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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Living and Dying in America


Difficult Births
Was This Baby Swaddled to Death?
Colonial Medicine
Pewter, & Poison

Lives Cut Short
Chapel Burials
Settling In

A colonial "doctor" was often physician/apothecary/surgeon - three professions in England. Housewives and clergymen doubled as doctors. Treatment was expensive. For illnesses, bloodletting or purges and herbal remedies might be prescribed. The cure could be worse than the disease.

Trephination, drilling into the cranium, 1573
Cranial fragment, European adult male, with evidence of trauma, aborted trephination, and autopsy. Image courtesy: Smithsonian Institution

Two Firsts for the Colonies

A skull fragment found in a James Fort trash pit preserved remarkable medical evidence. Circular cut marks into the bone are the earliest known case in the English colonies of attempted trephination — drilling into the cranium to relieve pressure caused by brain swelling.

The patient had suffered mortal blows to the head. One impact caused radiating fractures low on his head, behind the left ear. Another injury caused a radiating fracture on the right side of the skull. These blows would have caused severe intercranial swelling.

Cuts from two unfinished trephinations with a circular saw are evident in the occipital bone.
Cuts from two unfinished trephinations with a circular saw are evident in the occipital bone. Image courtesy: Smithsonian Institution. (Enlarged image available.)

Straight cuts also provide evidence of the earliest known autopsy in the Chesapeake. The patient died, and the top of the cranium was removed for a postmortem examination.

During the autopsy, the deceased patient was placed face down, and the surgeon sawed through the posterior vault. The cranial fragment found in the trash pit broke away from the rest of the skull along perimortem fracture lines.

17th-Century Medicine

Piece of the cranium pictured above.
Piece of the cranium pictured above. Image courtesy: Smithsonian Institution

An understanding of human anatomy was growing. In England in 1628, William Harvey discovered how blood circulates in the body. But in the colonies, the availability and quality of medical care varied. By our standards, it was crude.



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