Wednesday, November 13, 2013

So You Want To Be A Colonial America?

Portrait of 18th century Surgeon John Hunter by Joshua Reynolds
During the early days of Colonial America, university trained physicians were few and far between. Most doctors, trained in Europe, were quite comfortable remaining in their homeland and had no desire to brave the wilds of the New World. Many of the doctors who came and remained in 17th and 18th century America were ship's surgeons or apothecaries, at best. There were, however, a few brave medical souls who found the idea of chartering unknown territory a desirable, even exciting one. As time went by, more and more young colonists were sent to Europe for their medical training and returned home to serve the needs of the pioneering folk of the thirteen colonies.

One practice that prevailed all the way into the middle of the 19th century was that of young men apprenticing to established doctors. The term of the apprenticeship averaged five to seven years and usually commenced between the ages of 14 and 18. The young apprentice would pay a fee of about $300 and for that he would be given room and board, often in the physician's own home, training, and finally a certificate of completion along with medical books and a set of pocket tools to begin his professional life. He might even receive the skeleton of the body stolen from the churchyard with which he had received much of his education!

By Vincent de Groot 
The first phase of his training was termed "reading with the doctor." During this time he would be given reading assignments from medical texts and would be tested on the information as well as instructed to recite what he had learned. He would also observe and, later, assist with patients who came to the doctor's office. Skills involving bloodletting, tooth extraction, and the care of wounds would be learned in this way. Many doctors of the time mixed and dispensed their own medicine so the apprentice would spend much time learning to grind, mix, and prepare needed drugs.

The second phase of training was called "riding with the doctor," in which the student/assistant would accompany the doctor as he attended his patients in their homes. The apprentice listened and observed the doctor and on the way home would discuss the diagnosis and method of treatment. He would assist the doctor during these house calls and toward the end of his training would be sent out on his own to check on patients under his teacher's care. For 200 years, 90 percent of American doctors were trained under the apprenticeship method and even as late as the mid 19th century, more than half had still been trained in this manner.

Men did not pursue medicine to become wealthy. Especially away from the larger towns, patients might pay their doctors with produce or eggs from their own farms. Perhaps I'll drop my health insurance and stock up on canned tomatoes from my garden instead. What do you say, Doc?  

Have a good week, dear Reader. Thanks for stopping by...Y'all come back now!


(My thanks to the Galter Health Sciences of Northwestern University for this research. You may read more at .   Skeleton photo: - (Own work) [GFDL (,  CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-5 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Another interesting tidbit. t