What’s the Deal With Colonial Medicine?

We have always heard that one of the causes of large death counts in early 18th century colonial America was poor medicine and lack of healthy habits. But one might ask oneself, how bad were the colonial doctors? The answer to that varies from person to person. However, you can generalize that the health workers in the early 1700’s were sad excuses for doctors.

Imagine yourself in America in the early 18th century. There are no toilets or running water in the house, just bedpans. You drink and cook with contaminated water. You barely bathe as you believe a layer of dirt is necessary to keep strong immunity. So now you’re sick in bed and you have no idea what’s wrong. Do you call a doctor? No. Doctors were actually saved as a last resort or for severely ill patients. It was common to try home remedies first. A lot of the medical work at home was left to the women. Even though they were not provided with proper education and only know what they had learned from their mothers. These home remedies included herbal mixtures, teas, calamine, chalk, flowers, honey, hot poultices, or simply cold cloths (especially for fevers). Most of the time, these remedies did not do the trick.

When the remedies failed, the town barber was the next to be contacted. One of the main medicinal practices in colonial America was “bleeding”. This practice consisted of letting blood out of the patient with a knife or other sharp tool. Barbers could cut hair, so why not skin, right? The idea behind this practice was either to let out toxins within the blood or reduce body temperature. This often led to infection and/or aggravation of the illness at hand.

When the barber didn’t fix things, or made things worse for that matter, the doctor was finally called (not that he would be much help anyway). Most of the time, doctors trained others in the field of medicine and they were barely ready to fill the position. Therefore, the doctors didn’t know too much more than the patient themselves. They usually just tried bleeding the patient again and suggested more remedies. If they were successful, the doctor was praised. If they were not successful, the doctor was not at fault. Even though the doctors didn’t do much to help the patients, they still charged a steep amount for their “professional advice”. Many people couldn’t even afford to call a doctor.

The bottom line is that if you got sick, you were out of luck. The field of medicine didn’t even start improving until the late 1700’s. However, we do use some of the home remedies today; calamine for skin issues and cold towel for fevers. Overall, medicine in the colonies definitely wasn’t the best. I guess you could say it left room for a lot of improvements in the years to come.


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7 thoughts on “What’s the Deal With Colonial Medicine?

  1. I wonder how many people died from lack of sanitation.. This makes me think of bacterial diseases, like cholera. Scary. Can you imagine living in such filth, and knowing nothing else? I can barely imagine not being able to flush a toilet every time I use the bathroom, and maybe having to even transport my wastes..

  2. This is interesting because it’s a part of America that we never really talk about. It almost sounds like medicine didn’t improve at all from the middle ages, which is a funny connection because I never really associate the middle ages with colonial America.

  3. I absolutely agree with Robert! I couldn’t even imagine what I would do knowing there was nothing better than unsanitary conditions I was currently living in. I also wonder how these doctors were “hired”. All of a sudden, there could be a million doctors just because they are calling themselves that. Getting treated in this era would be very sketchy.

  4. Medication of colonial America is often not covered a lot in history classes, but it was a really important part of the lives of the colonists. Its true that there was a lack of sanitation and ineffective remedies for disease. This really shows how far we have come in medicine in more recent years. Back then, common illnesses such as the cold or the flu could be life threatening, but today they are easily prevented or treated.

  5. It’s frightening to think that it was common practice to cut the patient and allow, in fact encourage, their body to bleed large quantities of blood. I was actually terrified to read that if the blood bath did not first succeed it was then repeated as if to ignore the fact that it didn’t initially work (for a reason!).
    I like that you included multiple forms of colonial medicine, touching on the practices and career.
    I wonder what were some of the major forces that caused our practice of medicine to drastically change. Not only the evolving understanding of illnesses and cures, but also the polar modern ideas of regular doctor’ checkups and colonial ideas of only calling upon the doctor in dire situations.

  6. For me, it really puts it into perspective when comparing sickness then and now. These days, feeling under the weather every once in a while is normal and not really considered, but it’s crazy to think of how dangerous sicknesses such as the common cold were before we began to utilized modern medicinal practices. As Juliana felt about the bleeding practices, I too was a bit creeped out. The bleeding actually reminded me of the medicinal methods used during the Black Plague! Nice post!

  7. I cannot help but wonder when drastic medical advances and innovations occurred and what epidemic the colonists had to experience to finally make them realize that it was time to look into medical sciences. The colonists’ “home remedies” did not work back in Europe, so why would they work here? Why not try to find a real solution? Also where did they get the idea that bleeding would help heal someone!? I find the history of medicine and medical methods intriguing and we really have come extremely far considering this was only a few hundred years ago.

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