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.