The Patriot Resource - American Revolution

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Medicine and the American Revolution
Medicine and the American Revolution
How Diseases and Their Treatments Affected the Colonial Army

by Oscar Reiss, M.D.
Published by McFarland & Company, Inc.
January 2005

Book Review from
Medicine and the American Revolution is a detailed (and graphic) analysis of medicine during the war. The two chapters that cover Army Medicine and Medicine in the Navy read much like medical texts: detached and detailed to an extreme. However, if one can wade through those chapters, rewards are waiting. The chapter Leaders of the Medical Department covers the four men who served as director general of the medical department: Benjamin Church, John Morgan, William Shippen, Jr. and John Cochran. The chapter also highlights Dr. Benjamin Rush, who because of his politics had great influence on military medicine.

The other six chapters each concentrate on a particularly serious illness. Dysentery and typhus were issues throughout the war. Dysentary was why so many men died while onboard prison ships. Typhus was why men did not want to remain in the army hospitals. These two chapters discuss the conditions that fostered these illnesses and the efforts to curtail them. The other four chapters each highlight: smallpox, syphilis, scabies and malaria. Each illness is tied to a particular juncture of the war: Canadian invasion, fall of New York City, Valley Forge and the Southern Campaign. However, Dr. Reiss weaves the well-known actions of the war through these chapters. Those six chapters end up carrying a familiar narration of the war, but with medicine taking center stage, rather than just a footnote.

The book is at times dry because of the high level of medical detail, but that's what a reader can expect with the subject matter. Dr. Reiss does include a mix of historical narration and some biographical information, which works to change the pace of the book. If one wanted to know more (much more) about that medical information that is always just a footnote in the majority of histories, then this book is the way to go. Also of note is the appendix which consists of biographies for George Washington and King George III that include detailed information on the various health issues that they encountered throughout their lives.

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