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A Reconsideration of the History of American Medicine

  • Mar 24, 2013 · 10:30 AM
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Elaine G. Breslaw, Author, Historian, and BES Member

Details: For most American doctors and in the eyes of the general public, medical science in this country has a long history. It follows then, according to this belief, that the United States has been in the forefront of medical discoveries and innovations during its early history. That unfortunately is not true. Elaine Breslaw offers a reconsideration of both popular beliefs as she describes some of the health problems faced by early Americans. Although her focus will be the nature of medical care in early America, she also will consider the role of lay practitioners such as midwives, obeahs, herb doctors as well as other non-orthodox remedies. She additionally will trace the declining stature of the medical profession itself during the nineteenth century, a decline partly due to the inadequate education of medical personnel but also a result of underlying social, economic, and ethical values of the time that promoted commercialization and encouraged the nationalistic ideal of American exceptionalism. Those conditions led to an anti-intellectual climate among doctors that denied the scientific discoveries in Europe, discoveries that were leading to the real breakthroughs in medicine. America thus was left behind in the first truly scientific examination of traditional medical therapies and theories that took place in the mid-nineteenth century and, Breslaw will suggest, did not begin to take a lead until a century later.

Speaker Bio: Elaine G. Breslaw retired as professor of history from Morgan State University in Baltimore after 29 years and has taught on an adjunct basis at Johns Hopkins University, Goucher College, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and as a Fulbright Senior Fellow at the University of the West Indies in Barbados. She is the author of Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies (NYU Press 1995), Witches of the Atlantic World: An Historical Reader and Primary Sourcebook (NYU Press, 2000), and Dr. Alexander Hamilton and Provincial America: Expanding the Orbit of Scottish Culture (LSU Press, 2008). Today’s talk explores some aspects of her most recent book, Lotions, Potions, Pills, and Magic: Health Care in Early America (NYU, 2012). A member of the Baltimore Ethical Society for many years, Breslaw presently lives in Knoxville, Tennessee.

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  • Paul

    Good talk. An interesting topic that stirred many questions (mostly related to more recent medical issues).

    March 24, 2013

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