Revolutionary Medicine: The Founding Fathers and Mothers in Sickness and in Health

Revolutionary Medicine: The Founding Fathers and Mothers in Sickness and in Health

Revolutionary Medicine: The Founding Fathers and Mothers in Sickness and in Health

Revolutionary Medicine: The Founding Fathers and Mothers in Sickness and in Health


Before the advent of modern antibiotics, one's life could be abruptly shattered by contagion and death, and debility from infectious diseases and epidemics was commonplace for early Americans, regardless of social status. Concerns over health affected the founding fathers and their families as it did slaves, merchants, immigrants, and everyone else in North America. As both victims of illness and national leaders, the Founders occupied a unique position regarding the development of public health in America. Revolutionary Medicine refocuses the study of the lives of George and Martha Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John and Abigail Adams, and James and Dolley Madison away from the usual lens of politics to the unique perspective of sickness, health, and medicine in their era. For the founders, republican ideals fostered a reciprocal connection between individual health and the "health" of the nation. Studying the encounters of these American founders with illness and disease, as well as their viewpoints about good health, not only provides us with a richer and more nuanced insight into their lives, but also opens a window into the practice of medicine in the eighteenth century, which is at once intimate, personal, and first hand. Perhaps most importantly, today's American public health initiatives have their roots in the work of America's founders, for they recognized early on that government had compelling reasons to shoulder some new responsibilities with respect to ensuring the health and well-being of its citizenry. The state of medicine and public healthcare today is still a work in progress, but these founders played a significant role in beginning the conversation that shaped the contours of its development. Jeanne E. Abrams is Professor at Penrose Library and the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver. She is the author of Jewish Women Pioneering the Frontier Trail: A History in the American West (NYU Press 2006) and Dr. Charles David Spivak: A Jewish Immigrant and the American Tuberculosis Movement, as well as numerous articles in the fields of American, Jewish and medical history which have appeared in scholarly journals and popular magazines.


Experience learns us to be always anxious about
the health of those whom we love.
—Thomas Jefferson to Martha Jefferson, April 7, 1787

Above all worldly goods, I wish you health, for
destitute of that great Blessing, few others can
be enjoyed.
—Abigail Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams, June 2, 1799

Introducing the Founders

The literature about America’s early leaders continues to proliferate, but instead of placing the usual emphasis on the political roles of the nation’s founders or their personal relationships, this book will focus a lens on their experiences with health, illness, and medical treatment. The lives of America’s founding mothers and fathers demonstrate that today’s preoccupation with good health and illness is not a new one. Abigail Adams fretted over her family’s health and particularly that of her husband throughout the American Revolution as well as John’s days as president, although ironically Abigail was by far the more fragile of the two. Thomas Jefferson often involved himself in the treatment of ailments that affected his family and slaves. He professed and practiced a surprisingly modern outlook and regimen for fostering good health, and he and his contemporaries Abigail and John Adams took the controversial step at the time . . .

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