Doctoring in 1775

Doctoring in 1775 was at the beginning of a crossroads that would take it from the apprentice model to the med school model.  The first medical school in America was started in Philadelphia in 1768.  Two years later another opened in New York. These schools only took a handful of students each year.  The programs were ten years in length and, when finished, the ne doctor would have a lot of book knowledge and theory but would never have seen an actual patient.

The vast majority of doctors in 1775 and especially outside of Philadelphia, New York, Boston and Charleston, learned their doctoring skills in a seven year apprenticeship program.  They would have learned about some herbs, about leeches, about “bleeding” your patient, and very little about cleanliness.

Moms were the doctors in the family.  They rarely called a doctor.  And babies were born with midwives, not doctors.  As a matter of fact, midwives could have taught doctors a great deal about cleanliness though no one at the time had heard about germs and infection.

During the Revolutionary war, generally every unit had it’s own surgeon.  Surgery was itself in it’s infancy but knowledge and practice grew immensely with all the experience surgeons got during the war.  Before the war, the common surgical practice did not include any cutting into the patient as it nearly always ended badly.  They mostly dressed wounds and hoped for the best.  Amputations were rare.  That all changed during the war.

The unit surgeon was also responsible for treating the illnesses that plagued the troops:  dysentery, fever, and smallpox.  The major cause for disease in the camps, of course, was the unsanitary conditions.  And as the war went on, doctors learned a great deal about how to combat these.

The two doctors names that we’ll hear most often in connection with April 19th are Dr. Joseph Warren, who was responsible for sending out Revere and Dawes and Dr. Samuel Prescott who was the messenger that actually made it to Concord to warn of the impending Redcoat attack.  More on each of these amazing men is to come in future blog posts.  Just a quick note on Dr. Prescott.  He was twenty-four years old on April 19th.  He had not only completed his apprenticeship under his father in Concord, but already had an established practice.

By the way, in 1776, the Declaration of Independence was signed by four doctors.

  • Josiah Bartlett of New Hampshire
  • Lyman Hall of Georgia
  • Benjamin Rush of Pennsylvania
  • Matthew Thornton of New Hampshire