Medicine in Colonial America the Term Paper

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  • Subject: Medicine
  • Type: Term Paper
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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.

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