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Revolutionary Medicine

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Revolutionary Medicine
The Founding Fathers and Mothers in Sickness and in Health. By Jeanne E. Abrams. (New York University Press, New York: 2013. 304 pages, Illustrations.) ISBN: 978-0-8147-8919-3

Reviewed by Simone Bonim - December 30, 2013

Using the prism of public health, Jeanne E. Abrams, in her book Revolutionary Medicine, examines how the health of the founding mothers and fathers affected both the individuals concerned and the nation as a whole. Looking at the lives of such luminaries as George and Martha Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John and Abigail Adams, James and Dolley Madison, and Thomas Jefferson, Abrams examines how illness impacted the lives of these individuals, and how their reaction to theses illnesses mirrored those of the nation as a whole. Most important, in this compelling work, Abrams shows how the personal experiences of these leading citizens encouraged them to advocate for a governmental role in the nation's developing healthcare system.

A combination of medical and political history, Revolutionary Medicine provides a keen overview of the state of medical science during the revolutionary period. This overview illustrates how ineffective the medical practices of the period where. Except for variolation for smallpox, by today's standards the medical practices of the period where nearly useless, and at times downright barbaric, consisting of bleeding, purging, and the use of drugs such as mercury, which could be as deadly as the diseases they were meant to cure.

Abrams' overview of how illness and disease impacted the founding families is almost heartbreaking in scope. All four of Martha Washington's children died young. George Washington, despite his strong constitution, was often ill. Over the course of his lifetime, Washington was not only plagued by physical injuries and common aliments such as arthritis, but also with a myriad of illnesses ranging from typhoid fever and malaria to gum diseases that robbed him of his teeth and possibly even tuberculosis. Washington's final illness was a severe sore throat and fever. He had the best of medical care that was available at the time, with a bevy of doctors in attendance. The result of all this attention? It is safe to say that if Washington's doctors did not kill him outright, they hastened his death by excessively bleeding the ex-president, and by the use of purgatives and laxatives.

In addition to discussing the impact of illness on those at the pinnacle of political power, Abrams also details how the impact that they had on improving the health standards and in formulating the idea that the government had a duty to improve public health not only for the benefit of individuals, but also for the welfare of the nation. For example, Washington was instrumental in implementing a vaccination program to protect the continental soldiers from smallpox, as well in trying to improve sanitation in order to impede epidemic illness.

Throughout this book, Abrams recounts the numerous deaths of children from illnesses that are preventable with the use of vaccines such as those for whooping cough and measles. For example, whooping cough killed Thomas Jefferson's daughter Lucy, while another daughter died after giving birth, possibly from puerperal fever. In all, five of Jefferson's six children died before him. She chronicles the numerous diseases and infections that affected both children and adults during this period that are now easily treated with antibiotics, but which were often fatal in the pre-antibiotic period. She also notes those medical practices of the period that where once discounted, but which have since been proven to have therapeutic value, such as the use of leeches.

Using excerpts from letters and other personal documents, Abrams brings to life both the public and private sides of how illness impacted the lives and works of the founding fathers and mothers. I could spend pages recounting the illness that impacted these stoic individuals, but Abrams does a much better a job of explaining which illness impacted these leaders and their families, and also how they reacted to these events on both personal and professional levels.

Reading this litany of disease and death makes a reader really appreciate the benefits of modern medicine, faults and all. More important, it provides a deeper understanding of the founding families and the physical and emotional pain that they had to endure and deal with as they went about their everyday lives and the running of the new country. It is also fascinating how these men and women viewed illness, and also how they sought to over come it by means as diverse as homeopathic treatments to the use of quarantine. From a governmental standpoint, Abrams details the public health measures that these early leaders instituted, ranging from the public health crusade to encourage all Americans to take the smallpox vaccine to the creation of the Marine Hospital Service (MHS). Officially created in 1798 by John Adams, the MHS was destined to eventually morphed into the Public Health Service that we know today.

Abrams is a Professor at Penrose Library and the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver. She writes in an engaging narrative style that makes this work accessible to both academics and lay readers with an interest in American history, or the history of medicine and public health in the 18th century.


Related Reviews:

Jewish Women Pioneering the Frontier Trail, by Jeanne E. Abrams.
A History in the American West. This text chronicles the history of Jewish Women in the American West from the 1848 Gold Rush through the early 1900's.

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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