With bipartisan controversy over the Affordable Care Act, one may wonder what the founding fathers would think of today’s American health care system. Professor Jeanne Abrams’ recently published book, “Revolutionary Medicine: The Founding Fathers and Mothers in Sickness and in Health” (NYU Press, 2013), gives us a glimpse into the health care of our earliest citizens.
“‘Revolutionary Medicine’ provides an in-depth look at the health, illnesses, and medical endeavors of a collective group of America’s founders against the backdrop of 18th-century American medicine,” says Abrams, a professor at the University Libraries and the Center for Judaic Studies and director of the Rocky Mountain Jewish Historical Society. The book was named as one of the 12 “Top Books for Docs” for 2013 by Medscape, an online magazine/resource for physicians.
Abrams dug deep into the personal letters of George and Martha Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John and Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James and Dolley Madison, all prolific and highly articulate letter writers, to learn about the state of health care during colonial times.
“I literally sifted through thousands and thousands of letters in my research, not to mention more formal writings,” Abrams says. “Thomas Jefferson alone wrote more than 18,000 letters.”
Before the advent of modern antibiotics, reliable antiseptics and anesthesia, one’s life could be abruptly shattered by contagion and death, and debility from infectious diseases and epidemics was commonplace for early Americans, regardless of social status, according to Abrams.
“As both victims of illness and national leaders, the founding fathers and their families occupied a unique position regarding the development of public health in America,” Abrams says. “Studying the encounters of these founders with illness and disease not only provides us with a richer and more nuanced insight into their lives, but also opens a window into the practice of medicine in the 18th century. They recognized early on that government had compelling reasons to shoulder some new responsibilities to ensure the health and well-being of its citizenry.”