Meat and Medicine in Early New England

Ann Leighton explains how food, folklore, and tradition all influenced the pilgrims' battle against disease.

Medical practice among the early settlers in New England was, from the beginning, very much their own affair. The tradition in the various places in England from which the settlers came had bred into them the assumption that they should themselves try every possible cure before resorting to a doctor. So, trained medical men who ‘came over’ might find themselves, like Giles Firmin of Ipswich, Mass., who performed the first ‘anatomy’ in New England, unable to make a living and forced to return to England.

Or they might find themselves in the predicament of Samuel Fuller, a physician who came with the Pilgrims and, when called upon to help with illness in Endecott’s Salem colony, found that he lacked sufficient drugs. Fuller was used to being loaned out, as when he made one day’s work of bleeding twenty people in Matapan, and he must have felt his Salem failure sadly. Inadvertently, however, he achieved immortality upon that occasion by advising them on how to separate from the English Church, thus reversing the general rule so lauded by Cotton Mather whereby the local divines felt competent to practise medicine on the side.

Later in the century, ambitious physicians might find their patients actually challenging their practice, as when the influential Samuel Sewall himself ‘watched’ at the bedsides of his wife and other members of his Boston household. He had three doctors in attendance, yet he did not hesitate to inquire into their treatments, which consisted mainly of opiates and did not impress him.

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