Medicines of the Revolutionary War

“There cannot be a greater calamity for a sick man than to come to our hospital at this season of the year…,” (Fried 233) stated Benjamin Rush, an important doctor to Revolutionary War times. Sadly, this was probably true. Medicine in the late 1700s was nowhere near how sophisticated it is now. In fact, the care for an injury would normally hurt the patient more than the injury itself. Throughout the Revolutionary War, there were many improvements on medicine; these advances of science can be studied in three different sections: the doctors and nurses, diseases and injuries, and surgeries.

Though nurses and doctors may not have been well-trained most of the time, they still played an important role in the Revolutionary War. The War opened many women’s jobs, such as nursing, doing laundry, or sewing for the soldiers. Someone who took advantage of this was Abigail Adams, who delivered the few supplies available, and sometimes acted as a nurse. Martha Washington, the First Lady at the time, also did this, and was known as a “camp follower.

Camp followers were women, generally wives of the soldiers, who followed their husbands to the battlefield and set up camp nearby to care for injured soldiers. Sometimes doctors would come with the camp followers to help them, since the nurses were untrained. One of these doctors was Benjamin Rush. Rush, though very well-trained, still lacked the ability to save many unfortunate patients. This was because nobody had as much knowledge or tools as in modern times.

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For example, it was only during the War itself that the doctors began washing their hands and face after exams or surgeries. Although the care was awful, sometimes sickness could be worse; Abigail Adams commented, “‘Tis a dreadful time… Sickness and death are in almost every family,” (Beltron 6).

Unfortunately, sickness and death were very common in those days. Some diseases were Malaria, Yellow Fever, and Smallpox, which had a death rate of over twenty percent. Luckily, an early version of a cure for smallpox began to develop in war times. This was a great accomplishment, as most other diseases did not have an accurate cure yet. Medicines were usually some assortment of alcohol that did not help. Often, treatments were terrible, such as blistering, cupping, or bloodletting.

Other times, it could just be baths or compresses. However, patients still feared going to the hospital because, for example, if the patient got blistering as their treatment, they felt like a part of their body was being put in an oven. Blistering was when intense heat was applied to areas of pain. Cupping was similar; a heated cup was pushed against their skin and the air was pumped out of the cup. Bloodletting was similarly painful, but not in the procedure of it; for bloodletting, either leeches were used, or a lancet was used to puncture the vein. Some of the time, diseases or injuries would kill patients, but more often, it would be the surgery to cure it that killed them.

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Medicines of the Revolutionary War. (2022, May 10). Retrieved from

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