Disease in colonial America

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Disease in colonial America was a very dangerous unknown entity with very few remedies at the beginning of Colonial America. Throughout Colonial America many diseases came, some deadly and others treatable but all had in common, that they were the first diseases that were seen by the new country. The most common way to purge one of any disease was blood letting.[1] The method was crude due to the initial lack of knowledge about infection and disease among medical practitioners. The diseases helped shape modern medicine and doctors, and allowed colonists to broaden their knowledge and experience with what was virtually unknown at the time.


In Colonial America, governors, churchmen, and educators administered medical care to the residents in their village or town.[1] Each learned the art of medicine and healing through apprenticeship, learning from an instructor at a patient's bedside.[1] He would help his instructor by doing various duties such as the housework.[1] In Colonial America, there was no distinction between physicians and surgeons; when an emergency occurred the person who was responsible for administering medical care was expected to handle all aspects of the problem.[1] In some cases, there were families in which the practice of medicine was passed down through the generations. Because so many were "unqualified" in medicine and had only limited experience making a diagnosis, they were forced to rely on papers written by others or drugs.[2] There were several noted physicians in Colonial America.

Thomas Sydenham[edit]

Thomas Sydenham was an English Physician whose medical writings influenced American physicians like Thomas Thacher. Sydenham threw aside medical speculating, making him the first great modern clinical physician.[3] He wrote first hand accounts of diseases like malarial fever, gout, dysentery, and chorea. His separation of scarlatina from measles was a medical breakthrough.[3] His commonsense was found throughout Thomas Thacher's article based on his works.

Thomas Thacher[edit]

Thomas Thacher was an outstanding Puritan preacher and physician of his time.[3] After coming to America at fifteen, Thacher received his early education under pastor Charles Chauncy.[3] Thomas Thacher's education was liberal, he learned Hebrew, Arabic, and "the elements of medicine".[3] Thacher committed much of his time to the practice of medicine and was regarded by other colonists as a prominent physician in Boston.[3] Shortly before Thomas Thacher's death in 1677, he wrote a short article on smallpox and measles. It was the first medical paper written that was published in America.[3] Although the article was only one page, it had great importance because it was an abbreviated portion of writings by Thomas Sydenham.[3] The article was written to make colonists aware of the smallpox epidemic in Boston at the time. Thacher's idea of broadcasting the article did not catch on; however, there was some endeavor to care for common illnesses.[4]

Giles Firmin[edit]

Giles Firmin was a deacon in Boston, who came to America from England in 1632.[5] While practicing medicine in Ipswich, Massachusetts, Firmin became the first anatomical lecturer in America.[5] Firmin gave detailed lectures about dried bones stimulating an interest of the General Court in 1647.[5] The court recommended that his anatomical lectures be given at least once every four years.[5] Nevertheless, like Thacher’s article broadcast it was not followed and anatomy went untaught.

John Winthrop[edit]

John Winthrop was a physician who was in constant communication with England asking for advice on various medical topics. Winthrop realized the Colony needed trained doctors and received from a physician in England eight pages of notes on herbs and their uses in curing diseases in 1643.[2] Through these notes, Winthrop used the knowledge to advise the people in the Colony.[2] He was untrained in medicine and had little experience in making a diagnosis relying a great deal on the notes from England. Winthrop's recommendations were for various ointments, nauseous remedies, cupping, bandages and baths. His practice was later taken over by his son .[6]

Epidemic of Diseases[edit]

Epidemics of many diseases were repented during the colonial times - particularly smallpox, plague, and yellow fever.[7]

Yellow Fever[edit]

Yellow Fever was a disease that caused thousands of deaths, and many people to flee the afflicted areas.[8] It begins with a headache, backache, and fever making the patient extremely sick from the start,[9] and gets its name from the yellow color of the skin, which develops in the third day of the illness. At the end of one week, the afflicted person is either dead or recovering.[8] Yellow Fever is transmitted by mosquitoes, when it bites an infected person it carries several thousand infective doses of the disease making it a carrier for life passing it from human to human.[10]

Yellow Fever made its first appearance in America in 1668, in Philadelphia and New York as well as Boston in 1693 brought over from Barbados.[8] Throughout the Colonial period, there were several epidemics in those cities as well as Texas, New Hampshire, Florida and up the Mississippi river as far as St. Louis, Missouri.[8] During many of these epidemics, the residents who chose to stay in the area avoided others by shutting themselves in their houses away from friends and jobs.[8] Unemployment and businesses coming to a halt was universal. The death rate was so high the people had to work day and night to bury the dead.[11]


Smallpox is caused by the variola virus and is extremely contagious, for it is spread by physical contact and affects children and adults alike. The epidemics of the disease were recurrent, devastating, and frequent.[12]

A particularly virulent sequence of smallpox outbreaks took place in Boston, Massachusetts. From 1636 to 1698, Boston endured six epidemics. In 1721, the most severe epidemic occurred. The entire population fled the city, bringing the virus to the rest of the Thirteen Colonies.[13]

Colonists tried to prevent the spread of smallpox by isolation and inoculation. Inoculation caused a mild form of the disease; it was new to the country and very controversial because of the threat that the procedure itself could be fatal, or otherwise spread the disease. It was introduced by Zabdiel Boylston and Cotton Mather in Boston in 1721.[14] The procedure involved injecting the infection into the patient, which resulted in a mild form of the disease. This led to a shorter period a person had Smallpox than if they had contracted naturally.[15] Strong support for inoculation came the leading Puritan minister, Cotton Mather, who preached for inoculations during the 1721 smallpox epidemic in Boston. His advice was heeded primarily by well-educated wealthy Puritan families.[16] The town of Cambridge and Harvard College combined broad-based inoculation programs with inspection and isolation efforts. They providing a model followed by other New England communities, which increasingly adopted the immunization and quarantine policies by 1800.[17][18]

South Carolina resisted inoculation. James Kilpatrick, a British physician vigorously promoted vaccination in the mid-18th century, but failed to convince local medical and political leaders.[19]

Other Colonial Diseases[edit]

Although Yellow Fever and Smallpox were two very destructive diseases that affected Colonial America, many other diseases affected the area during this time. During the early days of the colonial settlement, people brought with them contagious diseases. After the importation of African slaves, more serious parasitic diseases came to Colonial America.


This disease is a parasite that is found in mosquitoes, which bred more rapidly as virgin soil was broken in the Carolina lowlands for rice cultivation.[20] The parasite found the slaves as a reservoir for the infection of the mosquito.[20] The mosquito then transmitted the parasite to other slaves and the white population, causing rapid development of highly malarious communities.[21] The disease spread from Maryland to Georgia, Alabama, and Florida, inland to Ohio and Missouri, and down the Gulf of Mexico.[21] As a result from this rapid spread, Malaria became established in Colonial America.

Hookworm infection[edit]

The Hookworm infections were first seen in 1845 Florida and 1850 Louisiana.[21] This disease is thought to have been introduced into Colonial America from the Eastern Hemisphere, caused by a tropical parasite that was distributed throughout the moist soils of the southwest, from Virginia to Illinois and down the Gulf of Mexico toward Texas.[21] The slaves were the carriers of the disease polluting the soil that they worked, depositing the parasitic eggs. As the eggs hatch, the parasite infects those near the soil where it lives.[21]


Unlike some diseases, beriberi is a treatable, preventable disease caused by the deficiency of vitamin B1.[22] First seen in 1642 by the Dutch physician Jacobus Bontius, it was named for the Cingalese word meaning weakness-weakness.[22] Beriberi is seen in two forms: wet and dry. When in the dry form the patient experience pains in their extremities, paresthesias, paralyses, and contractures due to being a paralytic type of disease.[22] When beriberi is in its wet form the patient can expect swelling of the extremities and face along with an effusion of fluid into their joints, pleural cavity, and pericardial cavity.[22] Beriberi in this form can lead to sudden death.

New England fishermen first discovered the disease in Colonial America in the 19th century. There have been accounts that beriberi was seen in Jamestown with people experiencing swellings and fluxes and high fevers as well as soldiers in the American Civil War who experienced the same symptoms as the disease beriberi.[23]

Typhoid and dysentery[edit]

Acute Bacillary dysentery has a shorter duration than Typhoid but both cause bloody flux.[24] These two diseases are deadly in their own right but when a person has both at the same time it is almost impossible to recover.[24]

The Typhoid Fever causes a prolonged burning fever, is debilitating, and causes death more often than not. It occurs mostly in the hot months of the year but can flare up at any time.[25] The first epidemic of the fever was located in Virginia by Reverend Robert Hunt after taking a voyage where Typhoid Fever transpired.[25] Typhoid Fever was a huge component of military operations; because many soldiers would become afflicted with the disease the military had a shortage of men.[26] More men died from Typhoid Fever than in action or from wounds.[27]

For others not listed, see Colonial Diseases.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Viets (1935), p.390
  2. ^ a b c Viets (1935), p.392
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Viets (1935), p.393
  4. ^ Viets (1935), pp.393-394.
  5. ^ a b c d Viets (1935), p.394.
  6. ^ Viets (1935), pp.392-393.
  7. ^ Viets (1935), p.396.
  8. ^ a b c d e Bauer (1940), p.362.
  9. ^ Viets (1935), p.363.
  10. ^ "Yellow Fever and Mosquitoes" (1900), pp.692-693.
  11. ^ Viets (1935), p.362.
  12. ^ Becker (2004), p.384.
  13. ^ Ballard C. Campbell, ed. American Disasters: 201 Calamities That Shook the Nation (2008) pp 21-22
  14. ^ Ola Elizabeth Winslow, A destroying angel;: The conquest of smallpox in colonial Boston (1974)
  15. ^ Becker (2004), p.386.
  16. ^ Robert Tindol, "Getting the Pox of All Their Houses: Cotton Mather and the Rhetoric of Puritan Science," Early American Literature (2011) 46#1 pp 1-23.
  17. ^ John D. Burton, "The Awful Judgements of God upon the Land": Smallpox in Colonial Cambridge, Massachusetts," New England Quarterly (2001) 74#3 pp. 495-506 in JSTOR
  18. ^ Ola Elizabeth Winslow, A Destroying Angel: The Conquest of Smallpox in Colonial Boston (1974)
  19. ^ Claire Gherini, "Rationalizing disease: James Kilpatrick's Atlantic struggles with smallpox inoculation," Atlantic Studies (2010) 7#4 pp 421-446.
  20. ^ a b Faust (1955), p.958.
  21. ^ a b c d e Faust (1955), p.959.
  22. ^ a b c d Jones (1963), p.7.
  23. ^ Jones (1963), p.8.
  24. ^ a b Jones (1963), p.9.
  25. ^ a b Jones (1963), p.10.
  26. ^ Benenson (1984), pp.2-3
  27. ^ Benenson (1984), p.3

Further reading[edit]

  • Bauer, J.R., "Yellow Fever”, Public Health Reports (1896-1970) Vol. 55, no. Num. 9 (March 1940)
  • Becker, Ann M., "Smallpox in Washington's Army: Strategic Implications of the Disease during the American Revolutionary War," The Journal of Military History 68, no. 2 (April 2004)
  • Benenson, Abram S., “Immunization and Military Medicine”, Reviews of Infectious Diseases, Vol. 6 No. 1 (January–February 1984)
  • Blake, John B. Public Health in the Town of Boston, 1630–1822 (1959)
  • Cates, Gerald L. "The Seasoning: Disease and Death among the First Colonists of Georgia," Georgia Historical Quarterly 64 (1980): 146–158.
  • Caulfield, Ernest. "Some Common Diseases of Colonial Children," Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts 35 (1951): 15–24;
  • Childs, St. Julien R. Malaria and Colonization in the Carolina Low Country, 1526–1696 (1940),
  • Dobson, Mary J. "Mortality Gradients and Disease Exchanges: Comparisons from Old England and Colonial America," Social History of Medicine 2 (1989): 259–297.
  • Duffy, John. Epidemics in Colonial America (1953)
  • Duffy, John. A History of Public Health in New York City, 1625–1866 (1968)
  • Earle, Carville. "Environment, Disease, and Mortality in Early Virginia," Journal of Historical Geography 5 (1979): 365–366.
  • Faust, Ernest Carrol, "History of Human Parasitic Infection”, Public Health Reports (1896-1970) 70, no. 10 (October 1955)
  • Gallman, James M. "Mortality among White Males: Colonial North Carolina," Social Science History 4 (1980): 2.95–316;
  • Grob, Gerald. The Deadly Truth: A History of Disease in America (2002) online edition
  • Grubb, Farley. "Morbidity and Mortality on the North Atlantic Passage: Eighteenth-Century German Immigration," Journal of Interdisciplinary History 17 (1987): 565–585.
  • Holmberg, Scott D. "The Rise of Tuberculosis in America before 1820," American Review of Respiratory Diseases 142 (1990): 1228–32
  • Jones, Gordon W., “The First Epidemic in English America”, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 71, No.1, Part one (January 1963)
  • Kukla, Jon. "Kentish Agues and American Distempers: The Transmission of Malaria from England to Virginia in the Seventeenth Century," Southern Studies 25 (1986): 135–147
  • Merrens, H. Roy, and George D. Terry. "Dying in Paradise: Malaria, Mortality, and the Perceptual Environment in Colonial South Carolina," Journal of Southern History 50 (1984): 533–537
  • Patterson, K. David. "Yellow Fever Epidemics and Mortality in the United States, 1693–1905," Social Science and Medicine 34 (1992): 856–857
  • Smith, Daniel B. "Mortality and Family in the Chesapeake," Journal of Interdisciplinary History 8 (1978): 403–427.
  • Viets, Henry R., "Some Features of the History of Medicine in Massachusetts during the Colonial Period, 1620-1770," Isis (1935), 23:389-405