The Founding Fathers and Medicine

As we head into the July 4 holiday, we thought it would be interesting and fun to take a look at the Founding Fathers (and Mothers) and their interactions with medicine at their time. And, even how their influence extends into modern medicine.

George Washington

In December 1799, George Washington awoke in the early morning with pain and shortness of breath. Before the day was over, Washington was dead. What caused this otherwise healthy and active man’s death? Could it have been his doctors? For his ailment, Washington was treated with bloodletting and enemas (common treatments at the time).

PBS Newshour: The Agonizing Last Hours of George Washington

Washington Papers at the University of Virginia

National Constitution Center – The Mysterious Death of George Washington

Thomas Jefferson

According to Monticello’s Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, Jefferson was deeply interested, though skeptical, of medicine. Despite his skepticism, he was an early advocate smallpox inoculation. Also, he actively developed medical education, supported measures for public health, and encouraged scientific research supported by the government without policy intervention. Jefferson was known to suffer from chronic headaches early in his life and later on was bothered by rheumatism.

Monticello: Medicine Contributions of Thomas Medicine to American Medicine

John and Abigail Adams

In 1776 the American colonies were fighting more than the British. A horrendous smallpox epidemic was brutalizing the Boston area. At the time, the smallpox inoculation was highly controversial. Abigail Adams made the agonizing decision to have her four children inoculated against the deadly disease. All of the children had some reaction to the procedure, ranging from mild to an extensive eruption, yet everyone recovered. John Adams would go on to become the second president of the United States and their eldest son, John Quincy Adams, became the nation’s sixth president.

Abigail Adams, Smallpox, and the Spirit of 1776

Benjamin Franklin

Inventor, author, businessman, politician, diplomat and all-around visionary, Benjamin Franklin’s influence extended to medicine as well. Franklin had a role in the development of the first medical school in the United States. He understood how the common cold was passed from person to person. He correctly understood the nature of psoriasis and was aware of the placebo effect. He also identified the dangers of lead. Franklin put his innovative mind to work and devised a flexible urethral catheter.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1299336/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18447203

http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qg62f

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