History of Medicine in America

The history of medicine in America is a patchwork of traditions and
methods ranging from those practiced by the Native Americans to English
medical practices brought over by the early pilgrims. Even barbers
played a role in early American medicine, with surgery often relegated
to them, considered a bit messy and beneath the dignity of the trained

American doctors were often quite scarce, especially in rural areas,
leaving many average colonists with no choice but to meet the medical
needs of their families on their own, with medical literature and
family healing traditions as their only guide. Many physicians in
colonial America practiced without formal medical training, getting
their knowledge directly from other physicians.

When the
pilgrims came from England, they arrived with two physicians, one the
commander of the Mayflower, Miles Standish. Like many physicians
prominent in the history of medicine in America, Miles Standish had no
formal medical education. He was rather a jack-of-all-trades, a
military man, explorer, engineer, interpreter, and merchant as well as
a physician. His medical knowledge was collected by observing and
studying with other physicians.

Dr. Samuel Fuller, the other
physician who sailed in with the Mayflower pilgrims, was an unusual
doctor for this era, practicing as both a physician and surgeon.
Doctors trained in English medicine used techniques based primarily
upon the ancient Greek concepts of balance in the body, maintained with
diet, herbs, and medicines. Therapies used by these conventional
physicians commonly included bleeding, purging, blistering, and
prescriptions of Calomel, a form of mercury. Few physicians performed
surgery in those days, most leaving this duty to the barbers. Surgeons
did not gain a respectable status in the medical profession until 1745,
officially separating from the barbershop as full-fledged doctors in
their own right.

The history of medicine in America is not
one just of the prominent physicians of the day, but also of the
practices of families and communities. Treatment by physicians was most
often reserved for the wealthiest colonists, or those in the cities.
Few average colonists had access to conventional physicians, their
expense and scarcity making it rare for many to ever be seen by a
doctor. The community met most medical needs, with midwives and
neighbor women attending childbirth, caring for the aged and infirm,
and treating common illnesses. This community involvement in the home
was the beginning of the practice of nursing.

into the fabric of everyday existence, the history of American medicine
is a complex tale, with many of its most effective treatments in those
early days concocted in the kitchens or church halls of the community
rather than in the domain of the conventional physician. From this rich
history of innovation born of necessity, the marvels of modern American
medicine arose.