1600-1754: Science and Medicine: Overview
1600-1754: Science and Medicine: Overview
Science in the Wilderness. The first scientists in America were explorers. Adventurers, sailors, traders, missionaries, and soldiers such as Capt. John Smith and Samuel de Champlain observed, mapped, and wrote about the New World. Science and invention assisted Europeans in surviving the American wilderness. The landscape and natural resources of America, more than European discoveries and theories, influenced colonial science. Europeans were the leading scientists and inventors of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. No American scientist could compare with Sir Isaac Newton; few could comprehend his genius. Colonial Americans contributed to science and technology according to their own needs in response to the environment. In fact, American inventions were less original than useful. Benjamin Franklin’s experiments in electricity resulted in the lightning rod and reduced the number of fires in Philadelphia. Franklin’s American Philosophical Society, founded in 1744, existed to uncover and apply useful knowledge. American craftsmen, farmers, and inventors responded to immediate practical needs rather than to abstract theories and utopian notions about benefiting humankind.
An Elite Club. Science and technology in the thirteen colonies lagged behind European developments in physics, astronomy, medicine, and agriculture. Although America’s greatest scientist, Franklin lacked the skills and knowledge of his European counterparts. American physicians rarely had adequate medical training, and those who did had degrees from European schools. Americans borrowed European ideas in art, politics, literature, and music as well as in science and technology. Europeans condescended to correspond with and employ colonial scientists simply to receive the hitherto unknown specimens of New World flora and fauna. Some individuals like John Winthrop Jr., who accommodated requests for knowledge and specimens, were allowed to join the Royal Society of London. Theorists of the Royal Society thought up the projects that courageous explorers such as the Pennsylvania naturalist John Bartram accomplished by hiking the American wilderness.
Journeys into Nature. The most notable American scientists were naturalists, students of plant and animal life. John Josselyn and Bartram climbed mountains to acquire specimens. Some, such as John Lawson, lost their lives in the pursuit of knowledge. John Smith sailed and mapped the coastal waters of the Atlantic Ocean while René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle explored the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. These men looked upon prairies, mountains, and lakes never before known to Europeans. To be a scientist in early America required not only intellect but also stamina and bravery.
Mapping America. The first European focus of scientific study in America was geography. The extent of the New World, its river systems, inhabitants, and flora and fauna intrigued the royal courts of Europe. The unknown character of the shoreline and interior forced explorers to become geographers and mapmakers. The first scientific treatises on America often accompanied detailed maps of a region. Smith, for example, created some of the best early maps of the Chesapeake Bay and New England coast. Along with the maps he published an extensive descriptive commentary on these wilderness regions. It took centuries for Europeans and Americans to trace the varied topography of North America. The line of settlement moved west across the continent in the wake of explorers who opened up the wilderness with maps and narrative descriptions. William Byrd, John Carver, Jacques Marquette, Samuel de Champlain, and a host of others made the map one of the premier tools of early American science.
Local Goods. Before 1754 American society had towns and villages but few large cities. Americans on the frontier often, through necessity, made most of their own goods, including cider, beer, flour, salt, soap, candles, bricks, clapboards, wool, flax thread, rope, and leather goods. Rich plantation owners often had skilled slaves perform such tasks. Most settlers, however, lived in or near towns with blacksmiths, tanners, wheelwrights, brewers, tailors, and stores. Farm families could buy goods (in kind or in coin) that they could not make themselves, although many farmers were also part-time artisans such as blacksmiths and shoemakers. Larger towns had more workers and skilled craftsmen, including metalworkers. Manufacturing on a large scale was rare, though a few communities such as Saugus in Massachusetts boasted extensive iron-producing operations.
“Unscientific” Farmers. Observers of American farming practices such as the Connecticut clergyman Jared Eliot lamented that few colonials used advanced agricultural techniques. The agricultural revolution sweeping England during the 1700s barely nicked the thirteen colonies. Often farmers employed Native American farming practices such as girdling trees. Some farmers avoided using plows, being content to use hoes to make holes into which to drop seeds. Many farmers used fertilizers (such as manure) and rotated crops, but just as many did not. Americans never developed “professional” farm practices because of the extent of the wilderness. One could afford to be wasteful when more of the same existed wherever one looked. Americans often found it easier to exhaust the soil and move on rather than to experiment with soil-saving and -replenishing methods. Even so, there were significant exceptions to American amateurism. Agricultural scientists established experimental gardens in South Carolina in 1669 and near Savannah, Georgia, in 1733. Generally, however, experimentation and agriculture were rarely complementary in colonial America.
Itinerant Physicians. American amateurism affected the practice of medicine to the detriment of the sick. Not until the mid eighteenth century did students take courses in medicine at American colleges. Nor were there any medical societies or other professional organizations for physicians until the 1730s. Skilled physicians, like medical books, had to be imported from Europe, especially England and Scotland. Notwithstanding claims that the New World environment was so healthy as to preclude disease, Americans suffered from yellow fever, smallpox, malaria, and hookworms. Newly arrived immigrants to the southern colonies in the 1600s often did not survive the time of “seasoning,” the adjustment to the climate and disease environment of America. At the same time only one in ten Native Americans survived the diseases brought by Europeans. Those who practiced “physick” often traveled from town to town selling their limited knowledge and suspect cures. Apothecaries sold homemade remedies, and midwives assisted in the birth of babies. When no physician was available, which was often, the most learned person in the community, usually the clergyman, stepped in to render aid. Even among physicians remedies were often based on fable and folklore. The discovery of the role of microorganisms in the spread of disease was still centuries in the future. 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, or subjected to the torture of “blistering” the skin. If at a loss of what else to do, many turned to an almanac or the Bible for assistance.
The “Hard” Sciences. Even though most American scientists were naturalists, botanists, and geographers, there were a few scientists devoted to physics, astronomy, and mathematics. James Logan of Philadelphia, for example, was one of the few Americans who could fully understand Sir Isaac Newton’s theories. Logan was interested in physics and taught himself mathematics. He studied astronomy and natural science and patronized such scientists as the botanist John Bartram. Other American students of mathematics, physics, and astronomy during the 1600s and 1700s included the Harvard professors Charles Morton, Isaac Greenwood, John Winthrop Jr., and John Winthrop IV.
Scientists for God. Logan, Winthrop IV, Franklin, and other mathematicians, astronomers, and experimental scientists were the exception. Lack of specialization more often characterized early American science. The leaders of American science and medicine were often simply those with the most complete education—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 took courses in science. One of the best courses was John Winthrop IV’s class on experimental philosophy offered at Harvard. One of the greatest American scientists, the Bostonian Cotton Mather, was a cleric. His most significant contribution to American science was his advocacy of inoculation to provide immunity to smallpox. His counterpart in Virginia, the Reverend John Clayton, was one of the finest naturalists in the South. Greenwood was a minister who became the first Hollis Professor at Harvard, teaching math and physics. The French naturalists Louis Hennepin and Jacques Marquette were Catholic priests, as were Eusebio Francisco Kino and Silvestre de Velez de Escalante, explorers of the American Southwest.
Multicultural Character. The pursuit of scientific knowledge in America was open to all, no matter one’s religious beliefs, ethnic and cultural background, economic and social status, or gender. The American wilderness did not discriminate. Spanish naturalists explored the American Southwest from their base of New Spain. French naturalists sailed up the Saint Lawrence and explored the Great Lakes and eventually the Mississippi River. Because the British American colonies were more settled than the French and Spanish settlements in North America, Anglo-American achievements in science were more noteworthy. But west of the Appalachian Mountains, in the Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri River valleys, the Great Plains, and the Rocky Mountains, the wilderness made all outsiders equal. The greatest achievements in early American science were made by the diverse naturalists-explorers of varying cultural backgrounds who had the courage to penetrate the American unknown.
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