In preparation for Thanksgiving, I thought I’d read a little more about medicine in the early colonies and chanced upon this article about physicians at early Jamestown. It makes for sad reading. There’s a lot about wound care. The article describes the plight of the colonists and the barber “chirurgeons” who tried valiantly to save the settlers as well as themselves. There’s a marvelous account of Dr. Walter Russell who managed to save Captain John Smith from what appeared to be certain death following a stingray envenomation in the wrist in 1608 at a place which henceforth became known as Stingray Point, Virginia. I was born in Virginia and Stingray Point is still there.
There’s one other story worth noting. When Lord Delaware (Thomas West) came to Virginia in 1610 to take over for Smith, he was stricken with a succession of terrible illnesses culminating in Scurvy. (In fact, the entire colony was in a terrible state of health.) He finally left Jamestown (taking the doctor he brought with him!), intending to sail to the West Indies but ended up in the Azores where he recorded in his diary that a diet of lemons and oranges cured his scurvy! It would be 130 years before the English Navy began to use citrus to prevent scurvy, and more than 300 years before the discovery of Vitamin C. This Thanksgiving, give a thought to those courageous early settlers who endured conditions of unbearable hardship in a New World.
Caroline Fife, MD
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