Revolutionary Medicine

The Founding Fathers and Mothers in Sickness and in Health

314 pages

September, 2013

ISBN: 9780814789193



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Jeanne E. Abrams is Professor at the University Libraries and the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver, where she is also Director of the Rocky Mountain Jewish Historical Society, and Curator of the Beck Archives, Special Collections.  She is the author of Revolutionary Medicine: The Founding Fathers and Mothers in Sickness and in Health (NYU Press, 2013).

All books by Jeanne E. Abrams

An engaging history of the role that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin played in the origins of public health in America 
 Before the advent of modern antibiotics, one’s life could be abruptly shattered by contagion and death, and debility from infectious diseases and epidemics was commonplace for early Americans, regardless of social status. Concerns over health affected the founding fathers and their families as it did slaves, merchants, immigrants, and everyone else in North America. As both victims of illness and national leaders, the Founders occupied a unique position regarding the development of public health in America. Revolutionary Medicine refocuses the study of the lives of George and Martha Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John and Abigail Adams, and James and Dolley Madison away from the usual lens of politics to the unique perspective of sickness, health, and medicine in their era. For the founders, republican ideals fostered a reciprocal connection between individual health and the “health” of the nation. Studying the encounters of these American founders with illness and disease, as well as their viewpoints about good health, not only provides us with a richer and more nuanced insight into their lives, but also opens a window into the practice of medicine in the eighteenth century, which is at once intimate, personal, and first hand. Perhaps most importantly, today’s American public health initiatives have their roots in the work of America’s founders, for they recognized early on that government had compelling reasons to shoulder some new responsibilities with respect to ensuring the health and well-being of its citizenry.  The state of medicine and public healthcare today is still a work in progress, but these founders played a significant role in beginning the conversation that shaped the contours of its development.


  • "Revolutionary Medicine is a 'must-read' for anyone interested in the birth of America. Upon closing Jeanne E. Abrams's wonderful book about the illnesses and health experiences of the nation's founders, you will never be able to look at Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and their peers the same way again."

    —Howard Markel, author of An Anatomy of Addiction

  • "As America enters a new era of health care, this timely volume recalls what medicine was like in the days of the Founding Fathers. Everything from Washington's dental woes to Jefferson's troublesome headaches and Dolley Madison’s tragic encounter with yellow fever finds its way into this lively and well-researched book. In recounting battles over vaccinations, herbal remedies, the efficacy of blood-letting, and the appropriate role for government intervention in medical issues, Revolutionary Medicine reminds us that debates over health care are nothing new in America. They go back to our founders."

    —Jonathan D. Sarna, author of When General Grant Expelled the Jews

  • "Contemporary debates over medical research budgets and guaranteeing health insurance for all Americans echo conversations about the necessity of good health to the well-being and prosperity of the citizenry that began at the dawn of our national history. In lucid, accessible prose, historian Jeanne E. Abrams turns to the lives and experiences of George and Martha Washington, John and Abigail Adams, James and Dolly Madison, as well as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin to illuminate conversations about health, public and private, in our republic’s early years. Abrams's fine volume is a tonic for the frequent neglect of health and disease in so many histories of the early republic."

    —Alan M. Kraut, author of Goldberger’s War: The Life and Work of a Public Health Crusader

  • "We know their vaunted place in history: Presidents Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison, and statesman, scientist, and pamphleteer Benjamin Franklin. But it’s their work in public health—and their personal battles with illness—that makes this blend of political and medical history so engaging...Abrams’s meticulous medical portrait of colonial times—and its most powerful leaders—will be fascinating reading for students of both history and medicine."

    Publishers Weekly

  • "Revolutionary a readable and eye-opening account. We know so much about the Founders, but we rarely pause to think just how difficult 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness' can be when you lack a good doctor or science-based care."

    The Wall Street Journal

  • One of the "Top Books for Docs" in 2013.


  • “…Abrams paints a picture of an era in medical history that is at once humorous, horrific and fascinating.”

    Intermountain Jewish News

  • “Five case studies demonstrate the new nation’s state of medical practice, the founder’s bouts of illness and the republican ideal that individual and national health were connected-the roots, Abrams argues, of repeated attempts to rationalize our national health-care system.”

    American History

  • “Using the prism of public health, Jeanne E. Abrams, in her book Revolutionary Medicine, examines how the health of the founding mothers and fathers affected both the individuals concerned and the nation as a whole. Looking at the lives of such luminaries as George and Martha Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John and Abigail Adams, James and Dolley Madison, and Thomas Jefferson, Abrams examines how illness impacted the lives of these individuals, and how their reaction to theses illnesses mirrored those of the nation as a whole. Most important, in this compelling work, Abrams shows how the personal experiences of these leading citizens encouraged them to advocate for a governmental role in the nation's developing healthcare system…A combination of medical and political history, Revolutionary Medicine provides a keen overview of the state of medical science during the revolutionary period. She writes in an engaging narrative style that makes this work accessible to both academics and lay readers with an interest in American history, or the history of medicine and public health in the 18th century.”

    History in Review

  • "A University of Denver professor takes an in-depth look at the American medical landscape during the 18th century, a pre-antibiotic time of the epidemics and infectious diseases when Americans were also dealing with little projects like fighting the British for independence and establishing the United States."

    The Denver Post

  • "Magnificently indexed, this is [a book] of special value to undergraduates. It also deserves a wide audience of general readers. Summing Up: Highly recommended."

    —I. Richman, CHOICE

  • "[Revolutionary Medicine] is a solid descriptive account of the medical world of our founding fathers."

    Journal of Interdisciplinary History

  • “Abrams tells the founders’ stories in a lucid and engaging narrative voice. She renders their pains and pleasures with sensitivity and insight. Its pages will hold few surprises for the specialist, but any reader interested in the revolutionary era or the lives of the American founders will surely learn a great deal from Abrams’s study.”

    —Simon Finger, Bulletin of the History of Medicine

  • "Revolutionary Medicine fills a significant niche. Its subject is not entirely pristine, but Abrams adds much and synthesises masterfully. Her book deserves to be a source of reference and of reading pleasure for years to come."

    —Paul Kopperman, Social History of Medicine

  • "In addition to the broad yet intensely personal health concerns Abrams describes, a key strength of Revolutionary Medicine is the humanization of the Founders. For denizens of the twenty-first century, the Founders often seem frozen as portraits on currency or entombed forever as inanimate, superhuman monuments and statues.  Abrams reminds us that they were flesh-and-blood souls navigating lives in many ways similar to ours.”

    North Carolina Historical Review

  • “The strength of the book is Abrams’s compilation of fascinating, gruesome, and often-tragic details of the lives of these founders, which lends them a corporeal presence that is absent from most histories.”

    The Journal of American History

  • “Written in an engaging style and largely based on the personal letters and papers of the founding families, Abrams sheds new light on how republican ideals were shaped by encounters with disease.”

    William and Mary Quarterly