Henry Livingston, Jr.

18th C medicine    Dr. Charles    Medical Electricity    Henry's Fiction

Medicine in the 18th Century

There were approximately 3500 doctors in America just before the American Revolution. Most had more in common with a medieval barber than a modern M.D.

A colonial doctor's principal role was to provide comfort and support, set broken bones, and prescribe occasional herbal remedies. Opiates were used to alleviate pain, and quinine was known to be an effective treatment for malaria. But each group of drugs tended to be overused. Appropriate dosages and applications (quinine, for instance, was called upon for a wide-variety of fever-related ailments) would need to be measured by future generations.

Theories of medicine at the time were based on the notion that disease was caused by an imbalance in bodily "humors," or fluids. To treat an illness, you either added fluids, or drained them away. Contained in a doctor's little black bag were implements designed to purge, sweat and bleed infected fluids from the body. There were emetics and diuretics, scalpels and leeches. Steaming hot poultices were used to intentionally create infections on scalded skin. The drainy pus that flowed afterward was thought to ooze beneficially

The most feared ailment north and south, however, was smallpox, which could be both disfiguring and fatal . The roughened skin of facial smallpox scars were a common sight in Revolutionary America, though artists tended to render these blemishes as rosier-than-normal cheeks in portraiture of the time.

Smallpox inoculation had existed in America since the early part of 18th century. It was not until the Revolutionary War that the practice became widespread, however, when Congress ordered the inoculation of all troops in the Continental Army.

Dec 16 '78
"Doctr Tappen Dr to a hog Wt 132 lb 100 lb of pork I owed him for chair wheels; do Inoculated my 3 children."

Jul 3 '79
"Dr. Tappen Dr. to 7 bushels of wheat in full for innoculating 2 of my children."

Son Charles Becomes a Doctor

Charles recd a letter from your father Abt. 9 or 10 days since which announced health at home. Your papa presses Kaskaskias upon him-- I too am not idle & he most ardently wishes it. A few &tc &tc got by & he certain progresses. I know him to be an excellent physician & surgeon & that he would do very well among you.

To grandson Sidney Breese, Jun 1819

Your friend & uncle has left the Highlands & has been at home say 2 months -- He, like thousands besides sets his medical face to the west. What do you think of the state of Illinois, or of the very place of your residence? Are there now there as many physicians as the wants of the people require, & are they eminent? Can well assorted medicines be had short of New Orleans?

To grandson Sidney Breese, Aug 1819

To Doctr C.P.L.

I hope my beloved physician is well. We are all in health at the old stone jug. I mention to you the case of a girl bitten by a mad dog. She has taken the decoction of xx or scull-cap & is now nearly, or quite recovered. If this planet is to be found in your vicinity, lay up store of it next summer gather it when in bloom & dry it in the shade, an average xx plant ought to be -- even garden seeds ought not be be dried in the sun. If you are not acquainted with xx, if you wish it I will send you Dr. xx's botanical description.

xx S.S. Fxx the main xx was buried this day. He bruised his elbow on the ice 11 days ago -- His arm became xx inflamed -- A mortification took place & yesterday he expired.

Our pony Pinkey is almost entirely blind. Should she become totally so we must hold her for colts. The Kentucky tongue distemper is extending fast in this county-- Butler & Riley stables are infected & Mr. Iagnes has 2 horses laid up with it -- Some cows also have it. It appears however in a mild form. H. Riley says the most efficacious remedy is to put in 8 quarts of vinegar 4 tablespoonfuls of xx salt & spoonfeed xx xx of xx & xx the xx 1'2 on xx -- since the mouth 2 or 3 times a day -- physics xx with xx castor oil. An xx xx xx perpetuated

To grandson Sidney Breese and son Charles, Jan 1820

Is there a place for a commodious garden? If there is I beg you will have the best horticultural spot in the village: The doctor will crowd in a mass of medicinal vegetables of course: Rhubarb & licorice in your climate will flourish-- Senna also would do well-- It grows even here wild, & of good quality. The castor bean would grow well with you.

To grandson Sidney Breese, Jan 1822

Senna (Cassia Angustifolia)open bowels
Rhubarb (Rheum Palmatum)laxative
Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza Glabra)anti-inflammatory, digestive stimulant and expectorant
Castor bean (Ricinus Communis)internally for intestinal inflammation and worms; externally for skin inflammation

Medical Electricity

  Table of Contents

A book from brother Gilbert's library provides a fascinating window on the use of electricity in medicine. Published in 1802, the author, describes the experiences of a doctor who practiced often in Ballston Spa. Unlike today's concerns with privacy, here Dr. Gale is quite willing to describe his patient's symptoms, and only avoids giving the patient a name if he forgets it. It provides a fascinating study of scientific thought and method at the turn of the 19th century.

Henry's Fiction

The subscriber, with whose education no pains has been spared-- who has the whole works of Duns Scotus, Jacob Behmen, and Dr. Sangrado by heart--has long been an adept in the almost-forgotten, never-enough-to-be-applauded, golden science of astrology--who has analyzed the Garcina Mangostana under the vertical rays of a tropical sun, examined the winteranea aromatica upon the cliffs on which it grew within twenty degrees of the frozen pole, and from the gloomy caverns of Derbyshire surprised the world with the inestimable, miraculous terra ponderosa -- who, in pursuit of an Arabian nostrum among the ruins of Palmyra, was upon the brink of suffering an excruciating impalement as a spy -- has investigated every university in Europe -- was personally acquainted with Hannah Stevens, negro Caesar, and Dr. Yeldal -- and, at this moment corresponds with all the benevolent dames in America -- who knew the difference between motherworth and old man's pepper, has erected a superb edifice for the purposes of an universal hospital; where, besides eradicating the host of maladies which human frames are heirs to, he effects cures for mental disorders in a manner not less wonderful than perfectfully efficacious.

To induce the public not to consider him in the light of a pompous pretender, he particularizes, in a few examples, his method of performing cures of inform minds: for instance, if a young lady, deeply in love, applies for relief, he takes three or four sighs, warm from her heart, melts them in a soft pomatum gallipot, with a little rosin scraped from a violin and virgin wax, makes the whole into a salve; a small plaister of which, put upon the tip of her tongue, will extract all the venom from her bosom, and cause it to evaporate in colloquial nonsence.
Universal Hospital

SOME time in September last, a female black servant child, between three and four years of age, and belonging to Samuel Verplank, Esq; of Fishkill, in Dutchess county, by some means unperceived by the family, fell into a well, wherein the water was deeper than the height of the child. Although the exact time when the accident happened cannot be ascertained, yet, from a number of circumstances it was generally agreed, that she was at least an hour under water. Upon being taken out, her skin was discolored -- the joints rigid -- the abdomen inflated, and in short, the representation of death was complete. Notwithstanding this combination of unfavourable appearances, Mr. Verplank's philanthropy impelled him to endeavour to re-illume the lamp of life. His long residence in Europe had made him acquainted with some of the methods which had been practiced there with success. He ordered a blanket to be spread before a fire, on which the child was laid, stripped of its clothes, and directed it to be rubbed with warm flannel on every part, and at the same time, tobacco smoke to be injected up its nostrils; in which operation a full paper was consumed.

These humane offices were continued without the least intermission during two hours; when, upon a fresh injection of smoke up its nose, it faintly turned aside its head, as if with disgust: the symptoms of returning animation grew more and more apparent, and a physician at that instant arriving, and administering proper additional restoratives, the child was able before night to walk, and after the repose of a night, enjoyed perfect health.
Recovery in a Child


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