Drawing: A seated man looks away as another man directs a stream of blood from the first man's arm into a bowl.

Happy Birthday, Mr. President!

By Erika Mills

The month we celebrate presidential birthdays is upon us again! George Washington was born in Virginia on February 22, 1732. Until his death in 1799, Washington embodied leadership in many different roles—as a Revolutionary War general, as a Founding Father of the US, as a businessman and plantation owner, and as a head of household. Protecting the health and safety of those under his charge, including a young nation, was a duty he considered of the utmost importance.

He had an array of contemporary healing resources at this disposal. The History of Medicine Division’s online exhibition, Every Necessary Care and Attention: George Washington and Medicineexplores how the statesman called upon the knowledge, experts, and remedies of his time to promote the well-being of those over whom he presided. Here is a selection of a few images from the History of Medicine Division collections, which are featured in Every Necessary Care and Attention. These showcase some treatments available to the ailing in the 1700s. (Suddenly, that flu shot back in September doesn’t seem so bad!)

Drawing: A seated man looks away as another man directs a stream of blood from the first man's arm into a bowl.
Breathing a Vein by James Gilray, 1804.
Phlebotomy or, bloodletting, was common in the 18th century. It was based on the belief that excessive blood, phlegm, and bile caused fever and inflammation. To balance the body’s humors, these fluids were purged using cutting tools, such as lancets and fleams, and the fluids were collected in bleeding bowls. Washington lost three quarts or half his blood volume during his final illness.
Botanical illustration showing stems, flowers and seeds of the lavendar plant.
Broad leaved lavender (Spica Latifolia), 1737 from A Curious Herbal, containing five hundred cuts of the most useful plants which are now used in the practice of physic, London, 1737 to 1739.
Scottish illustrator and author Elizabeth Blackwell published A Curious Herbal, noted for its beautiful illustrations, in weekly installments between 1737 and 1739. Lavender water was one of many common herbal home remedies.
Four drawings of metal leg braces.
A system of surgery (Volume IV), Worcester, MA, 1791, Plate LXXII, by Benjamin Bell MD (1749-1806).

Washington eventually succumbed to a virulent illness when he was 67 years old. Ironically, the treatments meant to heal him—like bloodletting, purgatives, and enemas—may have quickened the deadly course of his malady. But by the time of his death, many medical schools had been established and the understanding of infectious disease was improving. Better treatments were on the horizon.

For more on medicine in George Washington’s day, check out Every Necessary Care and Attention: George Washington and Medicine. Also, be sure to take a look at an article featured on the National Endowment for the Humanities’ education blog, Closer Readings which was penned by Exhibition Program head, Patricia Tuohy. In it, she highlights the lesson plans, activities, and other resources for K-12 students and teachers that supplement Every Necessary Care and Attention.

Erika MillsErika Mills is outreach coordinator for the Exhibition Program in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.

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