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George Washington and Medicine

Class 3: Plantation Owner


Among the many responsibilities of the owner of a great plantation was the health of all members of his extended household, black and white. The records of Mount Vernon are notable on two counts: firstly, in the meticulous detail in which Washington documented his slaves' medical care, and secondly, in the particular solicitude with which he and, on his orders, his overseers dealt with sick or injured slaves. Washington's endeavors were assisted by Dr. James Craik, whose medical training at the University of Edinburgh is indicative of the strong influence of Scots medical education on health care in colonial and early national America. Dennis Pogue's essay provides a vivid picture of the physical layout of Mount Vernon, especially in relation to Washington's provision of housing for the enslaved. The article by Deborah Brunton places Dr. Craik's ideas and practices in a wider historical context by analyzing the ways in which the medical theories of the Scottish Enlightenment were embedded in the training of early American doctors. In a chapter from her study of maternity and medicine in the antebellum Southern plantation, Marie Jenkins Schwartz emphasizes that not only physicians but also masters, mistresses, and fellow slaves played important roles in the health care of the enslaved.

Class Resources
  • Brunton, Deborah C. “The Transfer of Medical Education: Teaching at the Edinburgh and Philadelphia Medical Schools.” In Scotland and America in the Age of Enlightenment. Edited by Richard B. Sher and Jeffrey R. Smitten. Edinburgh, United Kingdom: Edinburgh University Press, 1990.
  • Pogue, Dennis J. “The Domestic Architecture of Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.” Winterthur Portfolio  37 (2002): 3–22.
  • Schwartz, Marie Jenkins. “Healers.” In Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South. Edited by Marie J. Schwartz. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.
Discussion Questions
  1. What goals did Washington set in his provision for the material lives of slaves at Mount Vernon, and how do they compare to those of other plantation owners of his era?
  2. What was the impact on colonial America that it was Scots, rather than English, medical education that become so dominant in the training of local physicians?
  3. Which members of the plantation community did the slaves tend most to trust with the responsibility for their well-being?
Additional Activity

Examine the manuscript list of Mount Vernon’s slaves and read “‘Dr. His Excly Geo. Washington to James Craik’: Notes on a Medical Bill” for treatment of both black and white patients on the plantation. What can we learn from these documents about the health and medical care of Washington’s slaves?

1Wall, Charles C. “‘Dr. His Excly Geo. Washington to James Craik’: Notes on a Medical Bill.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography  55, no. 4 (1947): 318–328.

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