How Colonial Americans Were Well Beings

“Resolved, That the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.”

—The Flag Resolution, Second Continental Congress, June 14, 1777.

Not quite a year after the 13 colonies declared their independence from England, the Second Continental Congress met during the thick of the Revolutionary War in Philadelphia. Among the many things decided by that Congress was the design and adoption of the American flag.

Which is why we now celebrate Flag Day on June 14 every year. And just for fun, we thought we’d take a look back at what medical care looked like in 1777, and how some of those remedies used by our founding families are still being used today.

Scholars agree that most medicine was practiced by women, although it was in the capacity of mother or wife.

“Women were expected to take care of illnesses within the family and only on those occasions of very serious, life threatening illnesses were doctors summoned,” Randolph Fillmore, a member of the National Association of Science Writers, said. “Called ‘domestic medicine,’ early American medical practice was a combination of home remedies and a few scientifically practiced procedures carried out by doctors who, without the kind of credentials they must now have, traveled extensively as they practiced medicine.”

And what did domestic medicine look like? According to researchers at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, medicinal plants were planted throughout the garden.

Feverfew, a traditional medicinal herb, was used to relieve headaches, body aches and fevers by placing the leaves on a person’s head. Southernwood, an herb in the sunflower family, was used for insect or moth repellent and to treat an upset stomach. Calendula flowers were cultivated, dried, ground and mixed with animal fat and placed on cuts. In order to cure sunburns, cramps, gout and plague and to remove freckles, women often used Tansy flower, which is part of the aster family.

The Miller-Cory House in Westwood, NJ, has an even more extensive list of herbal remedies used by colonial households.

“Health care was a do-it-yourself venture for colonial Americans,” the National Humanities Center explained further. “One depended on homemade medicines and salves, family lore and traditional healing practices, prayer, and good luck.”

In the 1700s, however, families also relied on books that compiled many remedies for common ailments. Two of the most popular were “Every Man His Own Doctor: OR, The Poor Planter’s Physician,” and “The Compleat Housewife or Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion.” Both tomes gave colonial caregivers recipes and recommendations for caring for all kinds of illnesses, from “the biting of a mad dog,” to a toothache.

Health care providers like druggists, midwives, minister-physicians and others were often untrained and frequently used techniques like bloodletting and purging, and neither home remedies nor those providers had much luck against epidemics of smallpox, yellow fever, influenza and other diseases.

What you may notice, however, is that some of those herbs grown and used for treating colonial maladies look awfully familiar. You may have even noticed them on your drug or grocery store shelves next to vitamin and mineral supplements, or have even looked for a good home remedy for your own earache, toothache or headache.

But today’s medicine, of course, offers better trained and licensed practitioners and benefits from continuous research. But that’s not to say an herbal remedy is a bad thing, although Dr. Minh Nghi, a physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Southwest Fort Worth, does recommend caution.

“A fair amount of people want to use an herbal supplement or a home remedy before they see a doctor,” he said.

“It seems like people reach back to those home remedies first because they’re reluctant to come see a doctor,” Nghi said, adding that often patients are reluctant for a variety of reasons, including worries about the cost of seeing a doctor, the cost of the medication or even feeling that whatever ails them isn’t bad enough to see a doctor.

“But even some of my patients that see a doctor regularly want to use home remedies and herbal supplements first,” he added.

Nghi also pointed out that herbs are still medicine — because they’re being used to treat something. He gave an example of a patient who came into the ER with low blood sugar, despite being diabetic. It was so low, in fact, that the patient was fainting.

“After asking several questions, the family came in with a bag of herbs the patient had been taking,” Nigh recalled. “After looking through all those bottles, I found 13 different things that could cause low blood sugar.”

So if you’re thinking of including home remedies and herbal supplements into your routine, “tell your doctor,” Nghi said. “In fact, I now routinely ask patients if they’re taking any herbal supplements or if they’ve been prescribed anything by another doctor or provider.”

“Whatever you take into your body or put on your body could have a medicinal effect,” he cautioned. “Tell your doctor everything.”

Interested in more reading about colonial medicine? Check out this lesson from Colonial Williamsburg or this one about what kind of medical care Thomas Jefferson would have received.

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