Disease in colonial America

Disease in colonial America that afflicted the early immigrant settlers was a dangerous threat to life. Some of the diseases were new and treatments were ineffective. Malaria was deadly to many new arrivals, especially in the Southern colonies. Of newly arrived able-bodied young men, over one-fourth of the Anglican missionaries died within five years of their arrival in the Carolinas.[1] Mortality was high for infants and small children, especially for diphtheria, smallpox, yellow fever, and malaria. Most sick people turn to local healers, and used folk remedies. Others relied upon the minister-physicians, barber-surgeons, apothecaries, midwives, and ministers; a few used colonial physicians trained either in Britain, or an apprenticeship in the colonies. One common treatment was blood letting.[2] The method was crude due to a lack of knowledge about infection and disease among medical practitioners. There was little government control, regulation of medical care, or attention to public health. By the 18th century, Colonial physicians, following the models in England and Scotland, introduced modern medicine to the cities in the 18th century, and made some advances in vaccination, pathology, anatomy and pharmacology.[3]


In Colonial America, local doctors, midwives, healers and even officials administered medical care to the residents in their village or town.[2] 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.[2] In most places, there were families in which the folk practice of medicine and knowledge of curative drugs was passed down through the generations.[4] There were several noted physicians in Colonial America; The practice of the larger cities, especially Philadelphia, New York, Boston and Charleston. The first medical schools were founded late in the colonial era in Philadelphia and New York.[5]

Thomas ThacherEdit

Thomas Thacher was an outstanding Puritan preacher and physician of his time.[6] After coming to America at fifteen, Thacher received his early education under pastor Charles Chauncy. Thacher's education was liberal; he learned elements of medicine. Thacher committed much of his time to the practice of medicine and was a prominent physician in Boston. Shortly before Thomas Thatcher'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.[7]

Giles FirminEdit

Giles Firmin was a deacon in Boston, who came to America from England in 1632.[8] While practicing medicine in Ipswich, Massachusetts, Firmin became the first anatomical lecturer in America. Firmin gave detailed lectures about dried bones stimulating an interest of the General Court in 1647, which recommended that his anatomical lectures be given at least once every four years. Nevertheless, it was not followed and anatomy went untaught.

John WinthropEdit

John Winthrop was a physician who was in constant communication with England asking for advice on various medical topics and diseases. 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. Through these notes, Winthrop used the knowledge to advise the people in the Colony. 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 .[9][10]


Epidemics of many diseases were reported during the colonial times - particularly smallpox, .[11] Malaria was endemic, and especially in the southern colonies everyone could be expected to become infected.

Yellow FeverEdit

Yellow Fever was a disease that caused thousands of deaths, and many people to flee the afflicted areas.[12] It begins with a headache, backache, and fever making the patient extremely sick from the start,[13] 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.[12] 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.[14]

Yellow Fever made its first appearance in America in 1668, in Philadelphia, New York and Boston in 1693. It had been brought over from Barbados.[12] 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.[12] 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.[12] 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.[15]


Smallpox is caused by the variola virus and is extremely contagious, for it is spread by physical contact and affects children and adults alike. Smallpox was contagious, disfiguring, and often deadly.[16] The epidemics of the disease were recurrent, devastating, and frequent.[17]

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.[18]

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.[19] 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.[20] 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.[21] 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.[22][23]

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.[24]

Other colonial diseasesEdit

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.


The cause of malaria was unknown until the late 19th century. Colonial physicians attributed it to "miasma" or bad air.[25] In reality this disease is a parasite that is found in certain species of mosquitoes, which bred more rapidly as virgin soil was broken in the Carolina lowlands for rice cultivation.[26] The parasite found the slaves as a reservoir for the infection of the mosquito. The mosquito then transmitted the parasite to other slaves and the white population, causing rapid development of highly malarious communities. The disease spread across the South and Northwest. People who newly arrived from Europe were especially vulnerable to the deadly forms, but after the second generation, the colonists typically suffered non-fatal cases, characterized by a feverish season for a few weeks every year.[27]

Hookworm infectionEdit

The Hookworm infections were first seen in 1845 Florida and 1850 Louisiana.[28] 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 a Virginia to Illinois and down the Gulf of Mexico toward Texas.[28] 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.[28]

Thiamine deficiencyEdit

Unlike some diseases, Thiamine deficiency or beriberi, is a treatable, preventable disease caused by the deficiency of vitamin B1.[29] First seen in 1642 by the Dutch physician Jacobus Bontius, it was named for the Cingalese word meaning weakness-weakness.[29] 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.[29] 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.[29] 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.[30]

Typhoid and dysenteryEdit

Acute Bacillary dysentery has a shorter duration than Typhoid but both cause bloody flux.[31] 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.[31]

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.[32] The first epidemic of the fever was located in Virginia by Reverend Robert Hunt after taking a voyage where Typhoid Fever transpired.[32] 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.[33] More men died from Typhoid Fever than in action or from wounds.[34]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Bradford J. Wood, "'A Constant Attendance on God's Alter': Death, Disease, and the Anglican Church in Colonial South Carolina, 1706-1750," South Carolina Historical Magazine (1999) 100#3 pp. 204-220 in JSTOR
  2. ^ a b c Viets (1935), p.390
  3. ^ Richard H. Shryock, "Eighteenth Century Medicine in America," Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society (Oct 1949) 59#2 pp 275-292. online
  4. ^ Joseph I. Waring, "Colonial Medicine in Georgia and South Carolina," Georgia Historical Quarterly (1959) Vol. 59, Supplement, pp. 141-153 [ in JSTOR
  5. ^ Martin Kaufman, American medical education: The formative years, 1765-1910 (Greenwood, 1976).
  6. ^ Viets (1935), p.393
  7. ^ Thomas Thacher, A Brief Rule to Guide the Common-people of New-England how to Order Themselves and Theirs in the Small Pocks, Or Measles (First Published in 1677/8, Reprinted in 1702 and 1721-22; new edition Johns Hopkins University Press, 1937)
  8. ^ Viets (1935), p.394.
  9. ^ Viets (1935), pp.392-393.
  10. ^ John Ballard Blake, Public health in the town of Boston, 1630-1822 (1959).
  11. ^ Viets (1935), p.396.
  12. ^ a b c d e Bauer (1940), p.362.
  13. ^ Viets (1935), p.363.
  14. ^ "Yellow Fever and Mosquitoes" (1900), pp.692-693.
  15. ^ Viets (1935), p.362.
  16. ^ Rossi, Ann. Two Cultures Meet: Native American and European. National Geographic. p. 31. ISBN 0792286790.
  17. ^ Becker (2004), p.384.
  18. ^ Ballard C. Campbell, ed. American Disasters: 201 Calamities That Shook the Nation (2008) pp 21-22
  19. ^ Ola Elizabeth Winslow, A destroying angel;: The conquest of smallpox in colonial Boston (1974)
  20. ^ Becker (2004), p.386.
  21. ^ 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.
  22. ^ 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
  23. ^ Ola Elizabeth Winslow, A Destroying Angel: The Conquest of Smallpox in Colonial Boston (1974)
  24. ^ Claire Gherini, "Rationalizing disease: James Kilpatrick's Atlantic struggles with smallpox inoculation," Atlantic Studies (2010) 7#4 pp 421-446.
  25. ^ Karen Ordahl Kupperman, "Fear of Hot Climates in the Anglo-American Colonial Experience," William and Mary Quarterly (1984) 41#2 pp. 213-240 in JSTOR
  26. ^ Faust (1955), p.958.
  27. ^ H. Roy Merrens and George D. Terry, "Dying in Paradise: Malaria, Mortality, and the Perceptual Environment in Colonial South Carolina," Journal of Southern History (1984) 50#4 pp. 533-550 in JSTOR
  28. ^ a b c Faust (1955), p.959.
  29. ^ a b c d Jones (1963), p.7.
  30. ^ Jones (1963), p.8.
  31. ^ a b Jones (1963), p.9.
  32. ^ a b Jones (1963), p.10.
  33. ^ Benenson (1984), pp.2-3
  34. ^ Benenson (1984), p.3

Further readingEdit

  • 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): 295 – 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
  • Nolosco, Marynita Anderson. Physician heal thyself: medical practitioners of eighteenth-century New York (Peter Lang, 2004)
  • Patterson, K. David. "Yellow Fever Epidemics and Mortality in the United States, 1693 – 1905," Social Science and Medicine 34 (1992): 856– 57
  • Reiss, Oscar. Medicine in Colonial America (2000)
  • Reiss, Oscar. Medicine and the American Revolution: How Diseases and Their Treatments Affected the Colonial Army (McFarland, 1998)
  • Shryock, Richard H. "Eighteenth Century Medicine in America," Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society (Oct 1949) 59#2 pp 275–292. online
  • Smith, Daniel B. "Mortality and Family in the Chesapeake," Journal of Interdisciplinary History 8 (1978): 403 – 427.
  • Tannenbaum, Rebecca Jo. Health and Wellness in Colonial America (ABC-CLIO, 2012)
  • Viets, Henry R., "Some Features of the History of Medicine in Massachusetts during the Colonial Period, 1620-1770," Isis (1935), 23:389-405