Medical Care in Colonial America©

The Apothecary by Frans Van Mieris 1714

“The Apothecary”, Frans van Mieris, 1714.

In the early days of New England medicine, the clergy often administered physical care as well as tending the spirit and at least two eastern governors saw to the physic of the local citizenry. Gov. Winthrop of Connecticut and New Haven was, per Cotton Mather, “furnished with noble medicines, which he most charitably and generously gave away upon all occasions”. Such haphazard care continued until the mid-1700s when Dr. John Morgan of Philadelphia tried to change the practice of Medicine by dividing it into three classifications – physic, surgery, and pharmacy.

Many of those clergy men/pseudo doctors published tracts on medical care such as Thomas Thatcher’s 1677, “A Brief Guide in the Small-Pox and Measles”, Benjamin Colman’s “Some Account of the New Method of Receiving the Small-Pox by Ingrafting or Inoculating” published in 1721, Thomas Howard’s “Treatise on Pharmacy” published in 1732, and Nathaniel Williams’ “On the Method of Practice in the Small-Pox in 1730”.

Obviously, many so-called healers were untrained, and their pharmacy was, in large, taken from gardens, fields, and forests in the form of plants. Some of the early medicines were worse than the conditions being treated. Blue mass, for example, was a mercury-based concoction. Common practices included bleeding or blistering which only further weakened an individual.

Physicians of some import in the colonies during this pre-revolutionary period include, among others, Dr. John Morgan of Philadelphia, Dr. John Mitchell of Virginia, Dr. Lining of Charleston, Dr. Colden, Lieut. Governor of the colony of New York, Dr. Douglas of Boston, Dr. James Ogden of Long Island, and Dr. Benjamin Gale of Connecticut. Some of these individuals introduced papers on new practices such as inoculation for small pox and regulation of the profession in an era when, “Quacks abound like locusts in Europe, and too many have recommended themselves to a full practice and profitable subsistence”.

Families in the middle and southern colonies may have fared a little better than those farther north. “This may be accounted for by the fact that the former enjoyed the services of several foreign physicians, who had early emigrated thither, enriched by the best medical education which Europe could afford”. European physicians were by no means as knowledgeable as today, however, many of them had benefitted from a college education in the healing arts.

“Of the colonial physicians none were more active or distinguished than those of South Carolina”. Dr. John Moultrie was educated at the University of Edinburgh, he first native Carolinian to do so. Between 1768 and 1778 another ten Carolinians graduated from that learned institution. In addition, several respected physicians emigrated from bonnie Scotland to the Carolinas with that massive emigration movement.

The studies of Natural History and Botany reached epic proportions during this time as individuals rushed to identify new species and ship them back to their native countries. Dr. John Clayton is a good example. He emigrated from England in 1705 and settled in Virginia. He devoted himself to the study of Virginia’s plants and published “Flora Virginica” in 1743. He followed that with several papers published in the Philosophical Transactions. Topics included varieties of tobacco and medicinal plants of Virginia. His work drew high praise from Thomas Jefferson.

The reader may ask when America began to educate its own physicians. “The Schools of New York and Philadelphia were the only ones attempted before the Revolution. The first medical degrees were given by the college of New York. In 1769 the degree of Bachelor in Medicine was conferred upon Samuel Kissam and Robert Tucker. In 1770, the degree of Doctor in Medicine was conferred upon the last of these gentlemen, and in May of the following year, upon the former”.

Materials studied by those early graduates included works of Hippocrates, Galen, Stahl, etc. until Boerhaave’s materials became available in 1701. Also, in general use “at our political separation from the British empire”, were commentaries of Van Swieten; Whytt, Mead, Brooks, and Huxham, physiology of Haller; anatomy of Cowper, Kiel, Douglass, Cheselden, Monro, and Winslow; the surgery of Heister, Sharp, Le Dran, and Pott; the midwifery of Smellie and Hunter; and the Materia Medica of Lewis.

We gained our independence but lost our collective educational programs regarding Medicine with the Revolution. “The newly-formed medical colleges were broken up and the energies of the country directed to the attainment of a nation’s highest hope and ambition. The revolution accomplished, and an independent government established, a new career was commenced. In common with every thing else, medicine felt the sacred impulse, and during the brief period of our independence, how has the scene changed!”

By the time the article from which this information was extracted was published (1867) America boasted thirty medical colleges, most larger cities benefitted from a hospital, and American physicians contributed to the growing collective knowledge base by publishing papers and treatises of their own. “…we can now boast of authors whom we are not ashamed to mention along with those of European birth. What nation ever accomplished so much in an equal space of time, and under equal circumstances!”

Author: Victoria Brady. All Rights Reserved. Thistledewbooks @

Source: Forbes, John, Sir; Tweedle, Alexander; & Conolly, John. “The Cyclopaedia of Practical Medicine: Comprising Treatises on the Nature and Treatment of Diseases, Materia Medica, and Therapeutics Medical Jurisprudence, etc. etc.”. Vol. III. 1867. Philadelphia.

Published by thehistoricfoodie

I write articles for various magazines and books about foods and cooking techniques. My work centers primarily around historic foods and I travel throughout the country doing cooking demonstrations at various local, state, and national venues and teaching an occasional period cooking class. I've done cooking demonstrations on national and local television, including Chicago's WGN.

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