Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A Visit to the Doctor in Colonial Times

Does your health plan include wig powdering? A visit to the restored Hugh Mercer Apothecary on Caroline Street in Fredericksburg, Virginia is a step back to times when doctors used blood letting, purging, and amputations to cure their patients.

The recovery rooms upstairs allowed patients to rest and rearrange their clothing so they were ready to walk out onto the street. The men who needed their wigs powdered so they were respectable enough to be seen in public could lean their heads through a hole in a door and have the servant on the other side powder away without mussing the gentleman’s clothing.


The sick person in Colonial times had some of the same difficulties as people have now when choosing care. The poor and rural residents had fewer options, and often could not find or afford adequate care. Those red striped poles outside the local barber shop were a sign that the barber would also provide dental services and take care of cuts and injuries. The rich and powerful had better access to trained doctors, such as Hugh Mercer, a Scottish medical school graduate and military doctor. Dr. Mercer was the physician for Fredericksburg home town of George Washington’s mother, Mary Washington, and his sister.


Tours of the restored shop are conducted by ladies in colonial dress, right down to their hair tucked into mob caps. The ladies laugh when they explain that these wealthy people could even have their pills coated with elegant silver, which sometimes made them “reusable” pills. Not all of the old treatments have been discarded, however. Even modern hospitals stock leeches like the fat black ones swimming in Dr. Mercer’s jar, and the chemical in ground willow bark is still used today, although we call it aspirin. There is an herb garden next to the Apothecary Shop where some of these useful remedies are still grown. At the beginning of the tour, small samples of herbs and medicines are passed around for visitors to see and smell. The large stone water filter was used to filter river water in several stages so it was clean for concocting medicines.


Perhaps these remedies worked, because after a blood letting or purging, some people would say, “I’m fine now, thank you!” rather than submit to more treatments.


Dr. Mercer served in the Revolutionary Army with George Washington. The story of his life and illustrious military service is told in the museum in the Apothecary Shop. Visiting Fredericksburg today is simple, and hotels and bed and breakfast places abound, but for more about travel and life in Colonial times, wander along the Caroline Street a few blocks to the Rising Sun Tavern.


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