Colonial Medicine

Life in the colonial United States was one filled with hardship and trial in which life spans were relatively short and the threat of an incurable disease or food shortage weighed heavily on many minds. Colonial medicine was rudimentary in the scarcity of resources and the very few numbers of trained physicians which had come to the new land. In fact, a colony’s women usually took over the community caregiver position and helped with everything from child birth to herbal treatments and natural remedies in a time of illness. Herbal supplements and natural substances were the prevailing means of treating illness in colonial medicine and have evolved into many of the old wives tales we still hear. However, some of the very products we use today contain the same active natural ingredient as used then, such as calamine for burns or bites. Because of this utter lack of access to medical care and the limited technology of the time, many diseases which are quite curable today caused many deaths and as a result, life spans were generally rather short.

Colonial medicine faced an extra challenge in that the overall health of many of the colonists tended to suffer from some of the extreme climate conditions, poor sanitation and regular food shortages. Given the run down state many colonists often found themselves in, the susceptibility for contracting a certain disease could threaten the village as a whole. Because of this, the introduction of a communicable disease such as smallpox could cause an outbreak amongst the entire colony very quickly. Such outbreaks were not uncommon and would claim many lives in a short time due to the fact that antibiotics had not yet been discovered at the time of colonial medicine.

Likewise, at the time of the revolutionary war, many of the field medics responsible for treating wounded soldiers were also untrained and used non-sterile medical equipment, sometimes causing an infection, blood poisoning, or death. Colonial medicine retained the same basic understanding of the human body and disease as in Europe, but had to utilize the naturally occurring substances around them to compensate for lack of resources and access to medication.

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