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Cities were less healthy than rural regions, as local and international trade networks facilitated the spread of disease and as crowding and improper disposal of wastes led to sickness. European immigrants often suffered from higher death rates than native-born colonists. Disease environments also changed over time.

In general, the seventeenth century was healthier than the eighteenth. As the population grew and trade expanded, diseases spread more easily.

Philadelphia and the surrounding region stood at the intersection of these patterns. As a multiethnic city, Philadelphia had a population that included Native Americans, blacks both free and enslaved , and European immigrants from Britain, Germany, and elsewhere. In the colonial period, the city saw both chronic and epidemic threats to health.

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All colonial cities suffered from overcrowding and problems with waste disposal. At the same time, as a major port, Philadelphia was subject to epidemic diseases imported from Europe, the West Indies, and Africa. Local officials in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey tried to impose quarantines when infectious disease was known to exist, but such quarantines were of limited effectiveness. Even when human beings respected a quarantine, the mosquitoes that carried malaria or yellow fever would not.

Major killers in the region included chronic threats like dysentery and respiratory illnesses as well as epidemic diseases like smallpox and yellow fever. Founded in by Benjamin Franklin and Dr. In confronting this disease environment, residents of the city turned to a wide variety of medical practitioners.

Philadelphia was the site of one of the first hospitals in the British colonies, Pennsylvania Hospital, founded in Still, university-trained physicians were rare, and their services might be expensive.


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One historian estimated that in the s, only about physicians with medical degrees lived in all of the American colonies combined. These doctors had studied in Europe, as there were no medical schools in America until the first, the Medical Department of the College of Philadelphia , opened in , drawing students from Pennsylvania and elsewhere. This school closed during the Revolution, but reopened in the s.

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No medical school was founded in New Jersey in the colonial period, but New Jersey doctors formed the New Jersey Medical Society in in an attempt to professionalize the practice of medicine in the colony. Whether in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, most colonial doctors did not study medicine at school.

Rather, they trained through an apprenticeship with a local physician, often studying and observing his medical practice for a three-year period. But Pennsylvania and New Jersey residents also turned to other practitioners. Ministers commonly attempted to aid the sick with physical as well as spiritual help. Ordinary men and women might grow herbs, gather medicinal plants, or trade time-honored remedies with each other. Midwives aided women in childbirth, a realm of health care from which men were largely excluded. Colonists might also attempt to treat themselves or their families with the aid of medical handbooks.

Margaret, the daughter of famous portrait painter Charles Willson Peale, died of smallpox in Popular medicine seldom had a strong theoretical basis. Plants or other remedies were popular because they worked or seemed to work , often by causing powerful physical reactions. Buchan preferred milder remedies, though noting that bleeding and purging could sometimes be useful. Wesley, on the other hand, was far more suspicious of doctors. In Primitive Physick , he maintained that temperate habits and moderate exercise could ward off many diseases, and that drinking water could treat many illnesses effectively.

Doctors, he thought, had made medicine unnecessarily complicated in order to gain money and honor for themselves.

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University-trained physicians deplored the lack of system in such popular remedies. The human body, he wrote, was so complex that long years of education were necessary to understand its workings. Formal medical training was vital, for an untrained or half-trained physician was as likely to inadvertently poison a patient as heal him or her. Herman Boerhaave theorized that the human body consisted of solids and fluids that had to be kept in balance. Morgan and other university-trained physicians were profoundly influenced by the ideas of leading European physicians, including the Dutch doctor Herman Boerhaave and the British physician William Cullen Disease resulted from imbalances in the solids and fluids, which could often be remedied by bleeding or purging the patient to restore balance.

Their remedies, however, were much the same. Eighteenth-century doctors in Philadelphia, as in Europe, generally believed that the best cures had dramatic effects on the body. Medicines that caused vomiting and purging including ipecac and jalap were popular, as was mercury to cause salivation. Such treatments were intended to restore balance to the body by drawing off corrupt or excessive matter. Doctors also relied on bleeding, which might have the additional benefit of lowering a fever or even causing a suffering patient to lose consciousness.

For those who trusted these doctors, the dramatic effect of their medicines testified to their strength. Skeptics argued that such powerful drugs could only weaken a sick person. One satirical poem summed up the remedies of the day: Philadelphia was at the center of a major medical controversy during the American Revolution, when a smallpox epidemic ravaged the colonies between and A process for inoculation for smallpox had been known for much of the s. It involved taking pus from the sores of a smallpox victim and introducing the infected matter into an incision in a healthy person.

That person would then contract smallpox, but usually in a milder form. Inoculation was controversial in the s, not least because an inoculated person, while sick, was fully contagious. Since inoculation was quite expensive, poorer citizens resented the idea that the wealthy, by inoculating themselves, put the larger community at risk. Nonetheless, inoculation was quite common and unregulated in colonial Philadelphia. Thomas Jefferson , Patrick Henry , and Martha Washington were all inoculated there.

During the American Revolution, George Washington ordered soldiers inoculated.

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Medications made from recipes in 18th-century professional pharmacy books are also shown. Some of the ingredients that were used in colonial remedies are the basis for modern medications. They included chalk for heartburn, calamine for skin irritations, and cinchona bark for fevers.

Later it was discovered that cinchona bark contains quinine for malaria and quinidine for cardiac conditions.


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Medical treatment was expensive and individuals frequently diagnosed their own problems and compounded medications guided by tradition, folklore, or domestic medical books. Headaches were often treated by vinegar of roses, a remedy made of rose petals steeped in vinegar and applied topically.

Williamsburg apothecaries also sold cooking spices, candles, salad oil, anchovies, toothbrushes, and tobacco, making them true precursors of today's drugstores. Magazines About Archived Articles.

An Autobiography of a Colonial Doctor

Page content Experience the Life: Treatment components are assembled on the counter. A practiced eye examines an injured arm. A lancet is poised to let the blood of a patient.