Science and Medicine
Science and Medicine
In the late sixteenth century, Europeans began journeying to the region in North America that became the original thirteen colonies. Many explorers reported on the features of the land and the customs of native peoples. But their primary goal was to find a more direct sea route to Asia or acquire instant wealth from discovering precious metals. Then the English founded permanent settlements along the Atlantic coast. From that time on, North America was like a scientific laboratory, helping scientists test ancient theories about the size and shape of the Earth or the location of oceans. Mountains, rivers, lakes, and bays invited closer investigation. Soon ordinary colonizers and settlers became geographers, naturalists, and mapmakers as they ventured into the wilderness. Spanish naturalists (those who study plant and animal life) explored the American Southwest from their base of New Spain (now Mexico). In 1590 the Spaniard Jose de Acosta speculated on the origins of Native Americans in The Naturall and Morall Historie ofthe East and West Indies. From New France (now Canada) French naturalists set out on the Saint Lawrence River and explored the Great Lakes, eventually reaching the Mississippi River. Because the British colonies were more established than French and Spanish settlements, however, English achievements in science were more noteworthy.
Early Scientific Experiments
English surveyor Thomas Harriot may have performed some of the earliest scientific experiments in North America. In 1585 he was a member of an expedition, headed by English adventurer Walter Raleigh, to Roanoke Island, where the English hoped to start a permanent settlement. Harriot had the task of surveying the island and the surrounding area. In addition to conducting one of the earliest known statistical land surveys, he helped another member of the 1585 expedition, German scientist Joachim Ganz, search for copper and other precious metals. Twentieth-century archaeologists excavated the Roanoke site and found equipment that Harriot and Ganz probably used to test metals and ores.
Earliest American sciences
The first European focus of scientific study in America was geography, and the map was one of the most important tools. Some of the earliest geographic descriptions of the area that is now the United States were written by Englishmen who explored the Atlantic coast along present-day North Carolina and around the Chesapeake Bay (Virginia and Maryland). They made three trips to the area, which was then called the territory of Virginia, during the 1580s to try to start a permanent settlement on Roanoke Island (see Cha During an expedition in 1585 English mathematician and astronomer Thomas Harriot (1560–1621) conducted a detailed survey of the geographic features of Roanoke, nearby islands, and portions of the mainland. He also kept a journal of his observations of Native American customs. In 1588 Harriot published A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, primarily to encourage English colonization in North America. It is considered one of the earliest known large-scale statistical land surveys and possibly the first description of Native Americans to be written in English.
After the colony at Roanoke failed, the English did not return to North America for nearly twenty years. Then in April 1607 a party of 105 men arrived at the James River in present-day Virginia. They selected a site for a settlement and a fort so they could begin trading with local Native Americans. Some of the Englishmen immediately went hunting for gold. They soon discovered they were surrounded by the Powhatans, a powerful Native American confederation. Over nine difficult months 67 settlers died, and the survivors became entirely dependent on the Native Americans for food. Faced with an increasingly desperate situation, one of the colonists, an adventurer named John Smith (c. 1580–1631), decided to go exploring.
Smith emphasizes natural resources
As Smith sailed up the James River in search of food, he recognized the richness and abundance of the wilderness. He was one of the first Europeans to realize that success in America would not come from discovering gold or finding a waterway through the continent to China. Smith concluded that colonies should be established to cultivate and harvest the vast resources of the continent: crops yielded from the land, fish caught from the sea, and timber cut from the forests. Determined to discover the true riches of America, he journeyed north by boat to the Chesapeake Bay, where he visited and traded with Native Americans. He also recorded his observations of plant and animal life and made notes on the features of the land. Smith took a scientific approach to the New World: knowledge—not ships, guns, or gold—was the key to success in America.
When Smith returned to England in 1608, he began compiling the records he had kept in America. That year he published A Map of Virginia, a narrative description of the region accompanied by an accurate map of the Chesapeake Bay. Six years later, in 1614, Smith returned to America, this time voyaging along the northeast Atlantic coast and naming the area New England. Once again he took compass readings to produce an accurate map. His Description of New England, published in 1616, provided a wealth of information on harbors, islands, bays, and rivers. Smith described animal life, such as the "Moos, a beast bigger than a Stagge," and various types of fish found in the sea and rivers. He discussed the eagle, "diverse sorts of Hawkes," and other birds. He wrote about soil, vegetation, and the "most pure" waters "proceeding from the intrals [entrails; inside] of rockie mountaines." His description of Native American customs showed he had a gift for ethnography (the study of human cultures).
"Accidental" scientists expand knowledge
Smith was neither the first nor the last English explorer who found himself becoming an "accidental scientist," performing the tasks of geographer, cartographer (one who makes maps), naturalist, geologist, and ethnographer. Others who explored Virginia in the early 1600s and wrote about their travels were John Brereton, James Rosier, and William Strachey. A later generation of explorers yielded more information about North America when they ventured inland to the Appalachian Mountains. In 1651 John Farrer drew a map of Virginia that showed the Pacific Ocean to the west, on the other side of the mountains. Therefore, North America seemed to be a long, narrow strip of land separating the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Twenty years later Thomas Batts and Robert Fallam reached the top of the Appalachians, where they saw a vast territory, not a sea, extending to the west.
A more accurate description of the continent came with John Lederer's account of his journey to the Appalachians. Upon reaching the eastern edge of the mountains (the Blue Ridge), Lederer confirmed that the Pacific Ocean was not located on the other side. During the next century British colonists became aware of French exploration of the Mississippi River valley and lands even farther west. In 1750 Thomas Walker discovered the Cumberland Gap, one of the many passes through the mountains to Kentucky and other fertile lands. By the late 1700s there were few Appalachian locales not known to colonists or featured on maps.
French are important naturalists
The founder of New France, explorer Samuel de Champlain (1567–1635), was equal to John Smith in describing the natural history of North America (see Chapter 3). In addition to exploring the Saint Lawrence River valley down to the Great Lakes (a chain of five lakes on the border between Canada and the present-day United States) in 1603, from 1604 to 1607 Champlain traveled around the northeastern part of the continent. He sailed along the coast of present-day Maine and journeyed 150 miles inland. On another trip, he went down the coast of New England to the island that is now Martha's Vineyard, off Cape Cod. Although the English were exploring in the same area and eventually established the Plymouth Colony in 1620, Champlain was the first European to give a detailed account of the region. He is credited with describing Mount Desert Island as well as most of the major rivers in Maine.
In the late 1670s the French also led the way into the Mississippi River valley, which they called Louisiana in honor of King Louis XIV. Explorers who became naturalists were Louis Jolliet, Jacques Marquette, and Louis Hennepin. All three went down the Mississippi River, exploring the river's tributaries (streams or lakes), describing land features, and writing about native peoples (see Chapter 3). In 1718 French geographer Guillaume Delisle published a map of Louisiana that would guide explorers for the next half-century. Meanwhile, French and Spanish explorers were competing for control of the American coastline along the Gulf of Mexico. In the process they created maps that aided later ventures. From 1738 to 1743 the Frenchman Sieur de La Vérendrye and his two sons, Louis Joseph and François, traveled northwest to the Missouri River, describing the area that is now North Dakota and South Dakota. From accounts of their expedition Philippe Buache drew a detailed map of Louisiana and the Great Lakes in 1754.
Rocky Mountains sighted
During a journey from the Missouri River to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1739 and 1740, the brothers Pierre and Paul Mallet spotted unnamed mountains to the west—now known to be the Rocky Mountains. Spanish explorers penetrated the wilderness west and south of the Rockies. Eusebio Kino, an Austrian Jesuit missionary (a member of the Roman Catholic Society of Jesus who travels to foreign countries performing religious work; see Chapters 2 and 12), explored and described the Southwest and California. His 1705 map showed California to be not an island, as cartographer Henry Briggs had speculated in 1625, but part of the mainland.
"the most terrifying waterfall"
In 1678 Louis Hennepin, a Franciscan priest, led an exploring party from Fort Frontenac (Kingston, Ontario) down the Niagara River. Upon reaching Niagara Falls, he noted that they were "the most beautiful and altogether the most terrifying waterfall in the universe." Hennepin was the first person to write a description of the falls.
Settlers: Second wave of "scientists"
Settlers became the next American "scientists." They quickly realized that life in Europe had not prepared them for the wilderness. The basic necessities of life and society had to be constructed out of available resources. Adapting previously acquired knowledge to the requirements of the rugged environment, they developed their own tools and technologies. The most used resource in early America was wood. Forests of elm, oak, pine, maple, cherry, birch, walnut, and ash provided the basic materials needed for shelter, warmth, transportation, and trade. For instance, colonists used oak to produce staves (narrow strips of wood) for barrels to store and ship dry and wet goods. Black oak made excellent keels (long narrow structure attached to the bottom of ships). Some oaks produced an ingredient used to make writing ink. Carpenters fashioned elm into chairs and wagon wheels, walnut into gun stocks, and hemlock (a tree in the pine family) into flooring. Ship carpenters used locust for tunnels (wooden pegs) and yellow pine for ship decks. White pines, the tallest trees in the eastern forest, were cut, dragged to rivers, and then floated to shipyards, where craftsmen used them to make masts for ships. Ash was the favorite wood for kitchen utensils and fence rails. Some families made beer from the black spruce. Colonists joined Native Americans in preferring birch bark to the bark of other trees in the crafting of durable canoes.
A few colonial women had the abilities and courage to challenge the male scientific establishment. Hannah Pemberton of Philadelphia questioned the accepted explanation of earthquakes as signs of God's wrath. She was familiar with publications of the Royal Society of London and used them as a source for her rational, scientific explanation of earthquakes. Hannah Williams of South Carolina was a great collector of reptiles and insects, especially butterflies. Eliza Lucas Pinckney was a planter who conducted agricultural experiments on her South Carolina plantation, keeping notes on how various plants grew at different seasons. In 1744 she successfully produced a strain of indigo, a plant used to make a rich blue dye, which later became the staple crop of South Carolina. Perhaps the greatest female naturalist of the colonial period was Jane Colden of New York. Trained by her scientist father Cadwallader Colden, Jane became proficient in the Linnaean system of plant classification. By 1757 she had compiled a catalog of almost four hundred local plants. She was a published author and corresponded with leading European and American scientists. Jane Colden's example showed that with proper education and training, American women could make significant contributions to science.
The ax was the most important tool for the first settlers as well as those who later moved onto the advancing frontier. (An ax is a wedge of iron sharpened on one end and fitted into a hickory or ash handle.) With axes the settlers cleared forests for planting, cut rails for fencing, and split logs for firewood. They also built roads, which were at first merely rough paths through the forest. Eventually they used surveying instruments to measure a roadway, teams of oxen to drag away fallen trees, gunpowder to split boulders, and crushed rock to lay a roadbed. In low-lying areas logs lashed together with hemp (a plant that has tough fibers often used for ropes) formed causeways over bogs and bridges over streams. Road builders often followed paths used for centuries by Native Americans.
Native American contributions
Settlers learned a great deal from Native Americans, who taught them basic skills for surviving in the wilderness. Hunters rarely got lost in northern forests once they learned that moss grows on the north side of trees, away from direct sunlight. Cooks learned how to make hominy (kernels of corn that have been soaked in a solution and then washed to remove the hulls), succotash, and upaquontop (a stew made from hominy and fish heads). Farmers learned to plant maize (corn). The easiest way to travel in early America was by water. Native Americans showed explorers of New England and New France how to build light but sturdy bark canoes, made by burning and scraping out logs to form floatable shells. During winter, when rivers were frozen and the snow was deep, natives demonstrated that snowshoes were excellent devices for traveling.
The Log Trap
Settlers learned a great deal from Native Americans. For instance, trappers without proper iron traps learned to catch beavers, martens, and minks by using the culheag (or log trap). The trapper made the culheag out of two logs joined at one end but open at the other, with one log resting on top of the other, much like a pair of scissors. The top log was supported with a stick that stood on another rounded stick, which lay on the ground. The trapper attached a bait of raw meat to the rounded stick. When the animal tugged at the bait, the raised log collapsed, crushing the animal's head. Colonists also learned from Native Americans that the softest leather came from soaking deerskin in a mixture of animal brains and fat.
Colonists are "unscientific" farmers
All of the early colonists depended on farming to produce food. Again, they adapted to their environment by inventing their own agricultural techniques or learning efficient methods from Native Americans. European observers often regretted that few settlers used advanced agricultural techniques. Native Americans never developed "professional" farm practices because they were confronted by an untamed wilderness. Before a farmer could start growing crops, for instance, he had to remove hundreds of trees from his land. Some farmers chose to cut down trees in June after the planting was done and then burn the dead branches in the summer. The main problem, however, was stump and root removal, which required both human and animal labor.
The easiest method of clearing trees was girdling, which colonists learned from the Native Americans. Girdling worked best on land that did not need plowing. A farmer could often girdle dozens of trees in one day. The only tool he needed was a sharp knife or an ax. First he cut a deep incision around the trunk near the base of the tree that penetrated the bark into the wood. In time the leaves died and the branches became brittle. Eventually the tree would fall during a wind storm. The farmer then walked in and about the dead trees, digging small holes into which he dropped corn seeds. What had been a forest became a cornfield.
Making Maple Syrup
Early each year New England farmers placed wooden troughs (long, narrow containers) around the maple trees of the forest. They made the troughs by hand, using an ax, sometimes producing three dozen in a day. In March, when the winter nights were cold but the days were sometimes mild, the farmer cut a circular incision an inch or two in diameter in the maple tree to allow the sap to drip into the trough. Some maples gave two to three gallons of sap per day. After the farmer collected the sap in barrels, he brought it to a large outdoor fire over which hung large kettles. Women tended the kettles and boiled the liquid to a heavy maple syrup; repeated boiling produced sugar for candies and cakes.
Native Americans also taught the New England Pilgrims how to fertilize the soil with small fish. Land was so plentiful, however, that many farmers did not bother to fertilize. Instead, when the soil gave out they simply cleared more land—a practice that later led to serious problems with Native Americans. The first colonists used hoes, spades, and sturdy sticks rather than plows to cultivate the soil. After 1650 more farmers used wooden plows with an iron plowshare (a blade that cuts deep into the soil). Plowed soil required a harrow (a large tree branch dragged by a team of horses or oxen) to break up clods of dirt. Through trial and error farmers learned that trees were the key to whether soil needed to be plowed. For instance, white oak meant that the soil was stony and hard, and therefore required plowing. Land dominated by beech, maple, and birch, however, indicated the soil was rich and would grow corn without plowing. Pine grew in a sandy soil that, although it often did not need the plow, lost its fertility within a few years.
Women master practical skills
Colonial women were as apt as men to use a commonsense, practical approach to survival in the American wilderness. A farmwife was simultaneously a cook, baker, butcher, candlestick maker, seamstress, and gardener. For example, variety at mealtime depended on a woman's ability to grow different fruits and vegetables in the family garden. Baking bread was something of a science, requiring the perfect temperature in the fireplace and the right quantities of yeast, water, and grain. Acquiring yeast itself was a chore. The housewife used yeast from old dough or, in the words of one historian, "from the foamy 'barm' found on top of fermenting ale or beer." Cheese making was also a long and exhausting process. The housewife combined milk with rennet (the stomach lining of a farm animal), heated the mixture, scraped off the thickening curds, dried and pressed them, wrapped the curds in cloth, and let them dry and age in the basement. When the husband was ill or away, the wife managed all affairs of the farm.
New science sweeps Europe
During the early colonial period, colonists did not stay informed about European developments in physics and astronomy—they were too busy building towns and farms to keep up with the latest scientific discoveries. Colonial leaders, who were educated and therefore more likely to stay in touch with scientific trends, were primarily concerned with the practical challenges of starting and sustaining colonies. The gap between Europe and the colonies became even greater in the mid-seventeenth century. While settlers had been carving societies out of the wilderness, Europeans were adopting a "new science" and rejecting theories that had been accepted since ancient times.
For almost two thousand years the greatest European thinkers accepted the Greek scientist Aristotle's conception of the universe. Aristotle (384–322 b.c.) believed that the Earth was at the center of the universe, surrounded by the Moon, the Sun, the planets, and the stars. Each heavenly body orbited the Earth in a perfect circular motion. There was only one Moon in the universe. The Sun orbited around Earth between the spheres of Venus and Mars. Fixed stars were located at the outer edge of a small, limited universe. European scientists such as Nicholas Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Galileo, and Isaac Newton, however, had different views. They believed that the Sun, not the Earth, was the center—not of the universe but of one solar system in one galaxy in a possibly unlimited universe. The Earth was one of several planets orbiting the Sun in an elliptical (oval) path. Other planets besides the Earth had moons. The universe operated according to precise forces, such as gravity, which made it logical and predictable. Therefore, according to the new science, the observations of astronomers helped humans understand the fundamental laws of the universe.
Can humans understand the universe?
The rise of modern science in the late 1600s sparked a debate over whether God had created a universe that could be understood by human beings. According to the new theories, science was a rational activity that enabled the scientist to analyze and control the forces of nature. They rejected the traditional view that the universe was created by God and would forever remain a mystery to humans. At that time religion was the center of life in the American colonies. Yet the most religious and devout Christians, the New England Puritans, ironically welcomed these views. They believed that the new science would lead to even greater reverence for God. For instance, knowing that the Earth was not the center of a possibly infinite universe was for Puritans proof of God's power and goodwill. According to Puritan thinkers, the scientific study of nature led to knowledge of God, resulting in a stronger faith.
During the next century, however, scientists and philosophers called deists came to different conclusions. To the deists, the new science proved that God had created the universe to run like a machine according to unchanging laws. In effect, God had set the universe in motion and then sat back to watch, never becoming involved or performing miracles. Deists were not atheists (those who deny the existence of a god), but they were not Christians either. The deists believed that faith, prayer, and worship were meaningless. Instead, it was the job of the scientist to use experimentation, reason, and mathematics to discover the predictable laws of the universe. In the colonies Puritans and deists continued their debate throughout the eighteenth century.
New science in America
Even though most American scientists were naturalists, botanists, and geographers, there were a few devoted to physics, astronomy, and mathematics. James Logan (1674–1751) of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for example, was one of the few Americans who could fully understand Newton's theories. Logan was interested in physics and taught himself mathematics. He studied astronomy and natural science and patronized (gave financial support to) such scientists as the botanist John Bartram (1699–1777). Many Americans developed extensive knowledge of the heavens. The first colonial astronomer of note was John Winthrop (1714–1779), descendent of John Winthrop, the founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (see Chapter 4). Winthrop owned two telescopes, which he used to observe comets and planets. In 1672 he donated a telescope to Harvard College. In 1680 Thomas Brattle used the telescope to make precise observations of Newton's Comet. By this time Harvard had established itself as the leader of scientific observation in the colonies. Over the next several decades Isaac Greenwood, Charles Morton, and other professors taught the theories of Copernicus and Newton. Harvard graduates such as Increase Mather, Samuel Sewall, and Thomas Robie observed the aurora borealis (northern lights), comets, eclipses (the total or partial covering of one celestial body by another), and planetary motions. Robie, a Harvard teacher and physician, calculated the distances of the planets to the Sun, observed the solar eclipse of November 1722 and the transit of Mercury in 1723, and tried to explain the aurora borealis. Logan and Cadwallader Colden of New York also made significant astronomic observations. Although few in number, these colonial Americans turned their attention from the practical affairs of everyday life to observe the motions of the heavens.
Clergymen Are Scientists
The leaders of American science and medicine were often those with the most complete educations—the clergymen. The curricula of colonial colleges before 1750 focused on training young men for the ministry. While studying Christian writers, Greek and Roman classics, and languages, students at Harvard and Yale also took courses in science. One of the best courses was John Winthrop IV's class on experimental philosophy at Harvard. One of the greatest American scientists, the Bostonian Cotton Mather, was a minister. His counterpart in Virginia, the Reverend John Clayton, was one of the finest naturalists in the south. Isaac Greenwood was a minister who became the first Hollis Professor at Harvard, teaching math and physics.
Almanacs promote new science In the mid-1600s almanacs became a popular way for colonists to learn about science. Prior to this time Americans received their knowledge of the world from many sources: the neighbor next door, the clergyman on Sunday mornings, the stranger on the road. The annual almanac, a varied collection of news and facts, eventually became the most consistent source of information. In addition to predicting the weather and the date of the harvest moon, almanacs listed recipes, court dates and locations, and the routes and mileages of local roads. They provided chronologies of events and became the most important vehicle for spreading scientific knowledge in early America.
Few almanac publishers were original thinkers. They borrowed ideas from Europeans and then communicated them to the American reading public. The almanac became an effective textbook for promoting the new science. In the early 1600s most colonists thought the Sun literally rose and set in its orbit around the Earth, but by the mid-1700s more Americans realized this idea was wrong. Almanacs played a major role in bringing about this change in thinking. In 1659 the first almanac produced in America, Zechariah Brigden's A Brief Explication and Proof of the Philolaick Systeme, presented a formal attack on the Earth-centered universe. A 1674 almanac discussed Kepler's theory of the elliptical orbits of planets. A few years later the almanac of John Foster discarded the ancient idea of the "fixed stars" in favor of Galileo's idea of an infinite universe. During the eighteenth century almanacs carried information on Newton's laws of motion.
Alongside the most recent European discoveries, the reader of an almanac also found information on astrology (the study of the supposed influences of the stars and planets on human affairs). At that time there was still a widespread belief in astrology. Philadelphia printer Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), who later became America's foremost scientist, included astrology and prophecies in his first edition of Poor Richard's Almanack (1732). Yet the first Poor Richard's Almanack also provided astronomers with the dates of two lunar and two solar eclipses. Three years later the almanac had a full "description of the planets," in which Franklin provided a detailed guide for the amateur astronomer. As the years passed and Franklin's own knowledge increased, he included tables on planetary motions, descriptions and diagrams of eclipses, and information on such astronomical events as the transit of Mercury across the disk of the Sun. Poor Richard's Almanack for 1753 and 1754 included extensive analyses on the distance, appearance, and orbits of planets; an inquiry into the nature of comets; and a discussion of Newton's ideas on planetary astronomy.
Since ancient times humans have debated the existence of life on other planets. The new scientists fueled these speculations by showing that the Earth was similar to other planets in that it orbited the Sun. If the Earth orbited a star (the Sun), they asked, why should there not be other stars with other planets capable of supporting life? Franklin took up the issue in Poor Richard's Almanack, where he contemplated the tremendous heat of the planet Mercury. He concluded that "it does not follow, that Mercury is therefore uninhabitable; since it can be no Difficulty for the Divine Power and Wisdom to acommodate the Inhabitants to the place they are to inhabit; as the Cold we see Frogs and Fishes bear very well, would soon deprive any of our Species of Life."
Finally, Franklin put himself in the place of possible inhabitants of Mars and wondered what they would see. "The Earth and Moon will appear to them, thro' Telescopes if they have any such Instruments, like two Moons, a larger and a smaller, sometimes horned, sometimes Half or three Quarters illuminated, but never full." Franklin was not willing to deny the possibility of life on the Moon, Jupiter, Saturn, and even comets. "If there are any Inhabitants in the Comets, they must live a Life wholly inconceivable to us." Franklin closed his discourse by speculating on the vast numbers of stars, the planets orbiting them, and the variety of life that must exist on those planets.
Franklin a leading scientist
Franklin's most significant contribution to science was his experiments in electricity. For centuries Europeans had known about the static charge that results when two objects rub together. Scientists invented a primitive generator in the 1600s and a battery, the Leyden jar, in the next century. But the nature and uses of electricity were unanswered questions. During the eighteenth century in Europe electricity became the most popular scientific study, the source of entertainment at royal palaces, and the means by which seemingly magical tricks could be performed. Franklin's interest in electricity originated when he saw a traveling scientific lecturer, Archibald Spencer, perform an "electricity show" in Boston, Massachusetts. Soon Franklin acquired enough glass tubes, iron rods, silk, cork, and chains to perform his own experiments. By the late 1740s he was spending most of his time performing experiments in electricity and recording his results in various letters to American and European correspondents.
Conducts famous kite experiment Franklin made several important discoveries about electricity. Contemporary European theories suggested that electricity consisted of two fluids, but Franklin found it was a single force. He realized that this force was present in nature in varying amounts, that its "particles" subtly penetrated matter, and that a net increase of electric charge in one body corresponded with a net decrease of electric charge in another. His most famous discovery confirmed what Europeans had long suspected—that lightning was an electrical phenomenon. In June 1752 Franklin constructed a silk kite with a metal wire protruding from its top. He flew the kite in a thunderstorm while standing in a shed for protection. In his hand he held twine tied to the kite. He tied a silk ribbon to the twine near his hand and attached a key as well. Lightning never struck the kite. Rather, the kite conducted (directed the course of) the electric charge of the clouds along the twine to the key. When Franklin moved his hand to the key, he felt a sharp electric spark. Franklin concluded in a letter to English botanist Peter Collinson, "from Electric Fire thus obtained, all the Other Electrical Experiments [may] be performed, which are usually done by the help of a rubbed Glass Globe or Tube, & thereby the Sameness of the Electric Matter with that of Lightning compleatly demonstrated."
Invents lightning rod Having shown that an object in a storm attracted an electric charge from clouds, Franklin advocated the use of iron rods to protect buildings and ships from lightning strikes. Indeed, in September 1752 Franklin installed a lightning rod on his own house in Philadelphia. The thin metal rod rose nine feet above the chimney and extended through the staircase to his study, where it split into two rods, each with a bell at the end. Between the two bells hung a metal ball attached to a silk thread. When the lightning rod conducted an electric charge from a storm, the charge forced the ball to ring the bells. "One night," Franklin wrote to a friend, "I was . . . awaked by loud cracks on the staircase." He found an intense electric charge of white light going from bell to bell, illuminating the entire staircase. Franklin was the first person in history to use a grounded lightning rod to protect a public or private building. He went on to gain international acclaim as a prolific inventor and practical scientist.
Medicine in early America was unspecialized and university-trained medical doctors were rare. The few qualified doctors had earned their degrees in London, England, or Edinburgh, Scotland. Most doctors were apothecaries (pharmacists) or barbers who had been educated under the apprenticeship system. In 1757 historian William Smith commented that in America "Quacks [untrained doctors] abound like locusts in Egypt." Indeed, for a young society colonial America had a high percentage of people who called themselves doctors. In one Virginia town in 1730 there was one physician for every 135 people. Even farmers living in rural areas could find treatment for illnesses. John Mitchell of Virginia was one of many physicians who earned a living by traveling throughout the colonies. They could prescribe herbal remedies, pull teeth, lance (to open) a boil (sore), and bleed or purge a patient. But they were helpless when faced with serious illnesses such as typhoid fever, smallpox, or dysentery (a disease characterized by severe diarrhea). Often both doctor and patient relied on home remedies learned from Native Americans. The feverish patient seeking relief sometimes followed the Native American practice of steam baths. Colonial Americans and Europeans still believed in the ancient notion that disease was caused when the four "humours" of the body—blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile—were out of balance. Many remedies involved trying to restore balance to the body, and patients were bled, given purgatives (a purging medicine), or subjected to the torture of "blistering" the skin. If at a loss for what else to do, early doctors turned to an almanac or the Bible for assistance. Frequently colonists treated themselves with home remedies published in manuals such as Every Man his own Doctor (1736).
The "family physick"
An important part of the colonial wife's job was "family physick," or doctor. Women who owned The Compleat Housewife; or Accomplished Gentlewoman's Companion (1742) could find information on a host of homemade remedies for illnesses, pains, and injuries. Perhaps because of their experience in caring for family illnesses, many women became practicing physicians and apothecaries. Cotton Mather trained his daughter Katherine in "knowledge in Physic, and the Preparation, and the Dispensation of noble Medicines." The most common practitioner of medicine in early America was the midwife (a women who aids during childbirth). Obstetrics (the medicine of childbirth) was the domain of women, not men. Midwives rarely had formal medical training. Their knowledge came from experience and a great deal of folklore. They used garden herbs to relieve pain and fresh-churned butter as a lubricant. Often the midwife helped the mother stand, kneel, or squat to give birth. Midwives were assistants and helpers rather than crucial participants. In the case of an emergency they were helpless to save the mother or the child. Even so, midwives had remarkable success in delivering healthy babies.
Clergymen often doubled as physicians because of their education. There were so many deadly diseases in the colonies that it was convenient that the man who treated the sick could also pray for them and perform last rites. Death rates were particularly high in the southern colonies due to yellow fever (viral disease), malaria (disease characterized by cycles of chills, fever, and sweating), and hookworm (bloodsucking parasites), all of African origin. Diseases of European origin such as mumps, measles, and smallpox thrived in America as well, especially in the cities. The abundance of untrained physicians and the lack of a licensing system led to the widespread view that most doctors were quacks and the sick might as well treat themselves. There was no truly organized medical profession in America until the end of the colonial period. Communities did, however, develop techniques to prevent and combat disease. Cities such as Boston set aside places to quarantine (a state of enforced isolation) those who had communicable (contagious) diseases. (Boston used an island in the harbor.) These were the infamous pesthouses. The temporary residents of the pesthouses were frequently inoculated (injections to prevent a disease) for smallpox. In some cases towns tried to improve community sanitation and clean-water standards.
Medical community develops
During the early eighteenth century homespun medicine and traveling doctors were slowly replaced by physicians trained in European medical schools. Philadelphia physician Thomas Cadwalader, for example, studied in London and then taught medical techniques in Philadelphia. He performed the first autopsy (an examination of the body after death) in America. His contemporary, John Lining of Charleston, South Carolina, graduated from the University of Edinburgh. Concerned with the high death rate of the South (see Chapter 4), Lining kept statistics on the relation of disease to changes in the weather. He even observed and kept precise records on his own health. Another physician of the early eighteenth century was Bostonian William Douglass, a leader in the formation of the short-lived Boston Medical Society. There were other medical organizations in Charleston and in Massachusetts. Although these societies did not last long, they illustrated early efforts to establish the medical profession in America.
The smallpox inoculation controversy In 1721 the Boston medical community was confronted with a smallpox epidemic (widespread outbreak of disease), which resulted in one of the first advances in American medicine. Smallpox was one of the most feared diseases of the eighteenth century. Highly contagious, it was marked by fever, vomiting, and the formation of pustules that scarred the body. For centuries Europe had been plagued with smallpox epidemics, but the disease was unknown in North America. After the arrival of Europeans, however, smallpox and other infectious diseases raged through Native American populations and thousands died. Americans were hesitant about sailing to Europe simply because of their fear of the disease. Yet the smallpox ultimately came to them.
In April 1721 a ship entered Boston Harbor whose crew had been infected with smallpox. Boston authorities immediately quarantined the sick men, but this failed to prevent the disease from spreading. Soon Boston was confronting an epidemic. Clergyman Cotton Mather (1663–1728) proposed a solution—smallpox inoculation (vaccination), which he had heard about from his slave Onesimus. Described by Mather as "pretty intelligent," Onesimus had reported that in Africa he had been inoculated for smallpox and had never caught the disease. In fact, Asians and Africans had been using the procedure for centuries: they drew pus from a pustule on an infected person who had a mild case of smallpox and inserted it into a healthy person. Nine times out of ten the healthy person developed a mild case of the disease, but it was not life-threatening. Once the disease ran its course, the person was immune to smallpox.
Mather publicly called upon doctors to inoculate uninfected Boston citizens. The only physician in Boston with a European medical degree, William Douglass opposed inoculation from the outset and organized most Boston physicians to protest the practice. Douglass argued that widespread inoculation without careful planning and application could actually spread the disease. He and his supporters also argued that Mather was interfering in divine matters. If God chose certain people to become sick, what human should dare oppose his will?
Surprisingly, Boston clergymen came out on Mather's side. One physician, Zabdiel Boylston (1679–1766), also agreed with Mather and inoculated his own six-year-old son and 2 slaves. Over the next few months Boylston inoculated 150 more patients. Other doctors eventually joined in the project, so that by the time the epidemic was over the following year, almost 300 people had been inoculated. Only 6, or 2 percent, of those who had received inoculation died from smallpox. Of the 5,000 Bostonians who caught the disease but who had not been inoculated, about 18 percent died. Clearly inoculation worked. Eventually Douglass accepted the practice and became a lifelong advocate of inoculation.