to these days. Added to that they had no proper hospitals, and did not have the system of sterilizing equipments. Medicare was unheard of too.

The Development of Medical Science

The neo-colonial development of medical science begins with institutionalizing medicine and the birth of universities. The scientific temper that swept the world towards the end of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth which coincided with the birth of the new nation also saw the creation of scientific institutions that were more pragmatic and had a solution to the problems of the new society. Notable of these were the development of hospitals and instead of the sick being cared for by the home made nurses and town practitioners the hospitals provided better solutions, both for the patients and also in checking the progress of disease and infection to healthy individuals. (Kisacky, 38)

Isolation is itself a means of disease prevention. “Hospitals are and have been the institutions most integrally connected with the use of strategies of isolation for disease prevention, but even in hospitals what (or who) is and has been isolated, how that separation has been effected, and how it has been expected to affect specific disease incidence has changed drastically over time.” (Kisacky, 38) Initially there was no such isolation but an attempt at relief. The hospitals were a matter of experiments in the beginning, and this resulted in a lot of theories that bad air spread infection. Malaria means bad air. However architects of hospitals made a discovery that serious cases need isolation. “After two years of considering various sites, in 1773 the New York Hospital’s governors deliberately chose a site removed from the developed areas of the city, the equivalent of five blocks north of the almshouse, then the tacit built city limit.” (Kisacky, 41) the founder of this hospital was Dr. John Jones, who created the isolation ward. However the development of hospitals as we see them today and the development of nursing, the gadgets and the facilities took yet another century. (Kisacky, 41)

This from the early settlements to the time the country attained freedom, there was apathy and no control over the health issues. Steps were taken by the new government in the free country that attempted the use of science and modern medicine which resulted in building of hospitals and universities that taught medicine. The importance so far as the United States is concerned is that hand in hand with the development of hospitals about a century after the first settlers arrived in the country, the development of chemistry gave rise to a great industry in the country which based on scientific analysis began to discover medicines for the masses – the pharmaceutical industry. We have to note that medical reform came to the U.S. after two centuries of colonization and freedom somewhere at the start of the twentieth century. “At the beginning of the twentieth century, medicine in the United States was in the throes of internally driven reform. Inspired by the new “scientific medicine” that had emerged from the clinics and laboratories of Europe, where many of the American medical elite had pursued advanced training, a set of reformist leaders perceived a catastrophic situation at home.” (Rasmussen, 62) it was then that the medical profession became what it is today, efficient and exact. The drug industry was similarly disciplined. These reforms took two centuries and in the meanwhile doctors and the patient were at the mercy of the ideas of the times and available remedies.


We can easily observe that the natives before colonization had indigenous medicines which were adapted by the settlers. However the settlers faced new animals, bacteria and crowded conditions where basic sanitation was not available. Modern scientific knowledge about bacteria, infections and other medical discoveries were not made. Treatments were given by anyone professing knowledge and surgery was in the domain of the barber. Simi8larly superstitions and some wrong notions took heavy toll of life and the average expectancy of life was less than twenty five years. The medical advancements in America were a painful affair that took over two centuries to mature into the medical system we have now. Many medical developments occurred in USA and in Britain almost simultaneously. In the colonial days blood was spilled in fights, wars and revolution and also as a singular means of curing disease. Turning back we look with horror the sufferings of the early settlers and thankfully at those people who struggled and suffered to give us our modern life.


Axtell, James. The European and the Indian: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North

America. Oxford University Press. 1982.

Kisacky, Jeanne. Restructuring Isolation: Hospital Architecture, Medicine, and Disease

Prevention. Bulletin of the History of Medicine, vol. 79, no. 1, 2005, pp: 1-49.

Lewis, Thomas H. The Medicine Men: Oglala Sioux Ceremony and Healing. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln, NE. 1992.

N.A. Medicine and Health. Robert E. Lee Memorial Association, Inc. 2006. http://www.stratfordhall.org/ed-med.html

N.A. The History of Medicine in America: The Settlers Arrive. International Wellness

Directory. 2003. http://www.mnwelldir.org/docs/history/history01.htm

Rasmussen, Nicolas. The Drug Industry and Clinical Research in Interwar America: Three

Types of Physician Collaborator. Bulletin of the History of Medicine vol. 79, no. 1, 2005, pp: 50-80.

Samuel, Charlie. Medicine in Colonial America.

The Rosen Publishing Group. 2003.

Sutphen, Mary P; Andrews, Bridie. Medicine and Colonial Identity.

Routledge. New York. 2003.

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