Last Updated 27 Jul 2020

Medicine in Colonial America

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Medicine in Colonial America was much different from today, but gave us a lot of insight in the human body’s needs. Due to lack of education, experience, proper tools, and hygiene, many patients died. However, there were also many people who were saved through the medical procedures and lived full and healthy lives. Few doctors in Colonial America actually received a formal education through a medical school, because there was really only one school: the Pennsylvania Hospital (Rorke, n. d. ). This program was far too expensive and for some located too far away, thus they could not attend.

Furthermore, because of the lack of complete knowledge, these schools would not have provided any more information than one would obtain by learning from another doctor, which in most cases would be a much cheaper education, thus, most doctors learned through apprenticeships. They had to complete a 7 year apprenticeship before being considered a doctor. Of course there were Quacks, or citizens who pretended to have medical knowledge just to make a profit. Moreover, there were female medical practitioners, called midwives.

They received no formal education and learned through apprenticeships as well. They birthed children and cared for the ill that could not afford a doctor’s care, or lived too far from a medical facility. When not even a midwife was available to treat a patient, the women of the households were responsible for the family health. Another group that provided medical care was Catholic monks who came over from Europe and brought along their wisdom of operating techniques, healing herbs and essential oils. These monks had a special way of numbing their patients with a plant called henbane.

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Their patients overcame the operations more quickly while less of them died in contrast to using barbaric operation and healing techniques that many colonial doctors were using. Today, we have many medical schools that are still very expensive and vigorous, but provide a more well-rounded education. Just like the doctors of Colonial America, doctors today undergo a sort of required apprenticeship after medical school, called a residency, which, for a surgeon ranges from five to eight years, depending on their specialty.

Midwives are still available, but usually take care of pregnancies. Today, midwives must go through special training to become either a CNM- certified nurse midwife, or a CM- certified midwife. There have been great advances in medical procedures since the late 1700’s. For example, according to Rorke (n. d. ) to amputate a limb, doctors in colonial times would first numb the patients’ pain by intoxicating them with brandy or rum and have them bite on a wooden stick.

Then, the medical team would hold them down on the table, while the doctor tied a leather tourniquet around the patients’ limb. The surgeon would start to cut through the flesh with his amputation knife and then saw through the bone itself using an amputation saw. Subsequently, the bone shavings were removed by pouring whiskey or just plain water over the wound. Conversely, the remaining limb was burned with a hot iron to close the blood vessels and veins. They could then wrap the stump with pure cotton bandages and let it heal. Only approximately 35% of patients survived this procedure!

The procedure itself sounds cruel, but the patients’ lives might have been at risk if it had not taken place, such as the rotting of the flesh, or blood poisoning, caused by an accident, or being shot with a bullet or poisoned arrow. Another example would be dentistry. Most colonists had awful teeth, because they did not have toothbrushes and toothpaste. Thus, teeth needed to be pulled. Because there are no anesthetics, having your teeth pulled was a very painful process. The dentist would hold the patient down on a chair and yank the tooth out using a pair of everyday pliers.

Once again, there were many quacks in this field that would pull good teeth from patients and sell them to people who wanted real-tooth dentures. Moreover, in 2009, archeological teams found human remains where someone, presumably a doctor, had drilled three holes into the skull. This may have been done to relieve the skull of pressure caused by a blow to the head. Archeologists believe that this could have been the first attempt at brain surgery and may have planted the seed for today’s brain surgery procedures (CBSnews. com, 11 Feb. 2009).

Hermann Boerhaave’s theory of wellbeing was that a person has four humors: bile, phlegm, blood and urine. If these humors were imbalanced, a person would become ill. To make him or her feel better, you must balance the humors (Brinkley, 2004). According to Rorke, “one must sweeten acids, purify the stomach, and rid impurities by bleeding and purging” or by using leeches to increase blood production, to balance these again. Most doctors actually let patients bleed out, because their “humors” were not balanced, whereas midwives prescribed laxatives to remove bile.

Furthermore, Boerhaave believed that a “fever was the body’s attempt to keep from dying,” even though we now know that it is actually the body’s response to killing whatever is making the body sick. Although this sounds absurd when considering our knowledge with today’s medicine, many doctors and midwives used this theory to aid the ill and actually succeeded in some cases. Hygiene was the one major contribution to nosocomial, or hospital obtained, infections. Because doctors in the colonial times did not know about bacteria, viruses, and contagious diseases, they did not clean the equipment or even their hands.

Today, doctors and surgical staffs take extra care to clean everything. Surgeons take an average of five minutes to wash, scrub, and sanitize hands, whereas surgeons in colonial times took an average of zero seconds. Doctors would not even wash their hands when rotating between patients. As discussed in class, doctors would go from a person with a severe flu to a woman giving birth without washing their hands. This could not only sicken the woman, but also make the child ill. The death rate of women suffering from Puerperal fever was extremely high.

This fever is caused by a bacterial infection from unsterile equipment and conditions during childbirth, and the woman’s body not being able to rid the toxins from childbirth fast enough. This could ultimately lead to death. One cannot stress the importance of hand washing and personal hygiene enough! Obviously, or at least it is obvious today, one must clean any equipment that touched a person, even if it’s just a stethoscope. Disease could spread from such an object to another person causing them to become ill as well. Scalpels, saws, drills, anything that goes into a person, must be sanitized.

Today, hospitals heat the instruments so that almost all of the bacteria die, and then they soak them in an antibacterial solution to ensure there are no harmful things on them. Furthermore, some hospitals send the tools to be sanitized to a company that sanitizes them for the hospital. This cuts back on hours cleaning and provides security that the equipment is safe and clean, resulting in happy patients and staff. I believe today’s health care is mostly based around customer service. You want to make sure the patient is happy, healthy, and satisfied with your performance.

The patient even has a choice to live or die by signing a DNR- do not resuscitate- form. In colonial America, however, the doctor really did not care if you enjoyed their service or not, they were trying to help you in the long run. Doctors also had more freedom to refuse treatment than they do today. In some ways I would like our health care to be like that of colonial America in regards to customer service, because there are so many people going to the emergency room who have a mild cold and hold up the patients who are in critical condition and really need to be seen as soon as possible.

I am indifferent to DNR’s. I believe a person must be in critical condition, such as terminal cancer, to be eligible to sign this form. As previously mentioned, medicine has evolved tremendously between colonial America and now. It is still ever-changing, because we find a cure to diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. Doctors can achieve great things, but only with the help of education, experience, sterile tools, and personal hygiene.

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Medicine in Colonial America. (2016, Aug 18). Retrieved from

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