1754-1783: Science, and Medicine: Overview
1754-1783: Science, and Medicine: Overview
Franklin’s Vision. In 1743 Benjamin Franklin considered America’s prospects for the pursuit of science: “The first drudgery of settling new colonies which confines the attention of people to mere necessaries is now pretty well over; and there are many in every province in circumstances that set them at ease, and afford leisure to cultivate the finer arts and improve the common stock of knowledge.” Franklin could have been writing about his own life: a successful Philadelphia printer after years of disciplined work, he was preparing an early retirement, hoping to devote the rest of his life to the “finer arts.” Particularly, he wanted to see cooperative, intercolonial promotion of “natural science,” the study of the physical world, the universe, and the forces in it.
American Backwardness. To most other Americans Franklin may have seemed overly optimistic. How could America support the kind of activity Franklin proposed? Europe was enjoying the scientific revolution known today as the Enlightenment, but where was America’s place in that great intellectual awakening? When Franklin wrote of his hopes, the most established institution of higher learning, Harvard College, was only a century old, the next oldest, the College of William and Mary, less than half that. Neither had rich libraries, nor were there private scientific libraries in America of any great importance. America had no great scientific centers, no counterpart to England’s prestigious Royal Society. No wealthy gentlemen supported the sciences as many did in Europe. There was no longstanding tradition of scientific pursuit in America upon which to build and no obvious financial gain from scholarly study that might in turn support more study. Most of the learned minds in America were those of the clergy, and while some of these made significant contributions to science and technology, most had only a limited use for the study of nature for its own sake. Science, wrote one commentator, was “a child of a thousand years,” one that “approaches slowly to Maturity.” As Franklin himself realized, there was a direct correlation between a society’s maturity and its capacity to advance science. A traveler named Andrew Burnaby rendered this verdict in 1759: in America the arts and sciences were “just dawning.”
Emphasis on Practicality. Because few colonists could afford to devote themselves to purely theoretical science, there was a utilitarian temperament toward scientific studies amounting almost to prejudice in America. There was no such thing as a professional “scientist.” The term was not commonly used; since one studied “natural philosophy,” eighteenth-century people used the term “philosopher” instead, and this word suggested a person’s interest rather than his employment. For example, astronomer John Winthrop was a professor at Harvard; balloon enthusiast John Jeffries was a doctor, as was naturalist Alexander Garden. The attitude that science should have some practical application hardened in the years before the Revolution as Americans sought to distinguish themselves from Britons in every way possible. One patriot commented: “Rome was never wiser or more virtuous, than when moderately learned, and meddled with none but the useful Sciences. Athens was never more foolish than when it swarmed with Philosophers.... Use,” he concluded, “is the Soul of Study.” Ironically Benjamin Franklin, an American, would not have agreed with this opinion. Although known for such practical inventions as bifocal spectacles and the wood-burning stove that bears his name, Franklin’s most important scientific investigations (concerning electricity) were not begun with any practical objective. In such cases Franklin worked on the assumption that understanding was in itself useful.
American Flora. It was in the area of natural history—the study of plant and animal life—that American “philosophers” began to form connections among them-selves and with colleagues in Europe. Although America had been known to Europeans for two and one-half centuries, it was still an exotic place filled with flora and fauna unknown to Europeans. Some were important as food sources, Indian corn for example, but others became sources for new vegetable remedies. John Tennent of Virginia endorsed Seneca snakeroot, first as a cure for rattlesnake bite (only a problem in America), then for a variety of European ills. It was partly for this reason that a 1739 book published in Holland called Flora Virginica (Virginia Plant Life), based on the botanical collections of Englishman John Clayton, was popular with medical doctors and apothecaries.
The Rage to Classify. Enlightenment thinkers believed that every thing and phenomenon could be known and understood. This rationalist approach demanded a systematic classification of everything in the known world. Carl Linnaeus, the famous Swedish botanist, devised the binomial (two-name) system, still used today, for identifying and classifying every plant and animal. Using Latin terminology (the international language of the learned), Linnaeus categorized subjects by genus and species. For example, the maple tree that grows in Great Britain is acer campestris while the American sugar maple is also genus acer, but with the descriptive species name saccharum (sweet). Linnaeus’s rational, descriptive method inspired botanical gardens throughout Europe, especially at Kew and Oxford. These soon set aside space for American plants. The Chelsea Apothecaries Company imported more than two hundred American plants, and one private gardener, an English lord, claimed to have ten thousand American plants. European philosophers scrambled to classify all these new and exotic specimens. When the second edition of Flora Virginica appeared in 1762, the American plants were all identified using the now-familiar Linnaean method.
The British Connection. Most of the plant and animal specimens turning up in European gardens and zoos were first collected and shipped by American naturalists. Some, such as Dr. Alexander Garden of South Carolina, were recent British emigrants fascinated with their new surroundings. Others, such as John Bartram of Pennsylvania, were native-born. They collected plants, fish, reptiles, and insects for British correspondents who were unable to come to America for study. Ironically it was often through these foreign associations that American naturalists discovered other interested colleagues in the colonies. This intercolonial fellowship of naturalists was the beginning of the first scientific community in America.
Imagining the Universe. Americans also showed interest in explaining and understanding the cosmos. Englishmen Edmund Halley and Sir Isaac Newton produced revolutionary observations and theories of physical laws and planetary movement. Thanks to them the universe was no longer considered a semireligious mystery that discouraged scrutiny. For Newton and his followers the universe ran like an amazingly huge and ornate clockwork mechanism: complicated, but fully understandable. Of all eighteenth-century sciences astronomy attracted the most attention because of the central position it occupied in Enlightenment thought and because of its visibility. When Halley’s Comet, last seen in 1682, reappeared as predicted in 1759, it was a spectacular vindication of the predictable, measurable Newtonian universe.
Astronomy in America. The theories of the English astronomers found receptive audiences in America. Harvard College’s John Winthrop and Philadelphia’s David Rittenhouse were America’s premier astronomers, but American interest in the heavens went well beyond the academy. Although the return of Halley’s Comet inspired some lively debate on the nature of comets, the transits of Venus in 1761 and 1769, which promised to throw new light on the extent of the earth’s solar system, commanded a surprising amount of attention from the general public. Astronomy also had two practical applications of great importance to Americans: navigation and surveying. Overseas trade was vital to America’s economy, and shipmasters found their way across the oceans by their knowledge of astronomy and mathematics. On land Americans surveyed vast inland tracts using celestial positioning. The most famous American survey line, the Mason-Dixon line that separates Pennsylvania and Maryland, was laid out from 1763 to 1768 by English astronomers Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon.
Science and Religion. While the Newtonian view of the universe diminished the immediate, interventionist role of God in celestial events (comets as divine messages, for example), celestial theorists did not reject God as the creator of the universe. Rather they imagined a supremely rational, benign deity who designed the universe as a vast, clockwork-like device that ran according to physical laws that even He would not change. This more distant, less personal conception of God came to be known as deism, and clergymen in both Europe and America understandably abhorred it. Most eighteenth-century philosophers, however, had little trouble adapting religion to science. David Rittenhouse saw no problem in expressing his astronomical interest in religious terms when he declared: “All yonder stars innumerable, with their dependencies, may perhaps compose but the leaf of a flower in the creator’s garden, or a single pillar in the immense building of the divine architect. Here is ample provision made for the all-grasping mind of man!”
Electrical Science. It was Benjamin Franklin who made the only truly revolutionary contribution from America to western science during this period. Electricity was the nuclear science of the eighteenth century. When Franklin took up its study at the age of forty, there was already a widely accepted hypothesis on the nature of electricity. According to this hypothesis, put forth in 1733, there were actually two distinct electricities, or types of electrical “fluids.” Neutral or uncharged bodies contained equal amounts of both fluids—that was why they were neutral. When electrically charged, as by rubbing a glass rod with cloth, the glass lost one type of electric fluid and gained the other: the glass was charged by having a superabundance of one kind of fluid. Further, the hypothesis went, bodies charged with differing electricities attracted each other, but bodies charged with the same fluid were repelled. This was why some objects, such as gold foil, when charged by touching the charged glass rod, bent away from the rod afterwards (it had absorbed the same kind of fluid) but was attracted to a piece of charged amber, which presumably possessed the opposite type of fluid. This two-fluid hypothesis had the virtue of explaining electrical attraction and repulsion. It also happened to be wrong.
Franklin’s Theories. In 1746 European scientists stumbled upon the principle of the electrical condenser. They discovered that a glass jar partially filled with water and with a wire projecting through both sides of the jar’s stopper could store large charges of electricity. These “Leyden jars” produced long, visible sparks and audible cracks, which not only were a source of amusement at the courts of Europe but also made possible some truly impressive electrical demonstrations, as when 180 French soldiers, joining hands in one long line, were made to jump simultaneously as an electric current passed through them. Traveling demonstrators crisscrossed Europe and America, entertaining and lecturing. One of the many who paid to see electrical demonstrations was Franklin, who instantly became fascinated with electricity and began his own experiments. In a few short years, encouraged by English correspondents who publicized his work, Franklin destroyed the European two-fluid hypothesis, substituting a modern, single-fluid theory that explained all known electrical phenomena and proved conclusively that lightning was a form of electricity.
Medical Science. Medicine made few real advances during this period. The practice of healing was a hodgepodge of ancient Greek theory, folk remedies, modern practices, and trial and error. The causes of most diseases, and of infection, were unknown. Epidemic diseases—smallpox, diphtheria, and yellow fever—periodically swept through entire regions with little that doctors could do about them. The most significant medical development in this period was the movement toward professionalizing medicine. This was done through the establishment of medical schools in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia; the founding of medical societies for professionals; and attempts to license anyone practicing medicine. These actions helped promote a disciplined approach to medicine that eventually brought about improvements in medical science, but it would take time for these results to have any real impact. By the time of the Revolution, America still had no medical journals, and little more than 10 percent of its medical practitioners were licensed professionals. One other significant trend was in the area of obstetrics. Childbearing had long been the responsibility of midwives, local women who aided deliveries and often dispensed folk medicine as well; doctors (all of whom were male) were called only in cases of difficult or dangerous birth. Toward the end of the Revolution male doctors began to study fetal development and birthing practice, and to take over the midwives’ traditional role. This change, however, did not immediately result in any material improvements to women’s health.
Agriculture, Industry, and the Future. Science had not yet reached a point at which it might be of significant benefit to farmers, merchants, or artisans in their work. New farming techniques developed in Britain promised real benefits to farmers in terms of efficient land use, soil nutrition, new crops, and cattle breeding, but these did not translate well to America. Although America boasted abundant water power for manufacturing mills, British commercial regulation forbade most kinds of manufacturing in the colonies, so technological development in that regard received no encouragement. One major exception to British restrictions was iron production, and that industry grew rapidly, especially in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. American interest in manufactures increased with the Revolutionary movement, but America’s chronic lack of capital, made worse by an economy ruined by a war for independence, precluded any industrial progress. Nevertheless, signs of a manufacturing future existed: by the time the new United States won its independence from Great Britain, American inventors had built prototypes of harvesting and threshing machines, developed crude mass-production technology, and designed water-powered spinning mills. The American scientific and technological renaissance came in the next century, but the Revolutionary period produced ample evidence of both native ability and commitment.
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