Medicine and Surgery in Puritan New England
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Medicine and Surgery in Puritan New England

Medicine and Surgery in Puritan New England

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Massachusetts Historical Society

1154 Boylston Street

Boston, MA 02215

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The treatment of illness and trauma in 17th-century Boston was, for the most part, primitive and ineffectual. Therapies ranged from reordering Galen’s “evil humors” through bloodletting and emetics to allowing open wounds to putrefy. Amputations took place without anesthesia. St Johns Wort was thought to cure madness. A powder made from roasted “Toades, as many as you will” and gathered in the month of March, was said to help cure plague and smallpox.

Led by Sidney Levitsky MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon, this discussion will explore 17th century medicine through rarely examined sources. Dr Levitsky will open with a short presentation, and we’ll then examine the readings. Dr Edward Stafford, for instance, sent a sheaf of recipes to John Winthrop in 1643 - the source of the recommendations for "Toades" - and London surgeon Richard Wiseman wrote on wounds in his surgical handbook (popularly known as "Wiseman's Book of Martyrs.")

We will explore the implications of Galenic medicine, practiced for more than 1600 years until, later in the 17th century, natural philosophy began to challenge the idea of the human body being reigned by “humors.” Sir Charles Scarborough, Charles II’s chief physician, carefully documented the treatment of a fatal February, 1685 stroke. In addition to showing how Galenic medical treatment very likely caused Charles II’s death, Scarborough’s document provides us with a foundation for understanding 17th century medical therapeutics.

We'll discuss the medical practice of Puritan divines, who believed that “illness, like other disasters, was God’s punishment for spiritual failure, and perhaps … prayer and repentance provided a better cure than doctors.” The Reverend Cotton Mather further extended this concept with the term of “Angelic Conjunction,” whereby the non-medically trained minister would be the healer of spirit and body.

Finally, we will look at the evolution of the barber surgeon, whose knowledge was based on battlefield experience, and not the teachings of Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Galen. As the surgeon Richard Wiseman said, “I do pretend to have spent my time in Armies, Navies, and Cities, not in Universities,” compared to the botanic therapy associated with the medical physician and apothecary.

Please note: These discussions of primary documents are open to all. You don't need a PhD, you don't need to know about medical history. All you need is the willingness to read and come with questions and opinions.

Image credit: Wellcome Images, London.

About Sid Levitsky

Dr. Levitsky is the Cheever Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School and senior vice-chair of the department of surgery at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He joined the board of the Partnership of Historic Bostons in 2016.

Readings

Richard Wiseman, “Of Wounds," in Eight Chirurgicall Treatises (London, 1735; first published 1676). Go to the Medical Heritage Library (if this link doesn't work, type this web address into your browser: https://archive.org/details/medicalheritagelibrary). On the Medical Heritage Library home page, click on "collections" and then enter "Richard Wiseman" in the search box to find his surgical handbook. Read Chap 5, “On wounds.”

Edward Stafford, “Medical Directions written for Governor Winthrop by Edward Stafford of London in 1643.” The link includes the original “directions” written for Winthrop, a transcript, and an essay by Oliver Wendell Holmes. http://pds.lib.harvard.edu/pds/temp/async/422125326-1-52.pdf

Sir Charles Scarburgh, description of the death of Charles II (February 2, 1685), in Raymond Crawfurd , The Last Days of Charles II (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909). http://hdl.handle.net/2027/yale.39002024990450 Read pages 69-80.

Eric H Christianson, “The Medical Practitioners of Massachusetts, 1630-1800” (Boston: Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1980), pp. 49-67. We’ll email this pdf to you once you register for the discussion.

Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London: Penguin, 1991, first published 1971). Read Chapter 1, “The Environment,” pp. 3-24 (it doesn't take long.) This magnificent book is available at the Cambridge Public Library system (nine copies) and the Boston Public Library (sadly, only one copy). We can also email you a pdf.

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Massachusetts Historical Society

1154 Boylston Street

Boston, MA 02215

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