Medicine & Health

A Colonial teenager faced a struggle for existence. The average life expectancy was under twenty-five years. Diseases such as smallpox, malaria, tuberculosis, pneumonia, influenza, rickets, and fevers caused many deaths in children and adults. Wells for drinking water were often contaminated by nearby privies and unpenned animals, causing many illnesses.

Colonial homes had no bathroom, septic system, or running water. Chamber pots, hidden under beds and inside chests, performed the function of today’s toilets. Slaves would dump the contents of the pots daily. Outdoor toilets of wood or brick, called privies, sometimes had four or more holes for larger families. The waste pits below the privies were normally cleaned by chickens; sometimes slaves would have to shovel out the pits. People in this period were accustomed to living with smells that we would consider extremely unpleasant.

Today most people bathe or shower daily, a practice that adults and children of the colonial period would have considered odd. They did not believe in bathing everyday, or even every week. They felt that bathing washed away the layer of dirt that was their protection against germs and disease. Most baths consisted of washing with a cloth dipped into a basin of water. When washing in warm water was desired, water had to be heated in the fireplace. No chemical deodorants or anti-antiperspirants masked body odors; however, since nearly everyone shared the same standard of cleanliness, odors were not as offensive. Pomanders, tussie-mussies, colognes, and lavender and other fragrant herbs used as air fresheners all helped to make indoor odors tolerable.

Colonists often wrote back to England for medical advice. Many were fascinated with Indian remedies made from herbs, minerals, and animal products. Home remedies for a variety of symptoms included ingredients such as snail water, opium, herbs, honey, wine, vipers, licorice, flowers, and berries. The alignment of the stars was believed to affect the healing properties of medicine.

Most family illnesses were treated at home. The plantation mistress or housekeeper usually kept a supply of medicinal herbs and other simple remedies in a physic chest in the Great House. She administered first aid and nursing advice as needed to all persons living on the plantation. Local barbers/surgeons would be consulted only after all other treatments failed. These barbers bled patients (a popular remedy) and pulled abscessed teeth in addition to their primary duties of shaving, cutting hair, and curling wigs. Midwives, who delivered babies, were extremely important since all babies were born at home and colonial families tended to have a larger number of children than those of today.

The term doctor was first used in the colonies in 1769. By the time of the Revolution only a small percentage of doctors had attended a medical school; most were either trained by another physician or self-trained. Physicians usually limited their treatments to rich patients who were chronically ill. Lack of knowledge of causes and cures of most diseases, effective medicines and pain-killers, and instruments such as the thermometer and stethoscope handicapped colonial doctors in their practice of medicine.

Suggested Readings

Duffy, John. Epidemics in Colonial America. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.
Kalman, Bobbie. Early Health and Medicine. The Early Settler Life Series. New York: Crabtree Publishing Company, 1991.
>Savitt, Todd L. Fever, Agues, and Cures: Medical Life in Old Virginia. An Exhibition for the Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, 4 October 1990 – 1 April 1991.
Wilbur, C. Keith, M.D. Revolutionary Medicine: 1700 – 1800. Chester, CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 1980.

Suggested Activities

Compare/contrast colonial medical practices with those of today
Compare/contrast colonial and contemporary hygiene practices