Eighteenth Century Science

Interest in the Natural WorldIllustration_Helleborus_niger0

The colonists settling in America brought with them a mix of folklore, superstition, and scientific facts. Lightning strikes were attributed to the devil or evil spirits, and plagues were considered God’s punishment for sin. However, settlers in America also became a part of a growing shift towards scientific study and interest in the natural world as the new land inspired curiosity and receptiveness to new theories. Several people began to study botany, zoology, geography, and astronomy and others pursued chemistry and geology to improve industry. The Royal Society of London, formed in Europe in 1662 as an organization dedicated to scientific inquiry, kept in communication with America and several figures in the inoculation debate were members of this organization, including Cotton Mather. However, the line between science and religion remained blurry.


Despite the rise in scientific thought in the natural world, medicine was still primitive. The view of medicine in the eighteenth century was based on classical view of medicine suggesting that the body consisted of four “humors” corresponding to the four elements. These humors were blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. The common belief was that illness was a result of imbalance of these humors or between tension and reactivity in the body; most medicine was based on the principle of restoring this balance.

For this reason, bloodletting was an almost universal treatment, performed by trained doctors and common people alike. Bloodletting involved tying a cloth tightly above the elbow, cutting into a vein, and letting a certain amount of blood drain into a bowl to release excess heat (fever) and moisture (sweat). Opium was commonly used as a sedative and painkiller and mercury was prescribed to fight syphilis. In addition, apothecaries and “quacks” frequently sold their own homemade treatments.

Doctors had no anesthetics for surgery and germ theory was decades away. In addition, experimenting on the body was considered a sin since man was made in the image of God. Medical knowledge actually declined for a time in the colonies since most doctors were trained by apprenticeship rather than in the formal medical schools of Paris and London.

For a more information on the history of medicine, click the links below



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