Thanksgiving is a time that we gather with friends and family to give thanks for our blessings and good fortune. One of the most important things that we can give thanks for is good health. Some are more fortunate than others, but what we should all give thanks for on this Thanksgiving is that modern medicine has evolved significantly since the 17th century when Pilgrims voyaged from England to the New World with hope for a better life.

I do not claim to be a subject matter expert on 17th-century medical practices. However, I found some interesting stories about health care and medicine for those who made the trip to the New World. In this research update, I will look at some of the pieces of medical history tucked away in the story of the first Thanksgiving. I think all of us can be thankful that our approach to healing the human body has evolved significantly since this time.

On the Mayflower

Whether it was for financial reasons or religious freedom, roughly 100 pilgrims boarded the Mayflower in 1620 hoping for a better future in the New World. The voyage got off to a rocky start, but once the crew and vessel were set, there was no turning back for these travelers. That means that any health issues that the travelers encountered would have to be addressed on the ship during the two-month voyage. Keep in mind that medical knowledge was minimal at this time. Humans hadn’t figured out that blood circulated the body, vaccines were not a thing, germ theory was not even considered, and penicillin was not discovered for another 300 years.

The patrons on board the Mayflower had two resources at their disposal. The first was a medical book, The Surgeon’s Mate: The First Compendium on Naval Medicine, Surgery and Drug Therapy (1617) was written on behalf of the East India Company by Dr. John Woodall, the first Surgeon General of England. The full text of the book is available online. Here a couple of the passages:

On the dismembering knife and the Catling – THese two instruments are to be used in dismembring; as namely, they are to amputate, or to take off any offensive member or part* of mans body: I mean all the fleshie part, or whatsoever may be incised even to the bone: And also in dismembring of the legge or arm below the knee or elbow, you shall have occasion to use the incision knife to cut asunder betwixt the bones or else where, whatsoever the Catling or dismembring knife cannot come at by reason of their greatnesse or unfitnesse; and then proceed to the sawe. To conclude, one of each kinde may serve for one Chest, so they be sharp and fitly grownd, and not too thinne edged. They are both very needfull instruments to be at hand upon all occasions in the Surgeons Chest.

On the Head-saw – THe Head-saw is an instrument with which a vent may be given sometimes through the Cranium, and thereby the use of the Trapan may be happily forborn: and for that reason this instrument may have a place in the Surgeons Chest: sometimes also a small ragged piece of the Cranium may so hang, that this instrument may be used to sawe it away. But I wish young Artists not to be over-busie in* sawing, plucking away, or raising the fractured Cranium, as is said, more then of mere necessitie they are argued unto, lest fearfull and suddain accidents follow, not to be avoyded not stayed: If ought be meerly loose, and in sight, take that away; if not, forbear to pluck much at first, for nature is exceeding beneficiall in eiecting unnaturall things in that part, and very froward if thou use force whilest she is weak her self.

The second resource was a couple, Deacon Samuel Fuller and his wife Bridget Fuller. Deacon Fuller could read the book and apply it. Deacon Fuller would become the surgeon of the Plymouth Colony, and his wife assisted him. She was in practice until 1663.

Arrival in the New World

Many travelers on the Mayflower were sick during the tri,p and five died before they made it to the New World. However, those who made it to the new world didn’t have better luck:

That winter of 1620-1621 was brutal, as the Pilgrims struggled to build their settlement, find food and ward off sickness. By spring, 50 of the original 102 Mayflower passengers were dead. The remaining settlers made contact with returning members of the Wampanoag tribe and in March they signed a peace treaty with a tribal chief, Massasoit.

Where did the individuals who needed medical attention go for care during this time? The answer was a hospital, at least after the settlers built it (presumably a certificate of need was not required for the construction of this hospital):

The first common house nearly completed in January, built for general use. Each single man was ordered to join himself to one of the 19 families in order to eliminate the need to build any more houses than absolutely necessary. Each extended family was assigned a plot and they each built their own home and the settlement was mostly built by February. The first house was built as a hospital. Thirty-one of the company were dead by the end of February, with deaths still rising. Coles Hill became the first cemetery, on a prominence above the beach Only 47 colonists had survived and at its worst just six or seven were able to feed and care for the rest. In this time, half the Mayflower crew also died.

Imagine making that two-month journey across the Atlantic with nothing more than a medical book and someone who could read it. If you were lucky enough to make it, you then arrive in a foreign land without any idea of the medical mysteries that might be present in the New World. Once you arrive in your new home, the first season you deal with is winter. Weather is delaying the attempts to build the hospital, which, in turn, made individuals sicker.

Thanks to the innovation and hard work of so many medical professionals over the centuries, we have advanced far beyond the medical knowledge that the Pilgrims had. Thanks to human ingenuity, we have a broad understanding of healing and the way the human body works. During this year’s Thanksgiving, we should be thankful for spending time with friends and family. We should also be grateful that, comparatively, we live in the most medically advanced period in human history.