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  • Revolutionary Medicine: The Founding Fathers and Mothers in Sickness and in Health by Jeanne E. Abrams
  • Melissa Grafe
Revolutionary Medicine: The Founding Fathers and Mothers in Sickness and in Health. By Jeanne E. Abrams (New York, New York University Press, 2013) 306 pp. $30.00

How did medicine look through the eyes of our founding fathers and their families? In Revolutionary Medicine, Abrams, a scholar of Jewish studies, makes a foray into early American medicine to describe the medical experiences of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John and Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and, to a lesser extent, James Madison. Abrams’ “three main goals” are to “demonstrate the critical” roles of these founders in the development of America’s public healthcare [End Page 85] system, to examine the personal encounters with illness that encouraged them to support “surprisingly modern notions” of health, and to “illuminate” colonial and early American medical practice as well as to provide “salutary lessons for our time” (5).

Abrams bases much of her research on the collections and papers of Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. Her book is filled with detailed accounts of how illness and disease battered them and their families. Yet, even with the benefit of such a rich archive of source material, Abrams’ work offers little in the way of new scholarship. For example, her description of the outbreak of smallpox during the Revolutionary War through Washington’s experiences fails to expand on Elizabeth Fenn’s similar work in Pox Americana, which was published more than a decade ago.1

Abrams could have delved more deeply into the many ways that medicine and medical practice entered into the lives of her subjects. She writes that Franklin became a mentor to a number of American physicians studying in Europe, like Benjamin Rush and John Morgan, but she does not go into any detail about exactly how he influenced them (101). Abrams mentions William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine—a popular “self-help” medical guide reprinted throughout the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century—several times in reference to its use by Abigail Adams (19–20, 133, 148), but she fails to cite the other medical works that comprised the founders’ libraries and probably also had some bearing on their medical knowledge.

A cursory analysis of Abrams’ bibliography and notes reveals that she relied heavily on standard histories of medicine for this time period, as well as on biographies of Washington, Franklin, Adams, Madison, Jefferson, and their families. She rarely consulted histories of colonial and early America, the Atlantic World, and international/global health that could have contributed to a deeper understanding of the world in which these men and women lived. Abrams does not seem to cross disciplinary boundaries in Revolutionary Medicine.

Parts of the book are repetitive. Smallpox, which makes a similar appearance in every chapter, undoubtedly touched the lives of the founding fathers and their families, but surely Abrams could have found a better way to present this recurring theme? Nonetheless, Revolutionary Medicine, though not revolutionary itself, is a solid descriptive account of the medical world of our founding fathers. [End Page 86]

Melissa Grafe
Yale University


1. Elizabeth A. Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775–82 (New York, 2001).



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