Health and wellness secrets of the Founding Fathers

Posted July 6

Jeanne E. Abrams is the author of "Revolutionary Medicine, The Founding Fathers and Mothers in Sickness and in Health." (Deseret Photo)

If the Social Security Administration had been around in 1776, the Founding Fathers might have retired on disability instead of giving birth to a nation. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other leaders of the American Revolution suffered chronic effects of diseases like smallpox, tuberculosis and malaria, and were devastated by the deaths of their children.

In her 2013 book "Revolutionary Medicine, The Founding Fathers and Mothers in Sickness and in Health," Jeanne Abrams, a professor at the University of Denver, explained how the primitive health conditions in the 18th century affected not only ordinary colonists, but the leaders of the fledgling nation.

As America celebrated her 240th birthday — looking great for her age, we might say — Abrams spoke with us about the health of the Founding Fathers and their families.

You say that Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were as well versed in medicine as any contemporary learned medical practitioner. (And they didn’t have Google.) What accounts for their knowledge?

Abrams: Jefferson was notoriously skeptical of physicians, although he was friends with a number of them. He is reputed to have said that whenever he saw two or more physicians conversing, he looked up to see if there were any vultures hovering overhead. He thought doctors as a whole killed more patients than saved them. He took what today we would term a more holistic approach to medicine, for he felt the body had a natural ability to heal itself if radical and heroic measures such as bloodletting weren’t introduced, and he thought people should understand the basics of medicine and be able to treat their families at home for at least common, more minor illnesses.

As for Franklin, we all think about electricity and his famous experiment with the kite and the key, but most people don’t know he also was responsible for a number of important medical inventions. I wear bifocals, as do millions of people today, which were one of his innovations. He also came up with a flexible urinary catheter (to help his brother, who had a prostate problem), and he experimented with using electrical impulses to reduce palsy.

How was pain treated in revolutionary America?

Abrams: They had apothecaries, and many early Americans made their own concoctions from medicinal herbs. Jefferson used thyme and lavender grown at Monticello for stomach problems and headaches. Abigail Adams applied cabbage leaves for aches and pains. They had receipt books — we call them recipes — that were handed down in families. For pain, they often used herbal remedies, an infusion made from willow bark which is akin to aspirin, and they used a lot of laudanum, which was a liquid distillation of opium to alleviate discomfort and insomnia.

In that era, people still looked at health in terms of the four humors (Hippocrates’ theory that blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm had to be balanced in the body). If you had a fever, perhaps it was because you had too much blood and some needed to come out, hence the almost ubiquitous use of bleeding for almost all illnesses.

John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington were the opposite of today’s anti-vaxxers — they advocated inoculation against disease, despite popular opposition. How did colonial inoculation differ from the shots our children get today?

Abrams: Inoculation put the live virus into bodies. It was controversial because it presented some danger. It could blow up to a full-blown case of smallpox, and people died from that. They also didn’t understand completely the parameters of the contagious period, when people were actively contagious and could spread the smallpox. Still, inoculation had a much lower rate of mortality than acquiring it the “natural” way, so it was a significant improvement in treating the disease.

In 1776, Boston allowed smallpox inoculation for a short time, and Abigail Adams and her four children were inoculated; one became extremely ill, and she witnessed the reading of the Declaration of Independence in Boston while she may still have been contagious and possible spread the illness.

Franklin lost his own young son to smallpox and so became a vocal advocate for inoculation, which he felt could save lives. At his own expense, he published a pamphlet on how to inoculate for smallpox, and because he knew it was an expensive procedure for the working class, he arranged for free inoculation of poor children in Philadelphia.

And Washington insisted that all troops of the Continental Army be inoculated against smallpox, probably one of his most important decisions during the Revolutionary War.

Alexander Hamilton is the most popular founding father right now, because of the Broadway musical. What can you tell us about his health?

Abrams: Alexander Hamilton was one of the victims of the 1793 yellow fever epidemic that killed 10 percent of the population of Philadelphia, but fortunately he had a relatively mild case and recovered. By that time, he and Thomas Jefferson were political enemies. Jefferson would become head of the Republican-Democratic Party, and Hamilton was one of the leaders of the Federalists. Jefferson thought Hamilton was simply faking when he first claimed to have yellow fever.

That infamous epidemic closed down the American government, which was then located in Philadelphia as the nation's temporary capital, and people were divided along political lines on how best to treat the disease and what caused yellow fever. No one at the time understood that it was a virus spread by infected mosquitoes.

Health officials say obesity has reached epidemic levels in America. Were any of the founders overweight or obese?

Abrams: Most of the founders were quite lean; remember, people in those days walked or rode horseback to get around so there was definitely more exercise, and they didn't have to contend with the opportunities technology has provided for increased sedentary leisure, prolific food and beverage choices, and less exercise.

Franklin was tall and muscular most of his life, as were Washington and Jefferson. Franklin and Jefferson were both advocates of healthy living and great fans of adequate exercise, and Franklin was almost manic about the benefits of fresh air and good eating and sleeping habits. Jefferson in particular ate little meat, but emphasized vegetables and fruit in his diet and daily exercise. John Adams was corpulent and was sometimes mockingly referred to as "His Rotundity" by his political detractors, but ironically he lived the longest of the founders, until the age of 90, and for the most part he was quite healthy.

Washington had severe dysentery during the French and Indian War and suffered from the effects of smallpox and tuberculosis. How did he continue? Were men and women of that era just hardier than people today?

Abrams: Washington was sick a lot of the time. They all were. He suffered from smallpox but fortunately recovered, and if you recover, you’re immune for life. Most people in the South had recurrent malaria, which affected both Washington and James Madison significantly. Mortality rates were very high in early America, and over a quarter of children died before they grew up. Even measles was a devastating epidemic.

There used to be a theory that early Americans, because they knew they would lose children, kept an emotional distance from their offspring. But when you read the letters of the founders, you know that’s not true. They grieved deeply.

Jefferson was predeceased by five of his six children, and Martha Washington outlived all four of her children. John Adams lost four of his six children. When he was in Philadelphia at the Constitution Convention, Abigail Adams gave birth to a stillborn baby, and — this was especially poignant for me — she wrote to him that it was God’s will, and he wrote back, “Isn’t it a wonder how much someone can miss someone they’ve never met?”

I don’t think the founders were hardened to loss, but they went on with stoic fortitude. It’s a wonder they were able to accomplish all they did from a political standpoint, given the backdrop of their tragic family lives.


TWITTER: @grahamtoday


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