Debating the Issues in Colonial Newspapers: Primary Documents on Events of the Period

By David A. Copeland | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 11
Medical Discoveries and the Amazing "Chinese Stones," 1745

When people get sick, they take medicine to make them better. In colonial America, however, doctors were not numerous, most of them had no medical education, and many of the diseases that no longer affect us today were deadly then (see Chapter 2 on smallpox). Because there were so few university-trained physicians and because there were few known cures for diseases, Americans often treated themselves at home by using handbooks prescribing various remedies that were claimed to cure an illness. The authors of these texts, which resembled current medical encyclopedias, often had little or no medical background. John Wesley, the man responsible for the religious movement of Methodism, for example, published one of the most popular of these books called Primitive Physick. It was used by people to cure everything from the slightest illness to cancer.

Because so little was known about the nature of disease, Americans often believed in any cure that was made known to them. They believed, for example, that rabies could be cured by using liverwort, pepper, and warm cow's milk and that a toothache could be cured with a magnet.1 Real medical breakthroughs did occur during the eighteenth century: physicians perfected methods of removing cataracts and gallstones. They also discovered that electricity could help with some problems such as muscle stimulation, which assisted in the use of injured arms and legs. John Wesley claimed that electricity was "the nearest of an universal medicine as any yet know in the world."2 Despite Wesley's, or anyone else's, claim, electricity could not cure smallpox or dislocated joints.

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