As head of household, plantation owner, businessman, Revolutionary War general, and president, George Washington had many different concerns and responsibilities, from running his estate to ensuring the stability of a new nation. Alongside the traditional demands of political life and military leadership, he focused considerable attention on the health and safety of his family, staff, slaves, and troops.
Washington's status and wealth gave him–and his community–special privileges. During his lifetime, with the practice of medicine slowly becoming a licensed profession, he could call on a growing class of experts and new knowledge about the spread and prevention of disease. Even so, Washington, like everyone else of his era, encountered the limits of medicine when faced with serious illnesses.
George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, ca. 1798
Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies' Association
Painted when the former president was 66 years old, this head-and-shoulders, three-quarter-view portrait of Washington shows the figure in a dark coat and a white lace cravat in front of a dark ground. The face is lit from above, left. The artist shows the elder statesman with grey hair pulled back, with curls on the side, a style popular in the day. Washington's aged face sags slightly but is flush with color. His lips are pursed and his blue eyes gaze directly at the viewer.
During Washington's life (1732-1799), medicine in America followed the practices of England. These practices were defined by speculative hypotheses, domestic remedies, and the beginnings of scientific investigation and formal education.
The Family Physician, and the House Apothecary, a popular book of treatments for the layperson, by Gideon Harvey, ca. 1678
Courtesy National Library of Medicine
The title page of this small, cloth bound book is simple in design, with an unembelished double line frame around the text, and economical in presentation as the table of contents are incorporated on the page, also. The Family Physician and the House Apolthecary. Containing I. Medicines against all such disease people usually advise with Apothocaries to be cured of. II. Instructions, whereby to prepare at your own Houses all kinds of necessary Medicines that are prepared by Apothecaries, or prescribed by Physicians. III. The exact Prices of all Drugs, Herbs, Seeds, simple and compund Medicines, as they are sold at the Druggists, or may be sold by the Apothecaries. IV. That it's plainly made to appear, that in preparing Medicines thus at your own Houses, that it's not onely a far safer way, but you shall also have Nineteen Shillings in Twenty, comparing it with the extravagant Rates of many Apothecares. By Gideon Harvey, M.D. Physician in Ordinary to his Majesty. The Second Edition, Revised by the Author. Printed for M.R. and are to be sold by the Booksellers of London. 1678.
Like others in the 18th century who needed medical assistance, Washington relied on a combination of home health remedies, common sense, herbal treatments, and medical science, as dispensed by an array of doctors, surgeons, dentists, barbers, apothecaries, nurses, midwives, and the occasional charlatan or quack. He turned to medical advice found in the books in his library, and ordered an assortment of common and patent medicines for his family, staff, and slaves.
The West Front of Mount Vernon attributed to Edward Savage, ca. 1787–1792
Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies' Association
The representation of the house and grounds of Mount Vernon shows an expansive lawn in the forground, the two-story, white painted, red roofed house in the middle ground, on the left are two small buildings surrounded by trees, on the right are trees. The sky has a warm glow with the morning sunrise. The view is noted for its pastoral and domestic representations. The figures of George and Martha Washington stroll with one of Martha's grandchildren, Nelly Custis, in the forground close to two male figures, one reported to be another of Martha's grandchildren, George Washington Parke Custis, with two dogs nearby.
Washington was concerned about the health of everyone living on his estate. In 1799 there were family members, hired staff, and 316 slaves.