Thursday, May 1, 2014

Medical Care in the 18th Century

Have you ever wondered what medical care looked like in the 18th century? Since my main female character, Elizabeth Howard, was trained as a physician by her father, and since she’s involved in a war, I’ve had plenty of occasion to delve into how sick and injured people were treated and who did the treating. One helpful resource is “Colonial Medicine,” a paper published by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. Below is the section on women as health care givers, which makes it quite plausible that a woman might have acted as a physician during that period.
Women as Health Care Givers

Much of the health care for the 18th-century colonists was provided within the home. Women became responsible for health care in addition to their responsibilities for housekeeping and child care. They served as doctor, nurse, and pharmacist for their family despite the fact that 18th-century women rarely received any type of formal education. Their education in medicine consisted mainly of training from their mothers. They were exposed to raising medicinal herbs in kitchen gardens, concocting remedies from available resources, and nursing the ill by the traditional methods passed down through families and neighbors.

Popular guidebooks were also available to these women to assist in maintaining their family’s health. These guidebooks provided many useful recipes, but rarely introduced women to current medical theory. The literate housewife would record successful recipes for medical treatment in handwritten journals.

Some women practiced medicine outside of their own households. Women, as child bearers, were the logical candidates to assist other women as midwives. Some women competed in the male-dominated medical field by prescribing, preparing, and even advertising cures for troublesome diseases. It was quite common for successful women health care givers to serve the needs of the neighborhood. During the Revolutionary War, women served as nurses to the wounded and sick of the army and received pay and rations for their service.
It’s not implausible, of course, that the daughter of a physician might be taught by her father. And clearly a woman trained in the healing arts would be as highly valued by an army as she would be in her home and neighborhood.

In addition to herbs and other compounds that were known and used for their healing properties, many medicinal recipes of the period called for spirits. I’ve read that stills were common in rural areas primarily to supply spirits for medicinal uses.

In writing historical fiction, authors need to be careful not to portray female characters who are “liberated,” who hold opinions and act in ways that weren’t acceptable for women of that period. It’s equally true that we sometimes assume that women’s roles were more restricted than they really were.

Have you encountered real women from earlier times who acted in unexpected ways or successfully lived unconventional lives? If so, please briefly share their stories with us!

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