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Colonial Health Care

As we commemorate the month of our nation’s birthday and all the celebrations that entails, I am reminded of colonial times and what life was like back then.

This is not a new exercise for me…you see, I’m a colonial re-enactor. Yes, I get dressed up, am no stranger to petticoats, corsets and panniers. These are the “buckets” ladies wore on their hips to make their dresses poof out.

However, as I deal with severe allergies (the pollen count apparently is unusually high this year), and have to work around a slight injury, (I am a klutz and dropped a table on my foot, don’t ask) I find my thoughts turning toward health care of yesteryear. Not too surprising, you see, my dad re-enacts with me, and his character’s profession is a physician. As such, I have had to help research what medicine was like back then, and the common practices of so-called “physicians.”

Of course, one has to wade through the mythology of historical medicine, and arrive at something closer to historical truth, but as I’m a gigantic nerd, this is what I call fun more than work! Hey don’t even get me started on manners and clothing of the time, you might never get out!

But I think on my minor injury, as before, I stated that I am a klutz in the best sense of the word, and recently injured myself by dropping a table on my foot. Doesn’t that sound like talent? I know you are scratching your head at this very moment wondering, “how in the world did she do that?”

But I’m meandering off here. The injury and timing, prompted me to think about what would have happened if I had been living in colonial times. I might have been told to sit down and rest for a while. As if sitting in corsets for a significant period of time is restful!

I might even have been bloodlet since there was swelling and redness, if my husband or father became overly concerned with the state of my health, since I couldn’t do the predominate practice…ignore it. Medical consult was expensive even then, so if people could avoid medicine/seeing the apothecary, they did then too.

Bloodletting? Really????? (I can see your head shaking even now) Some of you might even be wondering what that is; check out the links below. It was a fairly present practice, although, not as common as Hollywood would have you believe. However, in the absence of x-rays (no need to burn me as a witch), the look of my foot and the fact that for almost a day, I couldn’t walk, would be cause for concern, and therefore open to the possibility of bloodletting to take down the swelling and redness.

But even more concerning when I think about it, was the tendency to just ignore real medical problems due to the time, effort, and definitely money that was involved in consulting a physician or apothecary in the first-place! My discomfort and pain might even have been dismissed as a temporary silliness or over-complication because I’m “a delicate female.” A snort of derision just escaped my mouth, because I don’t think ANYONE would call me delicate in THIS day and age.

Needless to say, almost 250 years have gone by, (243 for those of you who stopped to actually figure it out) and we STILL dismiss medical concerns as unimportant, or something we can just take care of ourselves. Hmmm, learning opportunity here? I think the moral of my story here, is NOT to dismiss, but rather speak up, look up, and educate yourself on the proper way to advocate for your health, AND GET SEEN AND HEARD!

Here’s a link I find to be helpful:

The biggest practice that I truly find fascinating is bloodletting. If you really want to know more about it, there’s a great article here:

Here are some links to interesting information from that time:

Colonial Williamsburg Journal Article “Colonial Germ Warfare “

Trades Information Page: Apothecary

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