There was no shortage of bad advice in colonial times, particularly when it came to medical care. Medical cures in the colonial era often seem hard to stomach for modern readers. Listed below are three cringeworthy cures from the 17th and 18th century.
1. Stomach ache? Eat some lead! One Mrs. Joseph Meader was assured by her local physician that swallowing leaded bullets would relieve the pain in her gut. Some doctors believed the heavy lead from bullets could expel intestinal blockages. According to a letter from 1724, this treatment reportedly worked, but the account is highly suspicious. With no medical schools or public hospitals, it was difficult for colonists to distinguish qualified medical professionals from charlatans.
2. Keep your eyes peeled! Given the gruesome treatment prescribed to Mrs. Meader it’s no wonder many colonists took medical care into their own hands. One popular theory relied on little more than a person’s eyes to guide medical practice. Sympathetic medicine was the idea that a plant’s outward appearance could signal its medical use. Given their resemblance to the human skull, walnuts were considered a cure for cranial ailments while saffron was given to a patient sallow with jaundice.
3. When in doubt, drain some blood! Galenic or humoral medicine was in direct contrast to sympathetic medicine. Followers of this ancient theory believed the body was divided into four humors, each defined by a quality: hot, cold, wet, and dry. All illnesses allegedly resulted from an imbalance in these humors. According to Galenic medicine, the warm and searing pain of a fresh burn could be contracted with “snow water”, aka melted ice. While this may seem like good advice, galenic medicine also recommended blood letting to relieve the body of excess heat and inflammation.
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Gifford , George E. “Botanic Remedies in Colonial Massachusetts, 1620–1820.” Medicine in Colonial Massachusetts 1620-1820 , 1980. https://www.colonialsociety.org/node/1215.
Markham, Gervase. The English Housewife. Edited by Micheal R. Best. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1986.
Shryock, Richard Harrison. Eighteenth Century Medicine in America. Worcester.: American Antiquarian Society, 1950.