Medicine in Colonial America Term Paper

Pages: 7 (2778 words)  ·  Style: MLA  ·  Bibliography Sources: 4  ·  File: .docx  ·  Topic: Medicine

Medicine in Colonial America

The period we can call Colonial America can be the period from 1497 to 1776. The examination of medical practices during the period, first with the original natives of the land, and then the medical practices that came in with the settlers from the various countries, and finally the establishment of an orderly and institutionalized medical practice that was the foundation of modern medicine have to be examined in minute detail. To go beyond the colonial days is necessary to establish the earlier state of bliss health wise and other wise that existed and the attendant confusion that came with colonization. This is necessary to reconstruct the scenario of the development of this important branch of human activity. The pre-colonial America has its own tribal medical practice, and left to their own devices often perhaps found herbal remedies for their ailments. (the History of Medicine in America: The Settlers Arrive)

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The colonization of America offered a very fertile field for the new 'doctors', 'surgeons' and 'theorists' and their theories. Simultaneously the medical investigations in the Continent especially Britain brought forth new methods of attending to the sick, which was tried out on the settlers and the natives, thus aiding and abetting death in his duties. The medical history of the colonies all over the world is nothing but a record of a number of unsung and unknown early graves that gave rise to various schools of medicines, and further more creating competition among the practitioners. As the singular hall mark of the economy which embraced capitalism, competition seemed to have thrived in the medical corridors. In fact, a signatory to the constitution Dr. Benjamin Rush actually had warned that the bill of rights need to have an article on the 'freedom of choosing medical care' and the reason that was advanced was simply that in future on school of medicine might monopolize the medical horizon killing off other forms of medicine. Incidentally Dr. Rush introduced Psychiatry to America. (the History of Medicine in America: The Settlers Arrive)

Ignorantly Healthy

TOPIC: Term Paper on Medicine in Colonial America Assignment

The natives of the Americas, long before Columbus sailed over, we can assume on a statistical probability, had their share of illness. They have on record some medicines that suit such ailments. These medicines are called 'alternate remedies' today, albeit with a tinge of suspicion. It is argued that these medicines based on herbs and a sprinkling of religion thrown in is unscientific. But we can observe that the indigenous people have managed very well with this form of health remedies, otherwise there would not have been so many tribes to battle with in the first place. The settlers came from a different suite, with a different climate and bacteria not found in the local areas. That was the first health problem. It can be argued conclusively that "the Europeans who settled in the new land encountered animals that were strange to them and also germs that came in contagion. They had also to put up with the changes which did cause a general health condition." (Samuel, 25)

Alternately probably the natives both human and animals were introduced to exotic diseases from over seas. As proof that perfect medical systems existed before people from overseas came to carry the 'white man's burden' we can consider the Oglala Medicine in detail. It is claimed by researchers that the system consisted of a ritual which set the "biological and social rhythms in motion by the manipulation of neuro-physiological structures. It is imbedded in a cognitive matrix with myth, an almost infinitely diverse elaboration aimed at explanation and control of the environment." (Lewis, 73) This ritual combined with what later came to be called 'Herbalism' made up for the demands of the sick. Even to this day families in the United States, have one or the other "treasured herbal remedies. Few communities were without a grandmother who could prepare a root or leaf with alleged curative powers. The same is generally true of Oglala families. "Medicine roots" are sold by vendors at the Dakota fairs and in the small grocery stores." (Lewis, 77)

Not that these were effective only for the cold one got while fishing, but they were used extensively and some still consider it effective for a variety of diseases like heart disease and tuberculosis. Any disease that was diagnosed probably has some root or the other to match it, along with the appropriate rituals. The proof that the indigenous system was quite sufficient for the population before the settlers can be seen if we consider the career of Robert Holy Dance, who was a celebrated Herbalist from the Rosebud Reservation. And he is not from the times of Columbus but was living with us recently till 1968. In the modern days he has earned a reputation using 'botanical remedies traditional in the community,' and with the traditional "drum, song, and prayer. He was an empirical thinker. He developed his skills from case to case" (Lewis, 124) Thus rests the case for the indigenous medicine which is still waging a war with the powerful modern medicine, which because they did not include the item required in the bill of rights ousted traditional medicine from the citadels of respected research.

The development of 'Imperialist' medicine

The first things that came over with the legions of settlers of course, apart from the germs were religion and the identities that they brought along. The identity definition from the western world, namely what Michel Foucault says "places its own point-of-view at the origin of all historicity [and] which, in short, leads to a transcendental consciousness." (Sutphen; Andrews, 51) This identity and its effects created a banding together of groups, creating a group identity. Feminists of today use this theory to substantiate their stand. However when the colonial America was being built, the identity groups had spread into religion. The missionaries actually colonized America long before the Kings and Emperors. The notion of making everything "civilized" before they can be Christianized, the missionaries sought to recast the whole of native culture in a Western European mold." (Axtell, 110)

The Christian reforms changed the native's lifestyle and wiped out the old customs. That is the simpler part of the story. The more intricate part is that during the colonization, modern medicine itself was in chaos, not only at home but also in England and France and Germany where it had its roots. Since the Catholic Church forbade physicians to perform surgery, and the then current ban on the study of anatomy created two separate practitioners, the Physicians who prescribed remedies and the surgeons who were the executors of surgeries if so required. The surgeon and the barber were often the same person. It was logic that if the barber can cut hair, pull teeth and tinker with the body, they also could do surgery. It was when Protestants protested that the barber became alienated from the surgeon, who then began to be housed with physicians. (the History of Medicine in America: The Settlers Arrive)

There was the beginning of modern medicine, but it was in the infancy and the experiments stopped at the courts and streets of Europe and perhaps the neighbors. Medical ideas traveled slowly to the colonies and the settlers meanwhile had to simply do without medicines or treatment, or try local remedies. Conventional medicine thus was something that ordinary people could not afford. It was costly and only those who made enough to pay the physicians could afford the luxury. Many colonial citizens may never even have seen a physician all their lives. Child birth even, for example was a n affair that women of the community attended to, and the physician could not even attend the patient. (the History of Medicine in America: The Settlers Arrive) Some famous physicians of the day like Miles Standish, "an officer in the British army, was also a magistrate, an engineer, an explorer, an interpreter, a merchant, and a physician." And later he became famous for what was Heroic Medicine. (the History of Medicine in America: The Settlers Arrive) the most famous was Dr. Samuel Fuller. He was a surgeon as well a physician. The 'physicians' and 'surgeons' practiced medicine which however, lacked the scientific basis of enquiry. Science at that time was in its infancy. Many scientific schools of thought were just being born in Europe. Thus theories of the time did not require having proof, or verification that is now required to be passed on as a discovery. You needed to be convincing enough. Most beliefs came from the ancient Greek system of medicine and included therapies like "bleeding, purging, either by emetic or by enema, blistering," and any other improvisation. (the History of Medicine in America: The Settlers Arrive)

Doctors in the modern sense and even the term doctor were coined in the colonies after the year 1769. During the Revolution very few doctors had formal training or degrees. Most learned from other doctors or were self taught. These specialists attended… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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APA Style

Medicine in Colonial America.  (2008, May 12).  Retrieved October 17, 2021, from

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"Medicine in Colonial America."  12 May 2008.  Web.  17 October 2021. <>.

Chicago Style

"Medicine in Colonial America."  May 12, 2008.  Accessed October 17, 2021.