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Notes on America

by Michael H. Burchett

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NUMBER 2:  Summer 2004

Medicine in the Antebellum South
 

"Prior to 1860, such heroic remedies as bloodletting and violent purging were still popular.  Physicians, masters, and overseers frequently used the lancet and administered huge doses of castor oil, calomel, jalap, Glauber salts, and blue mass.  They were also generous patrons of the patent medicine manufacturers whose tonics, elixirs, and panaceas promised miraculous cures for every malady from carbuncles to cancer. Many still believed that various diseases were caused by atmospheric 'miasmata' resulting from decaying animal and vegetable matter; few fully understood the hygenic value of a piece of soap.  Add to this surviving mass of ignorance the shortage of properly trained physicians and the profusion of quacks -- hydropaths, eclectics, and botanics, among others-- and the picture of medical practice  in the Old South is a depressing one for both whites and blacks."

".... Late in the ante-bellum period trained physicians began to doubt the therapeutic value of bleeding and purging.  In 1859, a Georgia doctor deplored the application of these remedies to 'fever' patients before giving quinine.  It was a mistake, he affirmed, to think that Negroes could 'bear almost any amount of puking, purging, and bleeding.  The fact is, excessive physic[k]ing is a very common error in domestic practice, both among whites and negroes, and thousands are thus hurried to the grave annually.'"

 From Kenneth Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South, reissue edition  (Vintage Books, 1989).

Copyright 2004 Michael H. Burchett.  All rights reserved.

Suggested Readings:

Stampp, Kenneth. The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South, reissue edition  (Vintage Books, 1989).

Stowe, Steven M. Doctoring the South : Southern Physicians and Everyday Medicine in the Mid-Nineteenth Century (Studies in Social Medicine) (Chapel Hill:  U. of North Carolina Press, 2004).

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