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Lotions, Potions, Pills, and Magic

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Lotions, Potions, Pills, and Magic
Health Care in Early America. By Elaine G. Breslaw. (New York University Press, New York: 2012. 248 pages, Illustrations.) ISBN: 978-0-8147-8717-5

Reviewed by Harry S. Chou - December 13, 2012

Medical history, by its very nature has an inbred 'ick' factor. The farther back in time you go, the larger this 'ick' factor becomes as you envision people having limbs sawed off without anesthesia, copious blood letting, wounds examined with unwashed and definitely unsterile hands and instruments, the list goes on, and on. However medical history is also the story of seemingly unsurmountable challenges, social and political discord, and, at times, rapid change. In Lotions, Potions, Pills, and Magic: Health Care in Early America, Elaine G. Breslaw provides an an eye opening look at the state of medicine and health care in early America. From customary medical practices, epidemics, and public health initiatives to folk remedies and commonly held misconceptions, Breslaw provides a frank and informative overview of early American medical practices and the unique challenges that patients and medical practitioners faced during this period. In addition, she examines the unique health concerns of slaves, who were often treated against their wishes and with a level of care far beneath that received by white patients. She looks at maternal care and birthing practices and the rivalry between female midwives and 'educated' male doctors. The plight of native peoples, who became victims of previously unknown diseases brought to the Americas by European explorers and settlers, are also discussed.

Over the course of this study, Breslaw examines how medical practices and education changed over this period. Examples of common medical practices such as abortions, treatments for sexually transmitted diseases, smallpox vaccinations, fevers, stomach aliments, and much more are provided along with an assessment of their effectiveness or lack thereof. She explores how medical practices differed between lay healers and professionally trained doctors, and the differences in status enjoyed by various health care professionals. Breslaw also explores how medical practices and training in early America differed from those in Europe and how medicine and public health was viewed by the people of the time. By extension, this study also highlights the vast differences between the medicine of this earlier period when compared with contemporary medical practices and public health policies.

Although a work of rigorous academic scholarship, Lotions, Potions, Pills, and Magic: Health Care in Early America is also a highly readable and entertaining volume filled with anecdotes and gripping stories that bring the state of health care in this period - from sanitation practices to the treatment of mental illness - vividly to life. This book is ideal for use as a supplemental text for college courses in early American history, public health, history of medicine, and related courses. It is also suitable for the general reader with an interest in these fields.

A former Professor of History at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Breslaw retired after twenty-nine years in the classroom. She is also the author of:
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Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82, by Elizabeth Anne Fenn.
A comprehensive overview of The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82, and the impact it had on the American Revolutionary War and Native populations.

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