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Lotions, Potions, Pills, and Magic

Lotions, Potions, Pills, and Magic: Health Care in Early America

Elaine G. Breslaw
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 251
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  • Book Info
    Lotions, Potions, Pills, and Magic
    Book Description:

    Health in early America was generally good. The food was plentiful, the air and water were clean, and people tended to enjoy strong constitutions as a result of this environment. Practitioners of traditional forms of health care enjoyed high social status, and the cures they offered - from purging to mere palliatives - carried a powerful authority. Consequently, most American doctors felt little need to keep up with Europe's medical advances relying heavily on their traditional depletion methods. However, in the years following the American Revolution as poverty increased and America's water and air became more polluted, people grew sicker. Traditional medicine became increasingly ineffective. Instead, Americans sought out both older and newer forms of alternative medicine and people who embraced these methods: midwives, folk healers, Native American shamans, African obeahs and the new botanical and water cure advocates.In this overview of health and healing in early America, Elaine G. Breslaw describes the evolution of public health crises and solutions. Breslaw examines ethnic borrowings (of both disease and treatment) of early American medicine and the tension between trained doctors and the lay public. While orthodox medicine never fully lost its authority, Lotions, Potions, Pills, and Magic argues that their ascendance over other healers didn't begin until the early twentieth century, as germ theory finally migrated from Europe to the United States and American medical education achieved professional standing.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-3938-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    Good health in the twenty-first century depends on diet, exercise, and the right genes. Good health in early America depended on diet, exercise, and the right genes. That much has not changed. But there is a world of difference between those two eras, both in the quality of life we expect in the modern age and our ability to overcome genetic obstacles and epidemic diseases. We have insulin for diabetes, chemotherapy and radiation for cancers, diagnostic imaging to pinpoint health problems, and a grab bag of drugs and treatments for the ills that have plagued people for eons. We have...

  6. 1 Columbian Exchange
    (pp. 9-26)

    The winter had started when the Pilgrims, religious exiles from both England and Holland, arrived at the Massachusetts coast on November 11, 1620. TheMayflowerhad been at sea for sixty-five days and no terrible diseases had seized them during the crossing. Dr. Samuel Fuller, the ship’s surgeon had lost only one passenger and a seaman who had been sickly from the beginning, leaving one hundred men and women passengers and forty-seven crewmen. While anchored and deciding where to go from this point, a few more passengers and three of the remaining crew died. A decision was made not to...

  7. 2 Epidemics
    (pp. 27-42)

    In early May 1721, the shipSeahorsereadied its crew to leave Boston harbor. Captain Wentworth Paxson, a Boston resident, had successfully offloaded his cargo and prepared to set sail again. He was delayed: a man on board showed the telltale signs of smallpox. The sick man was removed from the ship and taken to a house where a red flag flew warning of a deadly disease. No one besides doctors or nurses were permitted to enter the house; a guard was posted to enforce the ban. The ship lay at anchor until the doctors were sure that there were...

  8. 3 Tools of the Trade
    (pp. 43-60)

    On October 14, 1743, Dr. William Wooten visited the family of James Cann, a carpenter in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Mrs. Cann complained of “a long Continued Intermittent Fever.” For this condition Dr. Wooten prescribed a “vomit” and gave her eight double doses of the “Bark” with “aromaticks, the latter to cover the bitter taste with a sweet odor. One of their children suffered from an “asthma and peri-pneumonias,” an upper respiratory and lung condition that he treated with a “Large pot of Expectorating Electuary;” a sweetened tonic to aid in clearing the mucus. But he also provided a “Blister”...

  9. 4 Abundance
    (pp. 61-76)

    When the teen-aged Eliza Lucas in South Carolina described her environment to her brother, Lucas, at school in England in 1742, she extolled the very fertile soil that easily produced even European fruits and grains. “The Country,” she continued,

    abounds with wild fowl, Venison and fish. Beef, veal and motton are here in much greater perfection than in the Islands [West Indies], tho’ not equal to that in England; but their pork exceeds any I ever tasted any where. The Turkeys [are] extreamly fine, especially the wild, and indeed all their poultry is exceeding good; and peaches, Nectrons and melons...

  10. 5 Wartime
    (pp. 77-94)

    For failure to pay his debts, Ezekiel Brown of Concord, Massachusetts, was sentenced to jail in March 1773. In an unusual circumstance Brown’s creditors kept him there for years. Most debtors, according to Robert Gross, who describes Brown’s ordeal, remained imprisoned for only a few months, but his creditors suspected that he would abscond. Brown was seemingly caught up in the conflict between the British government and the mainland colonies that would result in the Revolutionary War. Boston was firmly in the hands of the British military, and Brown’s creditors were decidedly Tory in their leanings. They had no intention...

  11. 6 New Nation
    (pp. 95-112)

    September 11, 1793. Philadelphia, the temporary capital of the United States, had suffered for weeks from (in the parlance of the day) a bilious malignant fever. The victims had black grainy vomits, nosebleeds, and headaches. Their skin and eye whites turned yellow. In a matter of days, sometimes hours, death followed the first symptoms. Most of the early cases were clustered near the dock where, Elizabeth Drinker noted in her diary for August 16, disintegrating coffee beans, recently unloaded from a ship, had emitted a strong stench that added to the smells of the usual rotting foods. Clearly that was...

  12. 7 Giving Birth
    (pp. 113-134)

    The weather on November 18, 1793, was stormy and cold when Martha Ballard, midwife, set out from her home in Hallowell, Maine, to tend a “Lady in Labour.” The rain had turned to snow before the prospective father, Captain Molloy, was able to contact a group of women from the neighborhood, friends of his wife to assist the midwife. Eight hours and five minutes after the women assembled, the midwife noted, “Capt. Molloy’s lady delivered a fine daughter.” Mrs. Ballard did not comment about any complications, signs of distress, or concern for either the mother or child’s health. All went...

  13. 8 The Face of Madness
    (pp. 135-150)

    On November 5, 1824, Henry Sewall of Augusta, Maine, reported in his diary that he had “a Bunk made for M. to sleep in, with a lid to shut down.” The M. referred to his twenty-four-year-old daughter, Mary, who had exhibited “deranged” behavior. In an attempt to cure her insanity, she was put into a “Chair of confinement,” which may have been a version of Benjamin Rush’s “tranquilizer,” designed to reduce all visual and auditory stimuli, and prevent any physical movement. Her arms and legs were strapped down, a head restraint covered her ears, and blinders limited her visual field....

  14. 9 Democratic Medicine
    (pp. 151-168)

    William W. Dyott, a bootblack, arrived in Philadelphia from England in the 1790s. He was an entrepreneurial immigrant who demonstrated his business acumen early on by extending his bootblacking enterprise to the manufacture of the needed shoe polish. The surplus he sold to other bootblacks. So successful was this early manufacturing venture that he decided in 1807 to promote patent medicines. With some knowledge of drugs gained previously as an apprentice to an apothecary in England, Dyott concocted a new medical compound that he claimed was the creation of his grandfather, a Dr. Robertson of the University of Edinburgh, to...

  15. 10 Public Health
    (pp. 169-184)

    Dr. John H. Griscom, a city inspector in Manhattan, walked the streets of lower New York eyeing the drains: open sewers containing human waste, dead animals, manure, and the effluvia from nearby slaughterhouses. The stench was overpowering, the worst he had ever experienced in a summer heat. What he saw was even more horrifying. He knew that occasionally the drains were flushed with water that pushed the garbage into the river. But when it rained he saw that the drains overflowed into the streets, driving the filth from the cesspools into the open, working its way into the basements and...

    (pp. 185-192)

    The medical profession teetered on the edge of the abyss by the mid-nineteenth century. American doctors, often caught up in their own desire for preservation as a profession and clinging to outmoded therapies, proved to be doing more harm than good. They unwittingly encouraged alternative modes of treatment that successfully undermined the orthodoxies of humoral medicine. Although the cholera epidemics of the antebellum period demonstrated the futility of the physician’s medicine, it did not bring forth any radical changes in theory, only a slight moderation of previous therapies. Unable to organize, retarded by a vast army of illiterate and incompetent...

    (pp. 193-200)

    Admittedly this book has shown a gloomy picture of the early state of health care and the medical profession. The picture since then has been quite different. Medical practice did not begin to change until the 1890s with the establishment of the first endowed graduate program in medicine at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, an institution that drew on the model of the German universities and was staffed with German-trained physicians, which in fact reversed the trend of medical nationalism. Americans had come to accept the radical new ideas spreading from European laboratories that specific germs, not an imbalance of...

    (pp. 201-202)
    (pp. 203-226)

    The most comprehensive study of diseases during the colonial era and the source I have relied on extensively is John Duffy,Epidemics in Colonial America(Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971). An important analysis of the power of suggestion in medicine is Arthur K. Shapiro and Elaine Shapiro,The Powerful Placebo: From Ancient Priest to Modern Physician(Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1997). Information on Dr. Adam Thomson is in Elaine G. Breslaw,Dr. Alexander Hamilton and Provincial America: Expanding the Orbit of Scottish Culture(Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008).

    References to the status of the medical...

  20. INDEX
    (pp. 227-236)
    (pp. 237-237)