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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersBecoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Becoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Theme: GrowthTheme: PeoplesTheme: EconomiesTheme: IdeasTheme: American
Theme: Ideas

The Compleat Housewife
- "Every man his own doctor," home medical guides, selections, ca. 1727 (PDF)
- "A very desperate disease," the paper war over smallpox inoculation, 1721 (PDF)

Health care was a do-it-yourself venture for colonial Americans. One depended on homemade medicines and salves, family lore and traditional healing practices, prayer, and good luck. Lay druggists, dentists, midwives, minister-physicians and other colonial "health care providers" used techniques such as bloodletting and purging that make us shudder today. In the face of virulent epidemics of smallpox, yellow fever, influenza, and other diseases, colonial medicine was impotent. Two attempts to improve health care in British America are considered here—one popular and traditional, the other cutting-edge and controversial.
  • "Every man his own doctor." As printing expanded in colonial America in the 1700s, low-cost medical guides became bestsellers. In the late 1720s, the first American manual of "domestic medicine" was published anonymously in Virginia. Titled Every Man His Own Doctor: or, The Poor Planter's Physician, it offered "plain and easy means for persons to cure themselves of all, or most of the distempers, incident to this Climate." It was reprinted at least seven times, in Philadelphia by Benjamin Franklin who reduced the price for those would give copies to the needy. About twenty years later appeared the first American edition of The Compleat Housewife, an all-purpose guide to cooking, cleaning, and home remedies that was a bestseller in Britain. In these selections from the two guides, you will read advice on treating ailments from acne to cancer to rabid dog bites.
    • - Dr. John Tennent (attributed to; published anonymously), Every Man His Own Doctor: The Poor Planter's Physician, Williamsburg, Virginia: ca. 1727; 4th ed., 1751, excerpts.
    • - Eliza Smith, The Compleat Housewife, or Accomplish'd Gentlewoman's Companion, London: 1727; 1st American ed., 1742, excerpts.

  • "A very desperate disease." The most dreaded disease in colonial America was smallpox. Introduced by Europeans, smallpox was one of the most virulent killers of Native Americans, whose population east of the Mississippi decreased by 75-95 percent before 1800.1 When the highly contagious disease entered a colonial port city, up to 60 percent of the people would fall ill, and from 5-6 percent to 20 percent would die. Residents fled to the countryside to avoid contamination; towns would be virtually abandoned for weeks.2 When the radical idea of inoculation was introduced—injecting a small dose of the smallpox virus in the skin to stimulate the body's immune response—controversy erupted over its risks, efficacy, and morality. Excerpted here are selections from the newspaper and pamphlet war in Boston in 1721, during the city's sixth major smallpox epidemic. (In 1978, smallpox claimed its last victim after a massive worldwide campaign of vaccination.)
    • - Selections from letters and editorials in the Boston News-Letter, the Boston Gazette, and the New-England Courant, July-December, 1721.
    • - Selections from pamphlets by Rev. Cotton Mather, Rev. Benjamin Colman, Rev. William Cooper, and John Williams, 1721.

How did colonial medicine, and the conversations about it, reflect the prevailing cultural, religious, and intellectual trends of the 1700s? (17 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. How did colonial Americans view disease, health, and healing?
  2. What roles did they ascribe to God and man in the process of maintaining health and fighting disease?
  3. What aspects of health care became moral issues for colonial Americans? Why?
  4. How did colonial medicine, and the conversations about it, reflect the prevailing cultural, religious, and intellectual trends of the 1700s?
  5. How did the Enlightenment influence the debate about smallpox inoculation?
  6. How does Cotton Mather's views about smallpox inoculation reflect his theological and scientific perspectives? (See Mather's writings in IDEAS #1 and #3, and in other sections of this Toolbox.)
  7. What egalitarian or elitist attitudes about health care are reflected in these texts?
  8. How did colonial medicine represent a transition from medieval to "modern" health care? from medieval to "modern" attitudes?
  9. How did the expansion of printing affect attitudes toward disease and health care in colonial America?

Framing Questions
  •  What central ideas distinguished the eighteenth- from seventeenth-century American colonies?
  •  How were these ideas shaped, and how did they influence the colonists' perception of themselves and their relationships with God, with each other, and with Britain?
  •  How did their concepts of liberty, rights, equality, and independence change in this period?
  •  To what extent were the shaping ideas "American"?

Home medical guides:  8
Paper war on smallpox inoculation:  9
TOTAL 17 pages
Supplemental Sites

"Every Man His Own Doctor": Popular Medicine in Early America, from the Library Company of Philadelphia

Colonial home remedies, lesson plan based on Tennent's Every Man His Own Doctor, from Colonial Williamsburg

Childbirth in early America, overview in Digital History, from The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History et al.

"That Quacking Sound in Colonial America" (colonial medicine), by Jim Cox, Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Spring 2004

"When Cotton Mather Fought the Smallpox," by Lawrence Farmer, M.D., American Heritage, August 1957

"The Imperial Virus," overview of the variolation technique of smallpox inoculation, in a review of Elizabeth Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 (Hill & Wang, 2001), in Common-Place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life

"Native American Beliefs and Medical Treatments during the Smallpox Epidemics: An Evolution," by Melissa Sue Halverson, in Archiving Early America

1 Daniel K. Richter, "The Imperial Virus," review of Elizabeth Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 (Hill & Wang, 2001), Common-Place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life, April 2002, at

2 John Duffy, From Humors to Medical Science: A History of American Medicine (University of Illinois Press, 1995), p. 6.

Images: Title pages from the online database Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans, 1689-1800, from the American Antiquarian Society; permission pending.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. Religion I   2. Religion II   3. Religion III
4. Learning   5. Communication   6. Science
7. Health

TOOLBOX: Becoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Growth | Peoples | Economies | Ideas | American

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