How the 18th Century Responded to Illness Before Netflix and Zoom

In these uncertain times, we’ve been reflecting on how the founding generation lived and dealt with illness, just as we’re all doing today. We took a look at how six prominent Bostonians managed illness in their lives before the times of widespread vaccines and constant social media updates. Read on to learn more about Dr. Joseph Warren, Paul Revere, Dorothy Quincy Hancock, John and Abigail Adams, and Dr. Thomas Young.

Dr. Joseph Warren was a prominent member of the Sons of Liberty in Boston, and lived just around the corner from the Old State House, near where Government Center stands today.  While he was known for his bombastic orations and fiery essays, his primary profession was as a medical doctor. During the years leading up to the Revolution, Dr. Warren saw many patients, including young Christopher Seider, who was shot and killed by the loyalist Ebenezer Richardson, which was one of the events that helped spark the Boston Massacre. As Boston became more dangerous, Dr. Warren found himself in the thick of rising animosity between British soldiers and Patriots. Much like how doctors today are exposed to life-threatening circumstances in our hospitals, Dr. Warren continued to make house calls in 1775 to both Patriots and Loyalists alike, despite threats on his life.

Noted rabblerouser Paul Revere was well-known for his support of the Patriot cause. He was also known for standing his ground when it came to the health and safety of his family. During the smallpox epidemic of 1763, one of his young daughters became sick. Pandemic management in colonial Boston was more draconian than it is today and upon hearing of the infection, officials demanded the young girl be thrown in a “pest house.” Despite the prospect of losing business, Revere refused and instead put his entire household under elective quarantine, complete with a flag raised above his house denoting infection inside. Fortunately, his methods were successful—his family made a full recovery and Revere was quickly back to his trouble making. He remained an advocate for public health and was later elected as the first chairman of Boston’s Board of Health in 1799.

Dorothy Quincy Hancock was the accomplished wife of the first Massachusetts state governor, John Hancock, who worked before, during, and after the Revolution at the Old State House. In 1775 she was living in Lexington with Lydia Hancock, the aunt of her then fiance, to escape the dangers of occupied Boston. Despite their efforts to remove themselves from this danger, it found them early in the morning on April 19th, when the Battle of Lexington and Concord erupted nearby. Dorothy helped care for two wounded British soldiers who were carried to their residence. While she tended to them out of extreme circumstance, Dorothy was an impromptu nurse to those who needed it, much like volunteers and retired nurses today.

John Adams was a lawyer, politician, and Patriot who, although infamous for his prickly demeanor, is also well remembered for his affectionate relationship with his wife, Abigail. The couple exchanged countless letters throughout their lives, especially when separated by great distance as was the case when John was inoculated for smallpox in 1764 before their marriage. Inoculation was not commonplace and even feared in 1764, but John underwent the procedure to keep himself and others safe from the disease. Even while he and Abigail continued their correspondence during this time, they took extreme precautions—smoking their letters on either end to prevent the disease transmitting to anyone who might touch them and refusing to see each other in person as much as they might want to. Later in their lives together, Abigail chose to inoculate herself and their four small children in 1776 while John was away at the Continental Congress.

In 1764, Dr. Thomas Young was a strong advocate of ingrafting, a form of inoculation often used against smallpox. While in Salisbury, a small town in the remote Northwest corner of Connecticut, Young and his close friend Ethan Allen of Vermont fame, began advocating for inoculation. But the people of Salisbury were wary of the practice—the idea of preventing a disease by using the disease itself seemed suspect. Dr. Young publicly inoculated Ethan Allen on the steps of the Salisbury meeting house to demonstrate the effectiveness of the process. Allen remained healthy, but both men faced trouble. Because they did not get permission from the town selectmen for their experiment, Allen had charges brought against him and Dr. Young’s reputation and practice suffered. He eventually had to leave town, first for Albany and then Boston in 1765 where he became an active and vocal Patriot leader.

How are you and your loved ones managing social distancing and isolation? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Illustrations by Katherine Livingston.

7 thoughts on “How the 18th Century Responded to Illness Before Netflix and Zoom

  1. MaryTheresa Saurman says:

    Thank you so mush. You guys are “The Best”. When living in Boston was a proud member. The lectures were always very informative & found great gifts from your bookshop. Take care & carry-on!

  2. Lorna Hainesworth says:

    Thanks for the articles. Hope to see more like these on various topics in the future. With today’s work at home, online learning and vast communication methods, one wonders how these folks ever managed without an Internet.

  3. Tom McClintock says:

    All interesting information. The common theme I see is the decisiveness of leadership to take risks that others considered too dangerous: self-quarantining; self-inoculation. Also understanding the higher call to care for others, even those with political differences.

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