Thesis Research on Domestic Medicine

Learning about the daily life of women, children and families in colonial New England is one of my passions. I work in medical research as a statistician, and am especially interested in how mothers treated illness in their family before calling in a doctor in the 1600s and 1700s. By today’s standards, there were not a lot of good options available to them. But our knowledge and belief systems are not the correct way to gauge or judge our ancestors. Rather, we need to learn about and come to understand their knowledge and belief systems, and make any judgements within the context of their systems, not our systems.

The medical system in the 1600s was a complex mix of scientific theories dating back to 200 CE, superstition, folklore, and astrology. The predominating theory in the 1600s was based on Hippocrates ideas, and Galen’s expansion of those theories. Galenic medicine states that there were 4 humors in the body and disease was caused when the humors were out of balance. Treatments were designed to bring the humors back into balance. Treatments from the doctor often included cupping, venesection (bleeding) or food or herbal treatments.

Home remedies primarily included food and herbal treatments. However, treatments derived from the belief that astrological events strengthened the power of some treatments, or magical properties of plants or objects, are also found.  Medical scientific theory began to change in this time period and alchemy, or the use of metals such as mercury, began to be used.

My thesis research to complete my Master’s in History is a case study of a book of medicinal recipes passed down through several generations of women in colonial New England. I will examine which types of recipes (receipts in colonial-speak) are in this book, whether this mix of recipes changed over time, and if these recipes are similar to other recipe books of the same time frame.

As medicine is such an important part of any time period, I encourage you to learn more about the medical theories and treatments that were used in the time period you are researching. As I continue my research, I will occasionally post what I am learning. I hope that you will also share what you are learning in the comments field.

Research Plan for Understanding the Loyalists

As a follow-up to the previous post about avoiding pinball genealogy through the use of research plans, I have created a research plan to learn more about the Loyalists so I can better understand Thomas Sumner. This research plan is a social history research plan, and not the kind typically used in genealogy to find a new name, date, or place. However, the idea and strategies are similar.

Objective #1: Learn what motivated the Loyalists and why many had to leave and where they went.

Objective #2: Learn what challenges they faced and what life was like for them in the colonies and their new location.

Objective #3: Learn some of the possible reasons why Thomas had to leave, while some of his family members with similar political views were allowed to stay.

I have read that about 1/3 of the colonists were Patriots, 1/3 were Loyalists and 1/3 were somewhat neutral. Depending on locale, Loyalists were persecuted and subject to confiscation of their property (voluntarily or otherwise) and physical violence, including tar and feathering. Thomas lived in Vermont and was well-connected as a judge. He was forced to leave because of his views and lost his property. He went to Nova Scotia (I think) and submitted several petitions to the English government for reparations for the property he lost. He presumably died in Toronto, although at least one of his children returned to Vermont and settled there.


  • Liberty’s Exiles by Maya Jasanoff
  • Tories: Fighting for the King in America’s First Civil War by Thomas B. Allen
  • Murdered By His Wife by Deborah Navas


Read each of the books listed above and locate additional relevant resources in the footnotes and bibliographies for each book. The first 2 books provide background on Loyalists in general, the 3rd is the true story of murder by a Loyalist woman. These will provide answers to Objectives 1 and 2. Once this is done, I will draw up a research plan for Objective 3.

What events are you interested in learning about? What does your research plan look like?

Avoiding “Pinball Genealogy”

DearMYRT coined the phrase “pinball genealogy” in a recent post. When I first saw the title (and before reading the post) I came up with my own definition: not having any type of research plan in place and jumping from clue or clue, or document to document, with no thought of where I might go next.

DearMYRT’s definition goes in a slightly different direction. She writes that pinball genealogy is bouncing from document to document “without fully considering the info each contains.” (emphasis added).

Whether using my definition or hers, the problem is the same. Key clues about identities and relationships are missed, and the hit or miss approach leads to not fully searching and evaluating the relevant records. Research plans help avoid this mistake.

Research plans are critical to any type of research. They help identify research goals, clarify what is known, identify resources that need to be examined, and help keep track of additional sources we find in our research. They also help keep us focused and organized.

Key elements of a research plan include:

The objective: Objectives should be simple and focused. Good example of objectives include: Finding the marriage date and place of my paternal grandparents, or locating the birthplace of my maternal grandfather. Researching the entire life of my maternal grandmother is much too large of an objective. In order to bring this to fruition, a series of objectives and related research plans must be explored.

Summary of what is known: One of the first things told to beginning genealogists is to start with what you know. See what is around the house, or in the files of your great-aunt, who is the family historian. The same applies with research. Starting with what you know (even if it’s just family lore that has yet to be proved) can give you clues to start. For example, if you know that the first child was born in 1902, a likely date to search for a marriage would be 1900 or so.

Sources to examine: Once you have written what you know, it’s time to start thinking about which sources might be of help. Would a federal or state census provide information? Are church or vital records available online, in a repository, or on microfilm at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City? Is a published genealogy available? Identify all sources, along with relevant call numbers or URLs and include them in your research plan.

Research Strategy: Come up with a plan to examine all the sources listed above. This plan could include dates by which a specific resource will be examined, or could group resources in like places (such as within the same county) together so that you can visit them all on the same day. Many people find it helpful to go to the online catalog of a library or other repository you are planning to visit and build a research plan from what is available there. This ensures that when you are at the repository that you can put your time to the best use, since you have already identified the resources to examine and written down the call numbers ahead of time.

As you go through the resources you have identified, accommodate new resources that you become aware of, and add them to your plan.

Additional reading about building a research plan with examples:

How have research plans helped you in the past?

Upcoming history and genealogy events in Greater Boston

There are many upcoming history and genealogy events in the Greater Boston area. Here is a sampling:

New England Historic Genealogical Society
(click on the “Resources” tab and the “Programs” link)
One Colonial Woman’s World: The Life and Writings of Mehetabel Chandler Coit
February 6, 6:00, free and open to the public

Colonial Society of Massachusetts
Free and open to the public
Mapping the Boston Poor: Inmates of the Boston Almshouse, 1795–1815
February 21 at 3:00 p.m.

Boston Athenaeum
Painting Women: Women Artists from 1860 to 1960
February 26, 6:00, open to the public

Ancestry Day with NEHGS
March 2, all day, pre-registration required and there is a fee
Full-day conference with & NEHGS. See link for more information about classes that will be offered.

Massachusetts Historical Society
Open to the public
Massachusetts and the Civil War: The Commonwealth and National Disunion
April 4-6

Seminars (most meet monthly) on the following topics. Free and open to the public.
Boston Area Early American History
Boston Environmental History
Boston Immigration & Urban History
History of Women and Gender
New England Biography

Exhibitions: Free and open to the public.
“Proclaim Liberty Throughout all the Land”: Boston Abolitionists 1831-1865
February 22 to May 24

Forever Free: Lincoln & the Emancipation Proclamation
January 2 to May 24

Lincoln in Manuscript & Artifact
January 2 to May 24

New England Family History Conference
March 30, Franklin, MA. Free and open to the public. Pre-registration advised.
Annual conference sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Several tracks of interest to all genealogists (regardless of religious affiliation) are offered throughout the day.

Boston Public Library at Copley (main library)
Local and Family History Lecture Series
Twice a month talks on local and family history
Free and open to the public

New England Regional Genealogical Consortium, Inc.
This multi-day genealogy conference covers a variety of topics of genealogical research, and some talks touch on social history. Attending this conference is a great way to learn and to network with fellow genealogists. Sign up for a day if you can’t come for the entire conference.
April 17-21, Manchester, New Hampshire

The Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife
Foodways in the Northeast: A Second Helping
June 21-23, Deerfield, MA
This is one I would definitely like to attend. I am working on a master’s in history and my thesis will be about medicinal recipes used in the home (before a doctor was called, at least theoretically). Most of the homemade medicines of the time were made from herbs and other plants, so I will learn quite a bit. As I have been doing research in preparation for writing the thesis, I spoke with the food historian or food expert at 3 or the 4 sites below and they were very helpful. It was also nice to learn from each of the sites as they each have a different focus and cover various time periods.

Historic Deerfield and other living history villages in the area offer programs throughout the year on heirloom gardening, hearth cooking and other “day to day” life activities of our ancestors.
Historic Deerfield
Old Sturbridge Village
Plimoth Plantation
Strawbery Banke Museum

Don’t forget to check your local library, your local historical society and your local genealogical society to see what they have planned. Also, there are numerous on-line offerings in social history and genealogy.