J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Complete Medical Histories from the Founders

Jeanne E. Abrams’s Revolutionary Medicine: The Founding Fathers and Mothers in Sickness and in Health came out from New York University Press in 2013. Here are an H-Net review, a Journal of Interdisciplinary History review, a C-SPAN video, and a podcast discussion of the book on Liz Covart’s “Ben Franklin’s World” podcast.

I didn’t find the book to be as interesting as some other reviewers have. Most of it consists of chapters on George and Martha Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John and Abigail Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, with a few pages each on James and Dolley Madison and on Dr. Benjamin Rush. Each chapter takes the form of a capsule biography pinned with seemingly all details about its subjects’ health preserved in their papers. Thus, we read every mention of illness in letters or diaries, every known instance of ill health, every bit of health legislation, every possible diagnosis from a latter-day article.

However, those profiles don’t dig very deep below the surface. For example, some scholars have suggested that Abigail Adams, after suffering a health scare giving birth and losing a child, found a way to keep from becoming pregnant so often—possibly longer breast-feeding. But Adams didn’t write about that openly, so it doesn’t make the book. In fact, Revolutionary Medicine seems to have no discussion of birth control at all and only one mention of breast-feeding, which shows the limits of its approach.

Similarly, while these profiles offer an exhaustive discussion of the medical experiences of their elite subjects, they don’t delve far into how the bulk of families with less money experienced health crises and medical care. We learn—as if we didn’t already know—that eighteenth-century medicine was usually painful, disruptive, and useless, but the book doesn’t have much to say about why these people nonetheless thought they were getting the best care possible.

Abrams is Professor at Penrose Library and the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver, and her previous books are about Jewish immigrants to the American west in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. This book didn’t give me a sense that she was yet at home in the world of the eighteenth century, despite the extensive mining of the Founders’ personal papers.

Certainly Abrams seems to have a limited view of the consensus of the field. Page 180 says, “Despite decades of controversy, many historians now believe that it is unlikely that Jefferson conducted a liaison with Sally Hemings and that there is no verifiable proof that he fathered any of her children.” That’s backwards: most historians of early America today believe it likely that Thomas Jefferson had a long sexual relationship with Sally Hemings. Abrams doesn’t explain what she means by “verifiable proof” about the paternity of a child born two hundred years ago, but we have more biological evidence about Hemings’s children than about practically any others from the period.

Abrams ventures into modern politics in her book’s last paragraph, declaring that the Founders “surely would have balked at requiring all citizens to purchase health care insurance.” She doesn’t reconcile that statement with a fact reported on page 155, that President John Adams pushed for legislation requiring all American sailors to give up some of their wages to support the Marine Hospital Service—i.e., Adams’s administration required a class of its poorer citizens to purchase health care insurance.

Given how much Revolutionary Medicine says about the Founders’ very limited knowledge of medical science, I’m not sure how their opinions can carry much weight on modern medical policy anyway. We might as well ask if they’d require surgeons to scrub their hands before operating.

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