Breathing a Vein
 Breathing a Vein
Because 18th century American populations were essentially stationary—a majority of the population never ventured more than a few miles from home in the course of a lifetime—they rightfully feared the invasion of outsiders. Traveling armies carried with them a potpourri of communicable diseases and there were few means to combat the ailments these soldiers brought.

There were approximately 3500 doctors in America just before the American Revolution. Most had more in common with a medieval barber than a modern M.D.

A colonial doctor's principal role was to provide comfort and support, set broken bones, and prescribe occasional herbal remedies. Opiates were used to alleviate pain, and quinine was known to be an effective treatment for malaria. But each group of drugs tended to be overused. Appropriate dosages and applications (quinine, for instance, was called upon for a wide-variety of fever-related ailments) would need to be measured by future generations.

Theories of medicine at the time were based on the notion that disease was caused by an imbalance in bodily "humors," or fluids. To treat an illness, you either added fluids, or drained them away. Contained in a doctor's little black bag were implements designed to purge, sweat and bleed infected fluids from the body. There were emetics and diuretics, scalpels and leeches. Steaming hot poultices were used to intentionally create infections on scalded skin. The drainy pus that flowed afterward was thought to ooze beneficially.

South of New England, malaria had a devastating effect on the population, particularly to newcomers to the climate, who had no acquired immunity to the disease.

Scholar Sylvia Frey
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describe smallpox inoculation
The most feared ailment north and south, however, was smallpox, which could be both disfiguring and fatal. The roughened skin of facial smallpox scars were a common sight in Revolutionary America, though artists tended to render these blemishes as rosier-than-normal cheeks in portraiture of the time.

Smallpox inoculation had existed in America since the early part of 18th century. It was not until the Revolutionary War that the practice became widespread, however, when Congress ordered the inoculation of all troops in the Continental Army.