About Medicine and Health in Colonial Times

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Colonial Americans had to endure various health problems while building the colonies. They often did not have the knowledge or the resources to maintain their health. Treatments for the sick were mainly home remedies. There were not many doctors in colonial times, but even with a doctor's help people were often unable to beat epidemics such as smallpox, yellow fever and malaria.

The Facts

  • Colonial people had a difficult life. They worked long and hard hours. They often did so not having the proper nutrition to function at that level since fruits and vegetables were not readily available. With the lack of rest, inadequate nutrition, poor sanitary conditions, Indian attacks and disease many peoples' health suffered. They often died young. The people, including doctors, didn't know that much about the human body and what was necessary to get well. The sick were primarily treated by their family. Someone in the colony could go get a doctor if the sickness was severe enough, but they may have had to ride all day to do it. The local barber also would treat people that were sick by doing a bloodletting, and the blacksmith took care of toothaches by pulling the problem tooth.

Type

  • The most common method for treating ill people was to try to make the person feel as comfortable as possible. The sick got the closest spot to the fire when it was cold. Families also used herbs that were grown in their gardens. The herbs were used to treat every kind of ailment, from fevers to broken bones. Many colonial families often had a booklet entitled "Every Man His Own Doctor: Or The Poor Planter's Phyfician." This booklet had recipes of common cures. As a last resort a doctor would be brought to help, or possibly the barber if a doctor couldn't be found. Doctors commonly used leeches. They believed the leeches would take excess blood out of the person and suck the sickness out. The more seriously ill would be bled more by opening a vein and letting it drip into a bowl.

Risk Factors

  • The doctors believed that humans have twelve quarts of blood in their bodies, but actually there are only six. The significance of this belief was evident when the doctor or the barber would do bloodletting. Sometimes they took out so much blood that they brought the patient to the point of death. This practice could not have been sanitary since they believed that a layer of dirt from not bathing often would protect them from getting sick. George Washington, who had an infection in his throat, died after being bled of four and a half quarts of blood in one day. It is believed that his death was at least partly caused by this treatment.

Effects

  • The site that was chosen for the founding of a colony often had an effect on the health of its occupants. The southern colonies had trouble with malaria due to the humid climate. Approximately five people died daily of yellow fever in the colony of Charles Town, South Carolina. Charles Town was a port, and ships coming in brought the disease to this colony. Colonial doctors did not know that there were viruses and bacteria smaller than the eye could see that could make people sick. Some of these organisms were in the rivers from which they drank. An example of this was in Jamestown, where the water was contaminated causing dysentery and typhoid fever.

Significance

  • The most common disease or epidemic during colonial times was smallpox. Doctors only knew that it was contagious and people usually died within a couple of weeks after contracting it. They did discover that if a needle and thread were put through a blister of an infected person and then put under the skin of a healthy person, the healthy person--if he survived--would most likely never get smallpox. This was called being inoculated. This method did cause some deaths, but saved many colonists from certain death had they contracted smallpox.

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