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George Washington and Medicine

Class 1: George Washington and Medicine: A Different Battlefront


The first of the six one-hour classes includes three readings that place George Washington within the context of medical theory and practice in colonial America and locate him as the head of a large plantation household that included family members, servants, and slaves. While Washington, as a man of wealth and education, had access to the best medical care available in the American colonies, like all people of this era his medical care of himself and his dependents was circumscribed by the contemporary limits of medical knowledge. As a result, his first resort in cases of illness or injury was to home remedies, patent medicines, or the collection of popular medical texts in his library at Mount Vernon. Philip Morgan, the leading historian of slavery in the 18th century American South and the Atlantic world, explores Washington's changing attitudes towards slaves and slavery over his lifetime and presents important background about the relations between the enslaved and their owners in the era of the American Revolution. Rebecca Tannenbaum’s chapter from her book on gender and medical practice in the New England colonies depicts how, in the frequent unavailability of medical professionals, laypeople, including women, doctored the members of their households, using home remedies and herbal treatments. Jim Cox’s essay, written for a popular audience at Colonial Williamsburg, the restored colonial capital city of Virginia, emphasizes the dramatic changes in medical understanding in the 18th century Anglo-American world, and the extent to which medical practice on the ground responded to these new ideas.

Class Resources
  • Cox, Jim. “That Quacking Sound in Colonial America.” Colonial Williamsburg Journal (Spring 2004).
  • Morgan, Philip D. “‘To Get Quit of Negroes’: George Washington and Slavery.” Journal of American Studies 39 (2005): 403–429.
  • Tannenbaum, Rebecca. “Called to the Bedside: Medicine in the Household.” In The Healer’s Calling: Women and Medicine in Early New England. Edited by Rebecca Tannenbaum. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002.
Discussion Questions
  1. How did George Washington’s attitudes towards the legality and morality of slaveholding change throughout his lifetime? To what extent did his rethinking complement or contradict the attitudes of post-Revolutionary Americans?
  2. For what reasons did medical treatment become part of the responsibilities of the head of a household in colonial America?
  3. Under what limitations of medical understanding did 18th-century medical practitioners labor?
Additional Activity
  1. Look through the table of contents for Gideon Harvey’s The Family Physician, and the House Apothecary online at Although this book was first published in the late 17th century, it was a popular medical text in 18th-century America, and Washington owned a copy. Based on this table of contents, what seem to have been the major medical problems with which a household might be confronted, and how were householders expected to deal with them?
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