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Eighteenth-Century Medical Myths

Medical history is full of surprising facts and legendary stories. Separating truth from fiction is not always easy. A myth often becomes so popular that it is incorporated into history. The following questions and answers address some commonly held misconceptions about eighteenth-century medicine. How many of these myths have you heard before . . . and how many did you believe?

Did the early colonists learn any medicine from Native Americans?

European settlers brought contagious diseases, such as smallpox, to North America.There are a couple of issues here. Are there cases where colonists benefited from the medical practices from Native Americans? Did professionally trained colonial doctors incorporate a significant number of Native American medicines? There are primary sources that discuss the healing ability of Native Americans. John Lawson in his 1714 book, The History of Carolina, noted "An Indian hath been often found to heal an English-man of a Malady . . . which the ablest of our English Pretenders in America, after repeated Applications, have deserted the Patient as incurable; God having furnish'd every Country with specifick Remedies for their peculiar Diseases." The 1771 edition of Mark Catesby's book, The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands, noted that Native Americans knew about many "plants of virtue," but their knowledge of anatomy and surgery was limited. While there were some surgical procedures performed by Native Americans such as treating wounds and ulcers, Catesby was comparing their expertise with the European tradition of surgery.

By contrast, the methods and materials used by colonial doctors were based on European texts. The English and Scottish professional pharmacy books that were used by doctors in the colonies include chemicals, plants, and other products from around the world. While some North American plants were listed, overall the theories and practices in the professional practice of medicine remained firmly rooted in European tradition.

Another issue is that the Native American population was initially at a loss on how to treat the contagious diseases that Europeans brought with them. North American Indians had lived in isolation, without any contact with outsiders that could spread contagious diseases. Such populations produces an at risk "virgin-soil" population. Viruses need to spread from one live body to another. Because Native Americans were isolated for so long there was no opportunity for viruses to be introduced. Without exposure, Native Americans did not have any immunity or previous experience in treating contagious viral diseases such as smallpox and measles. As a result thousands of Native Americans died.

Bacteria spread differently, and we know that two bacterial diseases—syphilis and tuberculosis—were already present in the Native American population before European colonists arrived. Native Americans did not live in a completely healthy environment, though. Their health risks included malnutrition, food poisoning, arthritis, tooth problems, birth defects, and injuries from accidents, animal bites, and wars. Eventually, Native Americans learned how to treat the contagious illness introduced by European colonists.

Did eighteenth-century doctors think people were sick because their “humors” were out of balance?

The Greek physician Galen (A.D. 129–199) is credited with organizing and promoting the humoral theory of illness. During Galen's time, and for centuries after his death, it was believed that the human body had four humors: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. Disease was attributed to an imbalance of the humors, and treatment involved restoring the humors to their proper balance. Anatomical discoveries by Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564), William Harvey (1568–1657), and others, as well as the budding sciences of chemistry and physics in the seventeenth century, refuted many aspects of the humoral theory.

The primary medical theory of the first half of the eighteenth century was organized by Herman Boerhaave (1668–1738). Boerhaave believed the body was composed of fluids and fibers. Bones, muscles, and blood vessels were made of fibers that could become either too stiff or too relaxed and thus cause disease. It was also thought that some medical problems were caused by a failure of body fluids to move properly. Other factors considered when determining the cause of disease included the patient's age, constitution, diet, and state of mind.

Did George Washington die from bloodletting?

The eighteenth-century version of the universal cure was bloodletting. In this image, a lancet is being used. Leeches were also used on small children and parts of the body not easily reached with a lancet.No. It is very likely that when Mr. Washington died he was suffering from epiglottitis, an infection caused by bacteria. The epiglottis is a part in the throat that closes the opening to the voice box and windpipe when we swallow. When the epiglottis becomes infected it swells and can block the airway. If the airway is blocked a person can't breathe, leading very quickly to death. This is what modern doctors believed happened to George Washington.

The treatment George Washington was given during his illness included bloodletting. In the eighteenth century, the main reason for bloodletting was to relieve inflammation: redness, swelling, pain, and heat. Mr. Washington definitely had inflammation, so he was bled with a lancet four separate times during his illness. The total amount of blood that was taken from Washington is not known because the amounts removed during the second and third bloodlettings were never recorded. If, as we now believe, Washington had a bacterial infection, then there is very little chance that he would have survived even if he hadn't been bled. There were no antibiotics in the 18 th century with which to treat infection. George Washington suffocated to death, and this was caused by his illness not by bloodletting.

Did George Washington have wooden teeth?

George Washington eventually lost all of his teeth except one. He did wear dentures But, contrary to popular belief, they were not made of wood. He had dentures made from a variety of natural materials, including hippopotamus teeth and walrus tusk. One set of Washington's dentures made by artist Charles Wilson Peale who also painted his portrait, were fashioned from elephant, human, and dairy cattle teeth set in a lead base. [Editor's Note: The Mount Vernon Web site has a photograph of a set of George Washington's false teeth.]

By the middle of the 1700s, more information was known about human teeth and gums. The causes and prevention of decay were more clearly understood, and the materials used to reconstruct and replace teeth had improved. Powdered chalk and pumice were used to clean the teeth and were applied with a rag, a chewed twig, or even a toothbrush. Eighteenth-century toothbrushes looked very similar to their modern counterparts. The primary difference being the materials from which they were made—animal hair bristles and wood, metal, or ivory handles. Ivory toothpicks were also used.

Medicine is a difficult subject for a layperson to understand. It is often easier to believe in the story than in the truth, but facts can be stranger than fiction and more interesting. Just remember, don't believe everything you see in the movies or read in a book!

Other medicine related content available on this Web site:

Colonial Williamsburg Journal Article "Colonial Germ Warfare "

Trades Information Page: Apothecary

Book: "Physick: The Professional Practice of Medicine in Williamsburg, Virginia, 1740–1775"

This article was written by Susan Pryor, Robin Kipps, Sharon Cotner, and Kris Dippre, interpreters at the Pasteur & Galt Apothecary at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.