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Doctor Franklin's Medicine

By Stanley Finger

Publication Year: 2006

Selected by Choice magazine as an Outstanding Academic Title

Among his many accomplishments, Benjamin Franklin was instrumental in founding the first major civilian hospital and medical school and in the American colonies. He studied the efficacy of smallpox inoculation and investigated the causes of the common cold. His inventions—including bifocal lenses and a "long arm" that extended the user's reach—made life easier for the aged and afflicted. In Doctor Franklin's Medicine, Stanley Finger uncovers the instrumental role that this scientist, inventor, publisher, and statesman played in the development of the healing arts—enhancing preventive and bedside medicine, hospital care, and even personal hygiene in ways that changed the face of medical care in both America and Europe.

As Finger shows, Franklin approached medicine in the spirit of the Enlightenment and with the mindset of an experimental natural philosopher, seeking cures for diseases and methods of alleviating symptoms of illnesses. He was one of the first people to try to use electrical shocks to help treat paralytic strokes and hysteria, and even suggested applying shocks to the head to treat depressive disorders. He also strove to topple one of the greatest fads in eighteenth-century medicine: mesmerism.

Doctor Franklin's Medicine looks at these and the many other contributions that Franklin made to the progress of medical knowledge, including a look at how Franklin approached his own chronic illnesses of painful gout and a large bladder stone. Written in accessible prose and filled with new information on the breadth of Franklin's interests and activities, Doctor Franklin's Medicine reveals the impressive medical legacy of this Founding Father.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. xi-xiv

Benjamin Franklin—the only Founding Father of the New Republic to sign the Declaration of Independence, the alliance with France, the peace treaty with Britain, and the Constitution—has long been a favorite of readers and writers of American history. If we count the number of new books, articles, and media presentations involving Franklin...

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Introduction: Benjamin Franklin’s Enlightened Medicine

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pp. 1-16

In 1784 an experiment was conducted in a sunbathed garden in Passy, a beautiful village along the Seine River, then just a few miles outside Paris. It involved a suggestible twelve-year-old boy with an unspecified medical disorder, his well-connected physician, a select group of observers, and some well-cared-for apricot trees...

Part I: The Colonist and Medicine

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Chapter 1. Poor Richard’s Medicine

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pp. 19-36

Much of what we know about Franklin’s early life comes from the first part of his Autobiography. His father, Josiah, was an English religious “dissenter,” who sailed for Boston with his wife, Anne, and three children in 1682. Strong and hard working, Josiah supported his family by making candles and soap in what was then a small city of 6,000 inhabitants...

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Chapter 2. In Praise of Exercise

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pp. 37-48

Despite his emphasis on staying healthy in addition to becoming wealthy and wise, Poor Richard says almost nothing about the importance of exercise. Yet Franklin, like other well-read people in the eighteenth century, knew that some exercise should be a part of any regimen for maintaining good health. In fact, although Franklin is usually portrayed...

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Chapter 3. The Smallpox Wars

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pp. 49-65

In 1772, Benjamin Franklin responded to some flattering words from his sister Jane Mecom about his young grandson, Benny Bache, who was then just three. While writing back about this “uncommonly fine boy,” his thoughts shifted to his son Franky, “now dead 36 years, whom I have seldom since seen equal’d in every thing, and whom to this Day I cannot think...

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Chapter 4. The Citizen and the Hospital

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pp. 66-79

On February 10, 1752, American cultural and medical history was made in Philadelphia. That day, two patients, Margaret Sherlock and Hannah Shines, were admitted to the temporary building that would be used until construction could be completed on a recently approved new building for the city’s Pennsylvania Hospital...

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Chapter 5. Electricity and the Palsies

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pp. 80-101

We have seen that Franklin was a collector, disseminator, and printer of medical information, and a publicist willing to involve himself in worthy causes. He was concerned with preventative medicine and dealing with infectious diseases at the individual level...

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Chapter 6. Electricity, Mental Disorders, and a Modest Proposal

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pp. 102-114

Franklin recognized that a medical treatment that may not work with the common paralytic disorder might still be beneficial with other disorders. This chapter examines Franklin’s use of medical electricity with hysteria and melancholia, two conditions that were viewed very differently in the eighteenth century than they are today...

Part II: Medicine In Great Britain

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Chapter 7. Friends and Medical Connections

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pp. 117-132

Benjamin Franklin made two extended diplomatic trips to England prior to the American War for Independence. Both occurred because he was active in the Pennsylvania Assembly, which represented the citizens of the colony. In the first mission, from 1757 to 1762, his main goal was to try to convince the two surviving sons of William Penn...

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Chapter 8. Scotland and the First American Medical School

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pp. 133-150

When time permitted, Franklin left London for two reasons. One, as we have seen, was to get the exercise associated with traveling, which he believed was beneficial to body and mind. The other was to meet and exchange ideas with some of the most learned men...

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Chapter 9. Colds, the Weather, and the Invisible World

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pp. 151-164

Benjamin Franklin enjoyed reasonably good health for a heavyset male living in the eighteenth century, at least until fairly late in life. Yet, like everyone else, he did catch colds, flus, and other illnesses. During the fall of 1757, soon after he arrived in London...

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Chapter 10. Fresh Air and Good Health

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pp. 165-180

Franklin’s theory of colds emphasized the transmission of foul matter to susceptible, unregimented bodies. In his estimation, minute particles, most likely of animal matter, bore the responsibility for colds, flus, and related diseases. One ramification of his theory was that he became even more upset at the thought of being forced to breathe...

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Chapter 11. The Perils of Lead

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pp. 181-196

During his stay in England, Franklin received a letter from Cadwalader Evans, the physician he had worked with in 1752 to treat C.B.’s hysteria with electricity (see Chapter 6). He had recently written to Evans to ask what books were now on the shelves of the library...

Part III: Le Docteur In France

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Chapter 12. French Medicine and Health Imperatives

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pp. 199-218

In 1780, while in France, Franklin received a letter from Dr. James Potter in New Fairfield, Connecticut. A year earlier, Potter had been elected president of “the first Medical Society in the thirteen United States of America Since their Independence.”...

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Chapter 13. The Folly of Mesmerism

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pp. 219-234

The major episode of medical significance during Franklin’s tenure in France, and indeed one of the most important in terms of psychology, psychiatry, and medicine, involved mesmerism, the best remembered healing fad of the century...

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Chapter 14. From Music Therapy to the Music of Madness

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pp. 235-250

On July 13, 1762, just prior to departing England, Franklin penned a letter to Father Giambatista Beccaria, a professor of natural philosophy and the most ardent supporter of his electrical science in Italy.1 Beccaria had sent a new treatise on electricity to Franklin, and Franklin...

Part IV: Old Age, Illnesses, and the Doctor’s Death

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Chapter 15. Bifocals and the Aging Inventor

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pp. 253-266

The previous set of chapters on Franklin’s medical forays in France made brief mention of two of his health problems. One was his painful gout, which was flaring up with increased frequency and intensity. When it attacked, it was difficult for him to walk or stand for extended periods...

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Chapter 16. Skin and “Scurf ”

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pp. 267-275

On January 29, 1777, Jan Ingenhousz wrote a letter from his desk in Vienna to Franklin in Passy. “My journey to Ratisborn is fixed upon the 10 or 12 of April, if nothing hinders me, where I will inoculate the two sons of the Reigning Prince of Tour [Thurn] and Taxis, after which I should be very glad to take a trip to Paris and to have the great satisfaction...

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Chapter 17. The Gout as Your Friend?

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pp. 276-293

Gout received considerable attention in classical antiquity.1 The Hippocratic physicians believed that it resulted from a humoral condition, usually too much bile or an overabundance of thickened phlegm. They had different names for gouty accumulations in different parts of the body...

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Chapter 18. A Debilitating Stone

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pp. 294-308

In 1785, when Franklin finally received the permission he had long sought to return home, his movements were severely restricted, not just by his gout but because of a large kidney stone...

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Chapter 19. The Limits of Medicine

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pp. 309-323

One of the most notable observations about Franklin in his senior years is just howsharp his intellect remained, as exemplified by the prosthetic devices and aids that he developed and his letters, including the highly informative epistle he sent to Benjamin Vaughan...

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Epilogue: Franklin’s Medical Legacy

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pp. 324-330

In 1706, the year of Franklin’s birth, the seeds for the medical Enlightenment that had been planted by Francis Bacon and nurtured by Thomas Sydenham were just starting to break through the ground in Western Europe and were just about to germinate...


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p. 331-331

E-ISBN-13: 9780812201918
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812239133

Page Count: 400
Publication Year: 2006

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Subject Headings

  • Franklin, Benjamin, 1706-1790.
  • Medicine -- United States -- History -- 18th century.
  • Scientists -- United States -- Biography.
  • Scientists -- United States -- History -- 18th century.
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