There is no questioning the fact that the first settlers were a hardy bunch. In fact, only two doctors sailed across the Atlantic Ocean on the Mayflower, Miles Standish and Dr. Samuel Fuller. Standish not only commanded the Mayflower, but his medical background was also more of a hobby that he “picked up along the way.” Little is known about the medical background of Fuller. Unfortunately, the medicine practiced by the Pilgrims killed as many patients as it saved. The treatments used during these times were not based on science as in modern healthcare; rather medicine was more of a philosophy.
Modern nursing didn’t begin until the 19th century. Therefore, most medical care in colonial times was performed in the homes by the women of the house. Neighbors helped neighbors and herbs from the garden were used to formulate concoctions to treat most minor ailments. Most colonial medicines were derived from a booklet containing recipes with common cures for everything from fevers to broken bones. This commonly shared booklet was called “Every Man His Own Doctor: Or The Poor Planter’s Physician.” When herbal remedies and folklore treatments weren’t successful in the home, a doctor was found. In the absence of a doctor, the local barber was brought in to administer more extreme treatments.
Leeching. One of the more common medical treatments among the Pilgrim colonies involved leeches. It was believed that if a sick person was covered in leeches, the tiny creatures would remove “sick” blood from the body.
Bloodletting. When the slimy, little leeches weren’t enough to do the job, the Pilgrims turned to the local barber to perform a bloodletting. At the time, Colonials believed that the human body contained 12 quarts of blood, rather than the actual six. It is said that the barber performing the procedure and not the doctor was the first distinction between physicians and surgeons. The iconic red and white barber pole that still exists today derived from the barber’s role in early medical society with the red stripes symbolizing the blood and the white portraying the bandages.
Not so “fun fact”: It is believed that George Washington died after being treated with a bloodletting for an infection in his throat. It is said that he was bled off more than 4 quarts of blood in one day, bringing him to the brink of death and causing his ultimate death.
Blistering. Patients who suffered from mental ailments, sore eyes or throat, stomach inflammation, and other inflammatory diseases were treated with a procedure called Blistering. The patient was given a second-degree burn so that the resulting blister could be drained. Care providers believed that infected body fluids would be drained out of the blistered sore also. Thankfully, this practice fell out of favor by the mid-1800’s.
Poisoning. A very popular treatment in early days was the use of poisons to destroy any sick parts inside of the body. Most commonly used was Calomel, a form of mercury. The heavy metal was used as an elixir and even as a topical cream, and many accounts suggest that it was sometimes effective in fighting off infections. However, in many more cases, patients died from liver and kidney damage caused by mercury poisoning.
Fortunately, medical care at the time of Thanksgiving in the 21st century has come a long way from the practices of colonial times. Today’s medical professionals are highly educated in treatments based on science, research, and data. The people gathered around your Thanksgiving dinner table this year can expect to live into their 70’s and 80’s. While, if they didn’t succumb to the elements or disease first, early settlers rarely lived beyond 40 years of age. We have much to be thankful for in our modern lives, and I for one am glad the days of leeches and bloodletting have long since fallen out of practice.