By Tara Owens, Educational Programs Coordinator (Formerly Intern Extraordinaire)
All the attention surrounding the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the healthcare bill made me wonder about what type of medical treatments were available during the 18th century. People living in urban areas such as Williamsburg, Virginia, would have had access to an apothecary, who provided medical services, prescribed medicine, performed surgeries, and even served as man-midwives. In essence, the apothecary was the 18th-century equivalent to our modern doctor. Some of the remedies prescribed by apothecaries are still in practice today. These included chalk for heartburn, calamine for skin irritations, and cinchona bark for fevers. It was later discovered that cinchona bark contains quinine, still used today to treat malaria.
Those living in more rural areas ultimately relied on self-diagnosis and treatment that was based on folklore and tradition. For example, headaches were often treated by vinegar of roses, a remedy made of rose petals steeped in vinegar and applied topically.
The most surprising fact I discovered was that doctors in the 18th century actually performed inoculations on patients to protect against smallpox. Inoculation is based on an easily observed medical fact – that those who contact an infectious disease and survive are protected against catching it again. In fact, George Washington had his Revolutionary troops inoculated following a smallpox outbreak in his camp.