Lotions, Potions, Pills, and Magic

Health Care in Early America

251 pages

14 halftones

March, 2014

ISBN: 9781479807048



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Elaine G. Breslaw retired as Professor of History from Morgan State University in Baltimore after 29 years and has taught on an adjunct basis at Johns Hopkins University, Goucher College, and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She is the author of Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies (NYU Press, 1995), Witches of the Atlantic World: An Historical Reader and Primary Sourcebook (NYU Press, 2000), and Dr. Alexander Hamilton and Provincial America: Expanding the Orbit of Scottish Culture.

All books by Elaine G. Breslaw

Health in early America was generally good. The food was plentiful, the air and water were clean, and people tended to enjoy strong constitutions as a result of this environment. Practitioners of traditional forms of health care enjoyed high social status, and the cures they offered—from purging to mere palliatives—carried a powerful authority. Consequently, most American doctors felt little need to keep up with Europe’s medical advances relying heavily on their traditional depletion methods. However, in the years following the American Revolution as poverty increased and America’s water and air became more polluted, people grew sicker. Traditional medicine became increasingly ineffective. Instead, Americans sought out both older and newer forms of alternative medicine and people who embraced these methods: midwives, folk healers, Native American shamans, African obeahs and the new botanical and water cure advocates.
In this overview of health and healing in early America, Elaine G. Breslaw describes the evolution of public health crises and solutions. Breslaw examines “ethnic borrowings” (of both disease and treatment) of early American medicine and the tension between trained doctors and the lay public. While orthodox medicine never fully lost its authority, Lotions, Potions, Pills, and Magic argues that their ascendance over other healers didn’t begin until the early twentieth century, as germ theory finally migrated from Europe to the United States and American medical education achieved professional standing.


  • “The practice of inoculation, along with other locally derived remedies, receives considerable attention in Elaine G. Breslaw’s Lotions, Potions, Pills, and Magic….Breslaw argues that American physicians and healers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were immersed in local knowledge systems and activities, often at the expense of new medical practice.”

    William and Mary Quarterly

  • "Deliciously titled, 'Lotions, Potions, Pills, and Magic' is an extremely well-written introduction to American health care."


  • "Lotions, Potions, Pills, and Magic: Health Care in Early America by Knoxville writer Elaine Breslaw, who taught at the University of Tennessee History Department for many years, has been hailed by critics as being of special interest to medical and professional historians."

    The Knoxville News-Sentinel

  • "In Lotions, Potions, Pills, and Magic, Elaine Breslaw takes an intriguing backward look at the history of healthcare in early American and finds parallels between the current disillusionment with physicians and the former 'gloomy picture of the early state of health care and the medical profession' (p. 193). Breslaw offers an accessible synthesis of scholarly works on the history of medicine. Her overarching goal is to chart the longstanding tensions between doctors and the public."

    Social History

  • "Breslaw’s book is an important compilation of authoritative research, giving the subject a longer reach and shedding light on a little-known and not-so-pretty subject."

    Library Journal

  • “Breslaw offers a concise, masterful study of early American medical historical literature and charts the complicated record of early American health care, focusing on the decline of the physician in a newly democratic society.”

    —Bethany Johnson, The North Carolina Historical Review

  • "A highly readable and entertaining volume filled with anecdotes and gripping stories."

    History in Review

  • "[Breslaw] provides a powerful and cautionary reminder that understanding those practices is impossible without close attention to power."

    —Simon Finger, Journal of American History

  • "By synthesizing secondary sources in a tightly packed two hundred pages, Elaine Breslaw resists retelling [a] triumphalist narrative and instead focuses much needed attention on medicine and health in America before the Civil War . . . . For those looking for an overview of this period in medical history, Breslaw's book and bibliographical essay provide a starting point."

    Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences

  • "Many histories chronicle American medicine's transformation from its chaotic and disorganized beginnings into 'scientific medicine' in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By synthesizing secondary sources in a tightly packed two hundred pages, Elaine Breslaw resists retelling this triumphalist narrative and instead focuses much needed attention on medicine and health in America before the Civil War."

    —, Journal of the History of Medicine

  • "There is a nice balance between particular stories and wide overviews, and readers meet care-givers who have become famous over the decades, from long-time figures such as Cotton Mather and Benjamin Rush to newer but now indispensable actors such as the New Hampshire midwife Martha Ballard . . . . The book's breadth is valuable."

    Journal of Social History

  • "Lotions, Potions, Pills, and Magic is much more than a history of health in early America. It is a history of struggle, as natives and newcomers alike grappled with the obstacles imposed by biology, ecology, and fellow human beings. Breslaw’s fearless appraisal, supported by stories and anecdotes, entertains, provokes, and cajoles. In the end it calls for a frank reconsideration of the history of America, its health, and its doctors."

    —Elizabeth A. Fenn, author of Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82

  • “This is a wonderfully informative, though often unsettling, reminder that today's American medical practice, based on enlightened science, rigorous medical education, and sound public health policies, is a quite recent phenomenon. Until the late nineteenth century, the causes of diseases were largely unknown; even the most prestigious doctors applied an unfortunate array of remedies—especially opiates and blood-letting—that usually did more harm than good. Elaine Breslaw's welcome narrative (I've long wanted just such a book) reveals how Americans from the early seventeenth century to the late nineteenth survived, or did not, the nation's helter-skelter medical practices, both popular and professional. She is as adept at describing the evolution of childbirth customs and treatment of the mentally ill as she is at explaining how major epidemics such as small pox, yellow fever, and cholera wreaked havoc on American communities and why 'surgeons' could neither treat the symptoms effectively nor prevent their spread. This is a thoughtful and engrossing synthesis of the best literature on American medical history.”

    —Alden T. Vaughan, Professor Emeritus, Columbia University

  • "This impressive synthesis of health care in early America ranges from the catastrophic disasters of initial contact to the nutrition and food ways of early settlers, from childbirth to therapeutic practices, from informal folk healers to a medical establishment, from the training of doctors to public health solutions. It is admirably comprehensive."

    —Philip D. Morgan, Harry C. Black Professor of History, Johns Hopkins University

  • "Owing to a fateful overconfidence on the part of its theorists and practitioners, early American medicine was 'a mess,' writes Elaine Breslaw. In this learned and thoroughgoing history, she tidies up that mess, exploring just about every conceivable health issue, including sanitation, bleeding, fertility, abortions, and childbirth complications, mental illness, painkillers, hydropathy, quackery, legal questions, and treatment across the color line. Lotions, Potions, Pills, and Magic is well-informed, carefully contextualized, and written with great clarity. By putting the vocabulary and practice of early health professionals under a microscope, Breslaw provides an authoritative examination of her vulnerable patient: America."

    —Andrew Burstein, Charles P. Manship Professor of History, Louisiana State University