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.

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