Read CHAPTER FIVE of Medicine in Virginia‚ 1607-1699 , free online book, by Thomas P. Hughes, on



Historical evidence does not support Byrd’s description of the typical physician as a discarded ship’s surgeon.  In contrast, the physician, whatever his competence may have been, emerges from the sources as a respected member of the colony who, besides his medical practice, engaged in farming sizable holdings of land and took part in the civic life of the colony.  His private life was not unlike that of the other planters who enjoyed some wealth and professional standing.  The reputable surgeon, who could also supplement his income from farming, probably enjoyed an existence not unlike that of the physicians, considering that the distinction between them in the New World was slight.

Dr. Blanton, in his volume on medicine in Virginia, created a lively portrait of what he imagines from his researches to be the seventeenth-century Virginia doctor.  The doctor is seen: 

dressed in knee breeches and jerkin, perhaps adorned with periwig and cap; not given to church-going, but fond of ale, horse-racing and cuss words; husband of a multiparous wife; owner of a log cabin home or at best a frame cottage which he guarded with gun, pistol and scimitar; his road a bridle path and his means of conveyance a horse or boat ... reading ... by candle light, without spectacles; writing with a goose quill pen; sitting on a rough stool or bench; eating at a crude table from pewter dishes, without fork or table knife; having no knowledge of bath tubs; keeping his clothes in trunk or chest; sleeping, night-capped, on a flock bed in a bedroom shared by others; dividing his time, which he measured with hour-glass and sundial, among medicine, politics and farming; often in court, often a justice, member of Council or Burgesses, and subject, like his neighbors, to military service.


Englishmen and Europeans planted Virginia in the New World and brought the Old World’s medical knowledge and medical practices with them.  In Europe and England, the seventeenth century witnessed the perfection of new and scientific theories in medicine ­it was the century of Harvey ­but little original and fruitful in the field of practice ­Dr. Sydenham might be considered an exception.

In Virginia, the prior occupants had accumulated medical knowledge, too, and the Indians practiced in a manner not completely unlike that of the whites:  bloodletting, purging, and sweating (all to the end of relieving the body of ill humors or morbid matter).  The Indians, however, did not believe it right or good to impart their knowledge to the layman, Indian or European; therefore, cross-fertilization between the two schools of medicine was limited.

In planning for the colony, the London Company took into account that health would influence the fortunes of the new settlement.  The Company warned the original settlers to choose a site in a healthful location, but the colonists elected Jamestown Island which was low and moist.  Provided two surgeons by the Company, the original settlers needed not only more surgeons but physicians as well:  the surgeons could treat the wounds, sprains, and breaks of a military-colonizing expedition, but physicians were needed to meet conditions that developed in Jamestown.

In subsequent boatloads of settlers, physicians did come ­and some were well-trained and experienced ­but the small number that arrived during the period when the London Company administered the colony (1606-24) could not meet the demands of disease and famine.  During the first summer more than one-half the original settlers perished:  during the Starving Time (1609-10) the population dropped from 500 to 60 and in the spring these 60 almost abandoned Virginia.  A deadly combination of new environment, famine, and epidemic disease, such as typhoid, played a major part in determining the course of events during the first two decades of the colony’s life, and near death.

After Virginia became a Crown colony, famine and disease no longer influenced affairs so greatly, not because of the wise administration of the Crown, but because the colonists had better learned what was necessary to cope with health conditions in the New World.  No longer did they consider disease and famine minor threats compared to those from the Indians and Spaniards.  They planned their ocean voyages so as to arrive in the fall and thus avoid the dread summer sickness while still too weak from the voyage to resist it; they located their outer settlements on higher and drier land, at the end of the century even moving their capital to Williamsburg, known for its temperate and healthful climate.

The physicians and surgeons, however, who came later in the century were not as distinguished as their earlier counterparts.  As the century passed, many men trained by apprenticing themselves in Virginia.  Whether immigrant or indigenous, the medical men used orthodox European techniques:  they bled and purged, sweated and dispensed drugs, to obtain these ends.  Some of the drugs were native to Virginia and the colonists exported them for a profit, but the more expensive ­and efficacious ­had to be imported.  There is evidence that the level of medical excellence in Virginia lowered during the century; many of the planters avoided the expensive visits and drugs, even passing laws to regulate fees and chastise lax and inadequate practitioners.

Women, clergymen, and laymen all treated the sick and wounded of the period, with the women especially active as midwives; with the clergy producing such an outstanding medical man as the Reverend John Clayton; and with the laymen acquiring enough information, perhaps from a few medical books, in order to practice, themselves, in case a doctor were unavailable or undesired.