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Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 58.3 (2003) 379-380

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Rebecca J. Tannenbaum. The Healer’s Calling: Women and Medicine in Early New England. Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press, 2002. xviii, 179 pp. illus. $34.95 (cloth).

In this succinct but carefully documented book, Rebecca Tannenbaum dispels conventional images of medical practice in colonial New England by focusing on the essential role played by women. Although female midwives have long been recognized as important by historians of medicine, and have received much interest from the general public since Laurel Ulrich’s prizewinning The Midwife’s Tale, the women healers described and analyzed here have been less well known. Using “healers” in its broadest sense, Tannenbaum discusses three kinds of female healers active at a time when most New Englanders lived in small towns and rural areas, when medical diagnosis depended on observation and therapeutics on traditional remedies, and when medicine was just emerging as a profession. She demonstrates that medical practice enabled women to exhibit personal authority and promote the interests of their own sex. Healing also reinforced their position in the community, where they interacted with political and religious leaders.

Throughout the seventeenth century and well into the next, women in all social classes diagnosed illness in their own families and those of their neighbors, prepared and administered herbal remedies, and nursed the sick throughout long periods of crisis and convalescence. This form of domestic medical practice was inextricably linked to women’s roles as housewives, mothers, and sometimes as daughters, but it also served to create female networks that fulfilled valuable social functions and linked women to the larger community. Through their interactions with the sick, they were expected to uphold morality and acceptable standards of behavior; thus, the author’s choice of “a calling” to describe women’s medical practice. As healers, they demonstrated devotion to their families, neighbors, communities, and religion.

Despite the important work already published on midwives, Tannenbaum includes them as a second, separate group of female healers who limited their practice to childbirth and disorders associated with female reproductive organs. Midwives had special prominence in female networks and were esteemed by husbands who depended on them to safely deliver their wives and care for their newborn children. Midwives’ prestige and authority were also enhanced by their role in the legal system where they gave testimony in cases regarding paternity, bastardy, and rape, and their testimony invariably persuaded the court. The author’s discussion of the significance of midwives [End Page 379] in colonial jurisprudence would have been enhanced if she had shown the relationship to legal practices in England where for several centuries midwives had been charged with similar responsibilities.

Women who were paid for their medical services are the third group of female healers (though midwives too were usually paid in cash or kind). These were the nurses hired by wealthier families to assist with care in the home and the “doctoresses,” who had greater skills than the ordinary housewife/healer and performed similarly to male doctors. Tannenbaum gives examples of women who acted as bonesetters, performed minor surgery, and in one instance ran a small smallpox hospital. The doctoresses (as they were then called) often provided complete medical care in their own homes for the chronically ill or infectious patients whose families could not or would not do so.

Despite the general acceptance of female healers, gender did make a difference if a woman was too assertive, too independent, or otherwise offended social norms. Tannenbaum suggests that some New England witchcraft trials were the result of the fears that such women inspired among their neighbors. The discussion of witchcraft includes many examples, from Anne Hutchinson, who was a midwife as well as an opponent of the religious and political leaders of Massachusetts Bay colony, to many less well-known female healers whose practices suggested magical potions. Here, again, reference to European precedents would have informed the discussion.

Tannenbaum’s sources include diaries, letters, and a remarkable...


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pp. 379-380
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