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

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

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

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

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

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 more effective methods of purifying water and preserving food to prevent those ailments of the gut that often killed when they did not disable. Even more important, we have antibiotics to cure contagious diseases and vaccines to prevent them, and our food supplies are safer, more abundant, and more varied. As a result, life expectancy has almost doubled from forty years in the early eighteenth century to more than seventy-eight years in present-day United States. In those distant years infant mortality was so high—about one-third of babies born died in infancy—that only those who were the most resistant to germs . . .

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