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.

ALSSAR District Meeting

SAR 2-21-20

Martin speaking with a fellow SAR member in Birmingham February 22, 2020.  We shared items from his kit, clothing, books and sources, &c with attendees at the Alabama Society Sons of the American Revolution Southern district meeting conference and made new friends in the process.  Photo credit for this image goes to Travis Parker.

Men’s 18th Century Shirts

A man’s shirt was a series of rectangles cut or torn from fabric and stitched together much like the illustration below.  Linen was a common fabric and the fineness of the weave determined the cost, thus those of lesser means had shirts of coarser linen and gentlemen purchased a finer quality.  Cotton and wool were used less commonly and silk was generally a luxury in the colonies.

Košile 1

18th century poor men's clothing patterns - Google Search

[Drawings are from Cat Tsannenbaum Schirf posted to Pinterest.  She credits her drawings to the information found in Beth Gilgun’s “Tidings From the 18th Century”.  “Tidings” is a must-have for anyone interested in 18th century clothing.]

Necklines could be plain, tucked, or frilled and gentlemen and commoners alike wore some sort of neck piece.  A gentleman probably purchased shirts while a common man likely either made them himself or his good woman made them for him.

London Army Shirts -

French Linen late 18th-century men's shirt shows the typical cut of the period. Gussets below the arm were used to allow freedom of movement while the gusset on the shoulder assisted with fit, allowing the fabric to not pull tightly through the neck and chest. The unique piecing on this shirt approximates the shape of the body and allows for more fullness at the front without adding bulk at the waist.

French shirt in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum.  Copied from Pinterest.  Dated to about 1780 it is of linen.

Shirt, ca. 1775-90, Metropolitan Museum, linen and cotton.

Detail of shirt front of a gentleman's voluminous nightshirt of fine white linen with ruffle edging to collar, neck opening and cuffs. mid 18thC

Detail of a mid-18th century nightshirt of fine linen with ruffle edging and thread buttons.  The texture of the linen is seen.

This is a quick down and dirty look at 18th century men’s shirts.  It is not meant to be an all encompassing history.  Visit back periodically or follow us for more posts.

Conversing with Visitors at Ft. Toulouse

Martin enjoying the fruits of Vickie’s labor – this was a photo op for an article she wrote that was published in “Early American Life” on the history of saffron in Pennsylvania. Having been born and raised in Pennsylvania Martin was qualified to judge the quality of the food!

Lunch at the Fort

Martin was making shoe packs while speaking with visitors at this event but when lunch was served he enjoyed a lunch break. Footware is one of many topics we will cover in our future posts. We hope you’ll visit again.

Brady’s Faithful Reproductions

When Martin retired from the U.S. Marine Corps with 22 years of service he opened a brick and mortar store in Pennsylvania where he sold museum quality reproductions of clothing and other items.  His garments are for adults and children.  Vickie is an author of historic books (see or thistledewbooks on facebook) and has also made clothing and accessories for herself, individuals, and for museums.  

In addition to sewing both recreate various other period items including Martin’s historically accurate Native American pieces.  Sewing has been limited due to work schedules but Martin recently retired and retirement is quickly approaching for Vickie.  With it comes an opportunity to again make a few items to sell from time to time and ramp up our research. 

While we may be firmly rooted in history we realize most people shop online and so we’ve created this site where we can share what we make, as well as sources for period correct fabrics and notions, sewing tips, &c., along with information on original clothing and accessories, crafts and trades, weaponry, general material culture of former eras &c.

Martin is a member of the Alabama Society Sons of the American Revolution [ALSSAR] and has set up living history presentations in the U.S. and abroad.  Vickie is a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the ALSSAR auxiliary, and the Society of Descendants of Washington’s Army at Valley Forge. She has also coordinated numerous living history events in the Southeast and Scotland.  

We provide displays, presentations, and living history demonstrations at various events and historic sites.  You may reach us at Mpbrady30 @ aol or thistledewbooks @ [do not leave spaces].  We invite you to follow the blogs and join us as we travel through time.  The blogs are searchable.

Who We Are and What We Do

Welcome to Brady’s Faithful Reproductions where history is a way of life. 

Follow us and enjoy the history we share, be it original clothing or artifacts, sewing instructions, resources, or items we offer for sale.  To engage us to speak, display, or demonstrate contact us at thistledewbooks @ or mpbrady30 @   

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See also: for all things 18th century.




Introduce Yourself (Example Post)

This is an example post, originally published as part of Blogging University. Enroll in one of our ten programs, and start your blog right.

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