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Revolutionary Medicine

The Founding Fathers and Mothers in Sickness and in Health

Jeanne E. Abrams

Publication Year: 2013

Before the advent of modern antibiotics, one’s life could be abruptly shattered by contagion and death, and debility from infectious diseases and epidemics was commonplace for early Americans, regardless of social status. Concerns over health affected the founding fathers and their families as it did slaves, merchants, immigrants, and everyone else in North America. As both victims of illness and national leaders, the Founders occupied a unique position regarding the development of public health in America. Revolutionary Medicine refocuses the study of the lives of George and Martha Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John and Abigail Adams, and James and Dolley Madison away from the usual lens of politics to the unique perspective of sickness, health, and medicine in their era.
For the founders, republican ideals fostered a reciprocal connection between individual health and the “health” of the nation. Studying the encounters of these American founders with illness and disease, as well as their viewpoints about good health, not only provides us with a richer and more nuanced insight into their lives, but also opens a window into the practice of medicine in the eighteenth century, which is at once intimate, personal, and first hand. Perhaps most importantly, today’s American public health initiatives have their roots in the work of America’s founders, for they recognized early on that government had compelling reasons to shoulder some new responsibilities with respect to ensuring the health and well-being of its citizenry.
The state of medicine and public healthcare today is still a work in progress, but these founders played a significant role in beginning the conversation that shaped the contours of its development.
Jeanne E. Abrams is Professor at Penrose Library and the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver. She is the author of Jewish Women Pioneering the Frontier Trail: A History in the American West (NYU Press 2006) and Dr. Charles David Spivak: A Jewish Immigrant and the American Tuberculosis Movement, as well as numerous articles in the fields of American, Jewish and medical history which have appeared in scholarly journals and popular magazines. 

Published by: NYU Press


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. iii-iv


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pp. v-v

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pp. vii-viii

Many years ago, as an undergraduate freshman in an American history class, I was assigned a term paper on a topic relating to the colonial era. The project necessitated a visit to the New York Historical Society, which led to a lifetime love affair with primary source documents and a deep and abiding interest in the lives and writings of America’s founders. The founders highlighted in this study, including George and ...

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Introduction: Health and Medicine in the Era of America’s Founders

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pp. 1-32

The literature about America’s early leaders continues to proliferate, but instead of placing the usual emphasis on the political roles of the nation’s founders or their personal relationships, this book will focus a lens on their experiences with health, illness, and medical treatment. The lives of America’s founding mothers and fathers demonstrate that today’s ...

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1. George and Martha Washington: Health, Illness, and the First Family

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pp. 33-78

In his many portraits, America’s first president and “Foundingest Father,”1 George Washington, is depicted as a tall, commanding figure, with an elegantly slim but strong, muscular physique. Indeed, at a little over six feet, Washington towered above most of his contemporaries, and by all accounts was a revered and imposing man who commanded ...

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2. Benjamin Franklin: A Founding Father of American Medicine

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pp. 79-118

Benjamin Franklin has become an iconic figure in American history as a highly versatile and visible revolutionary leader and statesman, skillful diplomat, sage writer, successful businessman, and innovative scientist, but few today realize that this multidimensional Renaissance man was also a pivotal player in the development of medicine in early America. ...

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3. Abigail and John Adams: Partners in Sickness and Health

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pp. 119-168

Abigail Smith Adams, born on November 11, 1744, in Weymouth, Massachusetts, was no stranger to illness, so it is not surprising that the subject of health and disease occupied such a prominent place in her life. Recurrent childhood illnesses, especially rheumatic fever, which would also later haunt her as an adult, kept Abigail from attending ...

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4. Thomas Jefferson: Advocate for Healthy Living

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pp. 169-198

In 1766, 23-year-old Thomas Jefferson traveled from Virginia by horsedrawn carriage nearly three hundred miles to Philadelphia to be inoculated for smallpox. Jefferson was at the time a tall, fit, lanky young man in fine health, but he undertook the then-controversial treatment to prevent contracting an acute future case of the devastating disease. Inoculation was ...

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5. Thomas Jefferson: The Health of the Nation

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pp. 199-230

As president, Thomas Jefferson used his considerable influence to advance American medicine, most notably in his unwavering support of the Jenner method of smallpox vaccination and his insistence that the Lewis and Clark expedition gather information about Indian diseases and treatments as part of its mission. His republican philosophy had ...

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Epilogue: Evolutionary Medicine

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pp. 231-239

Not only were America’s founders political actors on the stage of the eighteenth-century world, but on multiple levels they contributed to advancements in American medicine, illustrating the complex links between politics and health. This was perhaps most visible in the manner in which intellectual leaders like Washington, Franklin, Adams, ...


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pp. 241-276


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pp. 277-287


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pp. 289-305

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About the Author

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pp. 306-306

Jeanne E. Abrams is Professor at Penrose Library and the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver. She received her Ph.D. in American history from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a specialization in archival management. She is the author of Jewish ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780814760352
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814789193
Print-ISBN-10: 0814789196

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 857064921
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Revolutionary Medicine

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Subject Headings

  • Founding Fathers of the United States.
  • Public health -- Philosophy
  • Public health -- United States -- History -- 18th century.
  • Public health -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Medical care -- United States -- History -- 18th century.
  • Medical care -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
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