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Education Lesson Plans

George Washington: Then and Now

  • grade level: 7–9
  • subject: history and social studies, health education

Time Needed

two 45-minute class periods


Students compare previous knowledge of George Washington with primary and secondary source material from the exhibition “Every Necessary Care and Attention”: George Washington and Medicine to gain a fuller and more complex view of our first president, medical care during the American Revolutionary and early Republic eras, and the types of changes that have taken place in the practice of medical care from then to now. In Class 1, students view and use George Washington’s dentures and traveling dental kit as a guided exercise for observing and making inferences with primary sources. Students are assigned to a section of the online exhibition for vocabulary work and reading comprehension tasks. In Class 2, students share their findings from the assigned exhibition sections, and gain understanding about the medicine during the late 18th-century America. Students then choose or are assigned a health topic addressed in the exhibition, in order to research and present in a poster and a written essay how it is understood and treated today. Two extension activities further engage students in a gallery walk assessment of their peers’ poster presentations on other topics, or in examination of medical analyses of the last illness of George Washington.

  • learning outcomes

    Students will be able to:
    • describe several health issues confronted by George Washington and those around him.
    • make some generalizations from Washington’s experiences about medical practices during the American Revolutionary and early Republic periods.
    • analyze primary and secondary sources to expand content knowledge.
    • demonstrate reading comprehension skills and strategies, such as understanding text containing unfamiliar words.
    • construct content knowledge and understanding by applying and integrating prior knowledge and experience to the analysis of secondary and primary sources.
    • apply critical sensitivities such as empathy and skepticism regarding attitudes, values, and behaviors of people in different historical contexts.
  • background information

    The “Every Necessary Care and Attention”: George Washington and Medicine exhibition examines the promise and limitations of medical knowledge and practices during the lifetime of George Washington in America and the role they played in Washington’s life. The exhibition provides insight into the hardship of being affected by numerous health issues with the limited medical knowledge of his time. Teachers are encouraged to preview all sections of the online exhibition.

  • vocabulary

    The following terms from the “Every Necessary Care and Attention” exhibition may be introduced or incorporated during class activities, as needed:

    • Introduction: speculative, hypotheses, apothecaries, midwives, charlatan, quack, patent medicines
    • Home and Hardship: agues, mortality rates, tuberculosis, immune, anthrax, epilepsy, seizures, purging
    • In Sickness and in Health: dysentery, anthrax, pneumonia, rheumatism, abscessed, smallpox, cultivation
    • At Journey’s End: bloodletting, purgatives, emetics, enemas, phlebotomy, phlegm, bile, inflammation, tracheotomy, eulogies
  • materials

    Print All Materials
    • George Washington’s Teeth: What Do They Tell Us? (PDF)
    • George Washington & Medicine (PDF, MS Word)
      Teacher’s George Washington & Medicine (PDF)
    • Vocabulary Worksheet (PDF, MS Word)
      Teacher’s Vocabulary Worksheet (PDF)
    • George Washington & Medicine: Findings (PDF, MS Word)
      Teacher’s George Washington & Medicine: Findings (PDF)
    • Evaluation Checklists (PDF, MS Word)
    • Optional for the Extension Activities: Gallery Walk: Poster Assessment (PDF, MS Word); Unexpected Illness Questionnaire (PDF, MS Word); Teacher’s Unexpected Illness Questionnaire (PDF)
    Other materials and set-ups:
    • a display set-up for the class—e.g., interactive whiteboard, computer-connected projector, blackboard, or whiteboard, flip chart, etc.
    • computers with Internet access to the exhibition, or printouts of the three exhibition sections: Home and Hardship, In Sickness and In Health, and At Journey’s End
    • poster board, markers, and other visual materials for poster project in Class 2
  • class 1 procedures

    1. Use the George Washington’s Teeth online activity or George Washington’s Teeth: What Do They Tell Us? and introduce the primary sources to students.
    2. Post the following questions to the class and record student responses on a class white board or a flip chart:
      • What are the dental items made of?
      • What inferences can you make about these items?
      • Into what aspect of Washington's life do these images provide insight?
      • How do these items relate to what you already know about Washington?
      • What kind of generalizations can you make from these items about Washington and his contemporaries?
    3. Discuss the following as a class, guiding students to connect and view relationships among them:
      • Washington’s privileged status
      • Washington’s knowledge and access to dental experts of his time
      • types of dental tools and dentures used during the American Revolutionary and early Republic eras
    4. Display the Introduction page of “Every Necessary Care and Attention”: George Washington and Medicine. Explain that Washington’s dental items are featured in this online exhibition that includes health topics related to Washington and his family.
    5. Hand out copies of the George Washington & Medicine worksheet to students and read aloud the two quoted paragraphs from the exhibition’s Introduction page. Review the questions on the worksheet and have students work in pairs to complete it.
    6. Call on several student pairs to share their answers to the questions on the worksheet. See discussion guide in Teacher’s George Washington & Medicine.
    7. Remind students that George Washington’s dental items tell us about his dental hygiene habits and his having poor teeth, as well as being evidence of the dental tools and practices available during the 18th century in America. Explain that similarly they can find other primary and secondary sources in the online exhibition “Every Necessary Care and Attention” that can inform us about types of medical knowledge and practices available to George Washington during his lifetime.
    8. Prepare access to computers with an Internet connection or copies of the printouts of the following three sections of the “Every Necessary Care and Attention” online exhibition:
    9. Distribute copies of Vocabulary Worksheet and George Washington and Medicine: Findings to each student. Divide the class into three groups, and assign each group one exhibition section.
    10. Have students view and read their respective sections and first complete their copies of the Vocabulary Worksheet. Afterwards, have students complete the George Washington and Medicine: Findings worksheet.
    11. Collect completed worksheets or, if needed, allow them to finish them as homework for the next class.
    12. Class 1 Assessment: Teachers may use class discussions and the completed worksheets for evaluation.
  • class 2 procedures

    1. Display The Family Physicians and the House Apothecary artifact image on the Introduction page of “Every Necessary Care and Attention.”  Read aloud its caption and remind students that primary sources such as this book inform us about the medical knowledge and practices of people in the past.
    2. Display and briefly review the Home and Hardship, In Sickness and In Health, and At Journey’s End exhibition sections as a class.
    3. Have students refer to their completed Vocabulary Worksheet and George Washington and Medicine: Findings. Ask students to volunteer their findings and explain any terms as needed. Record and compile their answers on a class whiteboard or a flip chart. See suggested discussion guides on Teacher’s Vocabulary Worksheet and Teacher’s George Washington & Medicine: Findings.
    4. Review the list and focus on the last question about today’s understanding and treatments of the health issues that affected George Washington and those around him. Ask students where they might go to learn more about these topics.
    5. Have students work in pairs or small groups and assign (or allow them to choose) one health issue from the list so that most, if not all, are chosen.
    6. Distribute to each student a copy of Evaluation Checklists and review the two tasks assigned to each pair—individual essays and one poster per pair.
    7. Allow student pairs to plan and work on the poster in the class and have them bring finished pair poster and individual essays to the next class.
    8. Class 2 Evaluations: Teachers may use class discussions and the completed worksheets as well as the finished posters and essays for evaluation.
  • evaluations

    In addition to observing and assessing students during class discussions, teachers can evaluate student progress and understanding by reviewing their completed work.

  • extension activities

    1. Students conduct Gallery Walk: Poster Assessment that guides their viewing and contextualizing of the information on the posters displayed during the following class. Teachers may use the completed Gallery Walk: Poster Assessment to build experiential activities, such as inviting guest speakers from the local health department or school nurses; visiting a historical society that offers information about the living conditions and experiences during the Revolutionary and early Republic eras, etc.
    2. Using the online activity Unexpected Illness, students use a primary source, “Memoir on the last sickness of General Washington and its treatment by the attendant physicians” by Dr. James Jackson to learn about the illness which proved fatal to George Washington. Students evaluate the circumstances in which Washington faced his last illness and the treatments used by the doctors who attended him while investigating the answers to the Unexpected Illness Questionnaire. For students interested in health, medicine, and science, teachers may incorporate a vocabulary lesson for the technical terms within the primary source.
  • common core standards

    Reading for Informational Text

    • Determine a central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details; provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments
    • Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text
    • Interpret information presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) and explain how it contributes to a topic, text, or issue under study

    Writing Standards

    • Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence
    • Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content
    • Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience
    • Write routinely over shorter time frames for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences

    Speaking and Listening Standards

    • Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade-level topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly

    Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects

    • Craft and Structure: determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary specific to domains related to history/social studies
    • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: integrate visual information with other information in print and digital texts