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Every Necessary Care and Attention, George Washington and Medicine

Home and Hardship

"Our Departed Friend…"

Washington came from a large family, which included five siblings and four half-siblings. Like many other families during the 18th century, the Washingtons were plagued by fits, fevers, and agues, as well as suffering the loss of cherished relatives due to the high mortality rates of the era. In addition to stepchildren and stepgrandchildren, the general and commander in chief took on the care of orphaned nieces and nephews, for whom he felt a special sense of responsibility.

Above quote from a letter from George Washington to Frances Bassett Washington, February 24, 1793

  • Painting of Washington Family

    George Washington and Family, oil on canvas, Thomas Prichard Rossiter, 1858–1860

    Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

    An oil painting of a dometic scene with George Washington and his family seated in the first president's home library. Washington is shown wearing a black velvet frock coat and breeches; in his left hand he holds a closed book, his finger marking a page. He gestures with his right hand as it rests on a portable desk on the table by his chair. His wife and two of her granddaughters, in splendid gowns, sit with him engaged in writing or sewing. An enslaved African American maid carries a tray in the background. The group is informally posed and absorbed in their individual activities.

    In 1759, Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, a young widow with two children. Although the couple never had children together, Washington raised his stepchildren and step grandchildren with all the tender care expected of a father.

  • Portrait of Lawrence Washington

    Portrait of Lawrence Washington by an unknown artist, ca. 1743

    Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

    A half-length portrait of a young man with a faint smile set against a dark background. Lawrence Washington stands slightly to his left while he turns his head to the right. His face stands out sharply against a very dark backgound. He wears fine clothes with a high lace neckcloth and a red caped coat. He holds a black billed hat with buttons and braid under his arm.

    As a teenager, George Washington watched as his eldest half-brother, Lawrence, suffered from tuberculosis–a deadly, infectious disease. The two visited Barbados in 1751, seeking a cure from the warm sea air. On this trip, George contracted smallpox, but survived, rendering him immune to the disease that would later threaten so many lives. Despite all efforts, Lawrence died the following year at the age of 34.

  • A hand-colored, engraved map of the island of Barbados.

    The Island of Barbados  by Herman Moll, ca. 1735

    Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

    A hand-colored, engraved map of the island of Barbados. long tag: A note at the top says: Barbadoes is chief of the caribee islands, was discovered in the Reign of K. James the First. The first colony settled about Bridgetown, the soil being at that time exdeeding righ, & the returns from thence very considerable; the settlements prospered in so flourishing a manner, that in the year 1676, when the island was in its best estate, there were 70,000 Europeans, & 80,000 Negroes upon it, which, in proportion to the land, was more populous than England. Printed and sold by the Tho. Bowles next the chapter house in St. Pauls Church yard & I. Bowls att eh Black Hourse in Cornhill.

    As a teenager, George Washington watched as his eldest half-brother, Lawrence, suffered from tuberculosis–a deadly, infectious disease. The two visited Barbados in 1751, seeking a cure from the warm sea air. On this trip, George contracted smallpox, but survived, rendering him immune to the disease that would later threaten so many lives. Despite all efforts, Lawrence died the following year at the age of 34.

  • Medicine chest, containing glass bottles, a set of scales, and a mortar and pestle

    Medicine chest, typically containing glass bottles of medicine for common disorders, a set of scales, and a mortar and pestle, 1700s

    Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

    A leather covered, velvet lined chest, with a keyed brass lock on the front and little brass feet. The chest has individually shaped and lined holes for each of six cylindrical stoppered clear glass bottles and two glass cups. The inside lid of the box is worn where it presses the bottles and cups.

    George Washington and his family members bought a wide variety of patent medicines as well as ingredients for homemade medications, including ipecacuana, diascordium, tincture of myrrh, and spirits of lavender. Having these supplies on hand would have been useful for treating family members and slaves before a doctor was called.

  • A leather bound book ornamented with gold leaf open to the title page.

    George Washington's copy of Experiments on the Red and Quill Peruvian bark, by Ralph Irving, 1785. Peruvian bark was used to treat malaria.

    Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

    Washington himself was no stranger to illness. Despite appearing tall, strong, and robust, his ancestors were short-lived and prone to lung disease. He endured many of the ills of the period, such as fevers, infections, and breathing problems, but also survived at least ten serious illnesses, including anthrax, smallpox, and malaria, a common illness at Mount Vernon in the summer and early fall.

  • Miniature portrait of Martha Parke Custis by Charles Willson Peale

    Miniature portrait of Martha Parke Custis by Charles Willson Peale, 1772

    Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

    Hand-painted miniature portrait with an oval gold frame, meant to be worn as a pendant. The young woman with flowing curly dark hair and and a slight smile looks over her left sholder beyond the viewer.

    Martha Parke Custis or "Patsy," the surviving daughter of Martha Washington and her first husband, was 12 when she began showing symptoms of epilepsy. She experienced frequent seizures, sometimes as often as twice a day. The Washingtons consulted with at least six physicians and tried a variety of unsuccessful treatments, including mercurial and purging pills, special diets, iron rings, and trips to bathe in warm mineral springs. Patsy died suddenly during a seizure in 1773, at the age of 17.

  • Photo of bathing gown

    Bathing gown, 1760s. Probably worn by Martha Washington while she and Patsy took the waters at Warm Springs in Frederick County, Virginia.

    Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

    This photograph shows a full length, blue-and-white checked bathing gown set against a black background. The U-neck gown has a simple tie in the front with three-quarter sleeves and the hem is weighted to prevent it from floating up and exposing the wearer's legs.

    Martha Parke Custis or "Patsy," the surviving daughter of Martha Washington and her first husband, was 12 when she began showing symptoms of epilepsy. She experienced frequent seizures, sometimes as often as twice a day. The Washingtons consulted with at least six physicians and tried a variety of unsuccessful treatments, including mercurial and purging pills, special diets, iron rings, and trips to bathe in warm mineral springs. Patsy died suddenly during a seizure in 1773, at the age of 17.