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In Sickness & In Health:

Medicine in the Old Colony 1620–1920
by Jane L. Port, Curator
Pilgrim Society & Pilgrim Hall Museum

An exhibition sponsored by

June 2004 - April 2005

The history of medicine in Plymouth can be traced through the lives of its physicians.  Plymouth's first healer was Mayflower passenger Samuel Fuller.

Samuel Fuller's work was informed by the ancient theory advocating the balance of bodily fluids.  The notion of the four humours, or fluids, that permeate the body and influence an individual’s health and temperament originated with Hippocrates (ca. 460–377 BCE) and was developed by Galen (131–201 CE).  It remained an important part of medical practice for more than 1000 years. 

Each humour, formed in a specific organ of the body, was associated with a set of paired qualities—“warm and moist” with blood, for example.  In addition, each corresponded with a particular element, was connected with a season, and had a corresponding element.











Warm & moist

Sanguine - passionate, confident, optimistic




Brain & lungs

Cold & moist

Phlegmatic - 
calm, unemotional

Yellow bile



Gall bladder

Warm & dry

Choleric - 
easily angered, 
bad tempered

Black bile




Cold & dry

Melancholic -
depressed, sad, gloomy

The proportions of each fluid might vary in healthy individuals, affecting their temperament.  A severe imbalance in those proportions was seen as the cause of disease or illness.  Such an imbalance might result from heat, cold, foul air, digestive troubles, stress, shock.  Depending on which fluid exceeded “normal” levels, either bloodletting, emetics and/or purges might be ordered. 

Lancets were used to open veins - and it was important to understand the difference between veins and arteries!  Bleeding bowls marked with various volume levels were held under the incision to track the progress of procedure.  Alternatively, a leech, which will consume four times its own weight in blood, could be placed on the skin.  (Used for thousands of years to reduce blood pressure and cleanse the blood, the worm releases a chemical that prevents clotting of the blood while it sucks.)  

During the 17th century, distinctions were drawn between university-educated physicians who saw themselves as intellectuals, the surgeons who carried out the bloody manual labor of medicine, and the apothecaries who kept stores of ingredients and prepared medicines of all kinds (Zimmer, 19).  Another category included men who attended medical lectures as a part of their general education. London’s great architect, Christopher Wren, studied medicine and his illustrations for Thomas Willis’ 1664 landmark study, The Anatomy of the Brain and Nerves, were so accurate, they were reproduced in the 20th century (Zimmer, 186-187).

In the countryside, and in the colonies, the scarcity of practitioners often meant that one person took on all three roles.  Though a surgeon by occupation, Mayflower passenger Samuel Fuller (1580-1633) would have understood Galen’s theories of purging and bloodletting to balance bodily fluids, and how herbs and other ingredients were combined to make pills, potions and tonics.  Indeed, as Deacon of the Plymouth church, it was his responsibility to look after the health and well-being of the members. (Thanks to Jim Baker for this insight into the Deacon’s role.)

Mortar & Pestle, lignum vitae, about 1650-1700, with a
history of ownership in the Alden family.  Museum purchase, 1956. (PHM 1156)

Fuller had lived for over a decade in Leiden, an important medical center, and may have attended lectures during that time (O’Connor, p.118-119).  At his death, Fuller’s household inventory included about 30 books, some of them “physicks books” and “a surgions chest with the things belonging to it” and “2 brasse morters and pestles.”

Trained doctors remained a rarity in 17th century New England.  When Francis Lebaron (1668–1704), ship’s surgeon on a French privateer, found himself shipwrecked on the coast of the Old Colony, he was taken prisoner.  His surgical skills proved more important than his French background, however, and soon won him a reprieve.  He remained, married, and founded a family that included a number of prominent medical men.
During the early 1700s, the skills of the Old Colony’s physicians and surgeons were challenged by epidemics of the disfiguring and often deadly smallpox.  Scraps of information about effective folk methods for the prevention of smallpox found their way to Massachusetts and, in 1721, a Boston practitioner began to inoculate individuals by inserting into several small incisions a tiny amount of material taken directly from a pock of a diseased person.  The result was a mild case of smallpox and total immunity from the disease for life.  Though inoculation was effective, it was also controversial - until their recovery, those inoculated could infect others. 

Plymouth Town Records for 1721 indicate the presence of the dreaded disease.  A committee was formed to act with the Selectmen to prevent its spread.  Those who came down with the illness were quarantined and cared for in private homes but were responsible were paying for their own care.  It was not until 1752 that Town Meeting agreed to build a hospital or “pest house convenient for the Reception of any Person or Persons that may be taken sick with the small pox in this Town.”  A new inoculating hospital was built in the early 1770s but in 1776 the town decided the threat was no longer great enough to justify the dangers of contagion, and ordered that the inoculations at the hospital be stopped. 

Vaccination against smallpox using the much less dangerous matter from animal pox came along in the 1790s.  The following ad appeared in the
Old Colony Memorial in on January 13, 1827

Dr. Warren having procured genuine Kine-Pock Matter will attend to vaccinating any persons on application at his Office, corner of North St.

In the 1770s, the skills of the Old Colony’s physicians and surgeons were challenged once again, this time by the medical needs of wartime. 
A member of the Continental Army during the American Revolution, Dr. James Thacher (1754-1844) wrote in his journal

I am obliged to devote the whole of my time, from eight o'clock in the morning to a late hour in the evening, to the care of our patients...  Amputating limbs, trepanning fractured skulls, and dressing the most formidable wounds, have familiarized my mind to scenes of woe.

James Thacher of Barnstable had just finished his medical apprenticeship when war broke out.  Shortly after the Battle of Bunker Hill, Thacher set off to join the Continental Army at Cambridge. Passing an examination by the medical board, he was awarded the position of surgeon's mate.

The young doctor served with the Continental troops in Boston until fall of 1776, when his regiment moved to New York where he served in a military hospital.  In his journal, he related the difficulties faced by the American soldiers, from worthless paper money to harsh winter conditions, "The suffering of the poor soldiers can scarcely be described... at night they now have a bed of straw on the ground, and a single blanket each."  James Thacher continued service as a surgeon, traveling to Yorktown in 1781 where he witnessed the surrender of Cornwallis.  He left the military in 1783 and settled in Plymouth where he practiced medicine for many years. When his hearing failed in 1809, the Thacher laid aside his practice and authored numerous medical publications in the years that followed.  Though “neither a native of Plymouth nor a descendant, his zeal for the Pilgrims…was second to none.” (Gomes, p.xxxviii in Thacher,1972).  In 1820 Thacher became a founding member and Trustee of the Pilgrim Society.  From the year Pilgrim Hall was erected (1824) until his death 20 years later, Dr. Thacher relished his role as first Librarian and Curator.

Dr. Francis LeBaron (1781–1829), great-grandson of the 17th century Frenchman mentioned above, served as Apothecary General for the United States Army’s new Medical Department from 1813-1821.  Called upon to improve the Army’s failed system for providing medical supplies early in the War of 1812, LeBaron’s impossible task was doomed by the military’s lack of planning and resources—and further stymied by poor roads, the long distances that often separated garrisons from supply centers, the shortage of coins, and general distrust of paper money. 

LeBaron Russell, M.D. (1814–1889), nephew of the Apothecary General, received his medical degree from Harvard in 1842.  A passionate abolitionist and philanthropist, Russell supported the New England Emigrant Aid Company which helped to ensure that Kansas became a free state (in 1861).  During the Civil War, Russell served as Special Commissioner for the War Department, examining the living conditions of African American refugees at Fortress Monroe in Virginia.  

The instruments available for surgery during the Civil War were far superior to those used by Dr. James Thacher and other physicians and surgeons serving during the Revolutionary War.

A fine set of surgical instruments, made in 1864 by Tiemann & Co., Chicago.    
Pilgrim Hall Museum (2003.522)

Women, of course, had always been midwives, healers, and “watchers”—someone to watch through the day and night.  Home remedies were common and passed down through generations.  Women often kept favorite culinary and medical recipes in the same notebook.  In the mid–1800s a small number of women were able to enter programs granting medical degrees.  Pioneering homeopathic physician Mercy Bisbee Jackson of Plymouth attended the New England Female Medicine College.  Mercy graduated in 1860 and was the first woman admitted to the American Institute of Homeopathy in 1871.

Plymouth’s Jordan Hospital was not built until 1901; the funds raised by popular subscription, kicked off by an initial gift from summer resident Eben Jordan.  At that time, the average life expectancy was under 49 years.  Babies were still delivered at home.  Generally, desperate conditions had to prevail before people would think of heading to the hospital.  Since that time, the town - and Jordan Hospital - have made great strides.  The town’s medical history was brought up to date by Dr. H.H. Hamilton in 1977. Raised in the Midwest, he attended medical school in Boston and having married a New Englander, moved to Plymouth in 1934, where Dr. Hamilton began his practice in the midst of the Great Depression.  It didn’t take him long to find Pilgrim Hall, and to become interested in America’s “Hometown” history.

Selected Bibliography
Carrell, Jennifer Lee,
The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox (NY: Dutton, 2003).
Davis, William T., 
Plymouth memories of an octogenarian. (Plymouth: The Memorial Press, 1906).
Hamilton, H. H.,
A Medical History of Plymouth 1620-1977 (Plymouth, Pilgrim Society, 1978).
Mayers, Elvoid Clarrice,
A Biography of LeBaron Russell:  Doctor, Philanthropist and Humanitarian, unpublished Master’s thesis, Bridgewater State College, 1976.
O’Connor, Brian W., “Plymouth,” in
Aesculapian Boston, (Boston: Paul Dudley White Medical History Society, 1980).
Tannenbaum, Rebecca  J.,
The Healer’s Calling: Women and Medicine in Early New England. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002).
Thacher, James, American Medical Biography, (Boston ______ 1828).
The American New Dispensatory (Boston: T.B. Wait & Co., 1810). 
History of the Town of Plymouth (Yarmouthport: Parnassus, 1972), 3rd edition with a new introduction by the Rev. Peter Gomes, Librarian, Pilgrim Society.[1st ed., 1832, 2nd ed., 1835] 
Military Journal of the American Revolution, from the Commencement to the Disbanding of the American Army, Hartford, Conn.: Hurlbut, Williams & Company, 1862. [first published in 1823]     
Zimmer, Carl,
Soul Made Flesh (New York: Free Press, 2004). [The story of Thomas Willis’ study of the brain in the 1600s.]

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