Sickness and Disease in Early America

The Omohundro Institute offers the following readings from OI books and the William and Mary Quarterly as well as links to episodes of Ben Franklin’s World for those interested in reading more about sickness and disease in early America.

Book chapters

The Omohundro Institute, in partnership with UNC Press, has made all of our books open access via Project MUSE through June 2020 to serve the scholarly community during this difficult time.

The following chapters examine how women and men addressed disease in early America.

Dual Revolutions and the Missions: Ecological Change and Demographic Collapse” in Children of Coyote, Missionaries of Saint Francis: Indian-Spanish Relations in Colonial California, 1769-1850, Steven W. Hackel.

English Bodies in America” in American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World, Susan Scott Parrish.

The Local Work Ethic: Fevers and Strangers” in An Anxious Pursuit: Agricultural Innovation and Modernity in the Lower South, 1730-1815, Joyce E. Chaplin. 

Medicine, Physicians, and the Nervous” in Sensibility and the American Revolution, Sarah Knott.

“‘God’s Secret’: John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemical Healing, and the Medical Culture of Early New England” in Prospero’s America: John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606-1676, Walter W. Woodward.

Jamestown: John Smith as a Leader” in Captain John Smith: A Select Edition of His Writings, Karen Ordahl Kupperman.

‘‘‘Allowed to Mourn, but . . . Bound to Submit’: Grief, Grievance, and the Negotiation of Authority” in Passion Is the Gale: Emotion, Power, and the Coming of the American Revolution, Nicole Eustace.

Deathbeds: Tokenography and the Science of Dying Well” in The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England, Sarah Rivett.

WMQ articles

The following articles are accessible via JStor.

Information about JStor
JStor is a subscription-based digital library that provides access to journal articles, books, and primary sources. Many local libraries subscribe to JStor and provide access to patrons through their websites and many college and university libraries offer online portals through which their alumni can access JStor and other online resources. 

For those who seek access without a subscription, JStor offers individual accounts that provide access to 6 articles every 30 days. You can learn more about how to sign up for a JStor individual account here.

Religion and Disease

Kidd, Thomas S. “The Healing of Mercy Wheeler: Illness and Miracles among Early American Evangelicals.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 63, no. 1 (2006): 149-70.

Summary: Using the account of Mercy Wheelers “miraculous healing,” Thomas Kidd explores the tensions that developed in the evangelical belief as to how to look upon “miraculous” healings with radical evangelicals anxious to connect their experiences to the apostolic era and moderates being wary of calling such instant healings “miraculous.”


Miller, Genevieve. “Smallpox Inoculation in England and America: A Reappraisal.” The William and Mary Quarterly 13, no. 4 (1956): 476-92.

Summary: Article explores historic claims that the regular practice of smallpox inoculation in England developed because of its successful employment in the American colonies, specifically in Charleston, South Carolina, and Boston, Massachusetts. 

Minardi, Margot. “The Boston Inoculation Controversy of 1721-1722: An Incident in the History of Race.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 61, no. 1 (2004): 47-76.

Summary: Margot Minardi connects the history of race with the history of medicine by using the Boston inoculation controversy to show what the development of professional medicine and racial ideology shared: “a tendency to give explanatory weight to physical, observable characteristics of the human body.” 

Virgin Soil Epidemics

Crosby, Alfred W. “Virgin Soil Epidemics as a Factor in the Aboriginal Depopulation in America.” The William and Mary Quarterly 33, no. 2 (1976): 289-99.

Summary:  Alfred Crosby investigates how much of a factor disease played in the depopulation of Native American communities in early North America. 

Jones, David S. “Virgin Soils Revisited.” The William and Mary Quarterly 60, no. 4 (2003): 703-42.

Summary: Using the latest research on disease, immunity, and Native American community structures, David S. Jones revisists the work of Alfred Crosby on virgin soil epidemics. Jones explores how Crosby’s work has been misunderstood and misrepresented by subsequent historians and reassesses the causes for why Native Americans seemed susceptible to European diseases.

Yellow Fever

Pernick, Martin S. “Politics, Parties, and Pestilence: Epidemic Yellow Fever in Philadelphia and the Rise of the First Party System.” The William and Mary Quarterly 29, no. 4 (1972): 559-86.

Summary: The yellow fever epidemic in 1793 proved to be so expansive and so confounding to doctors that it paved the way for the rise of America’s first party political system. 


Immunology and Ideology

Critical Forum: Cristobal Silva, Miraculous Plagues: An Epidemiology of Early New England Narrative

Summary: The following review essays explore different aspects of Cristobal Silva’s book, Miraculous Plagues: An Epidemiology of Early New England Narrative

Kathleen Donegan. “The Bonds of Immunity.” The William and Mary Quarterly 70, no. 4 (2013): 813-16. 

Pablo F. Gómez. “The Language of Epidemics: Narrative, Biology, and the Other from Smallpox to AIDS.” The William and Mary Quarterly 70, no. 4 (2013): 817-20.

Justine S. Murison. “Anachronism, Literary Historicism, and Miraculous Plagues.” The William and Mary Quarterly 70, no. 4 (2013): 821-23.

Rebecca J. Tannenbaum. “Putting Health and Medicine Back into History: Commentary on Cristobal Silva, Miraculous Plagues.” The William and Mary Quarterly 70, no. 4 (2013): 824-26. 

Matt Cohen. “‘The Indians Told Them That Sickness Would Follow’: A Response to Miraculous Plagues.” The William and Mary Quarterly 70, no. 4 (2013): 827-31.

Cristobal Silva. “Epidemiology as Method: Literary Criticism in the Age of HIV/AIDS.” The William and Mary Quarterly 70, no. 4 (2013): 832-38.

Kathleen Donegan. “Response to Cristobal Silva.” The William and Mary Quarterly 70, no. 4 (2013): 839-40.

Pablo F. Gómez. “Response to Cristobal Silva.” The William and Mary Quarterly 70, no. 4 (2013): 841-42. 

Justine S. Murison. “Response to Cristobal Silva.” The William and Mary Quarterly 70, no. 4 (2013): 843-44.

Rebecca J. Tannenbaum. “Response to Cristobal Silva.” The William and Mary Quarterly 70, no. 4 (2013): 845-46.

Matt Cohen. “Response to Cristobal Silva.” The William and Mary Quarterly 70, no. 4 (2013): 847-48.

Cleanliness in Early America

Critical Forum: Kathleen Brown, Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America

Summary: Review essays of Kathleen M. Brown’s book, Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America

Ann M. Little. “Bodies, Geographies, and the Environment.” The William and Mary Quarterly 68, no. 4 (2011): 679-85. 

Kathryn Norberg. “Bodies in European and American Historiography.” The William and Mary Quarterly 68, no. 4 (2011): 686-89. 

Kathleen M. Brown. “The Historical Body, Our Humanity, and the Cost of Modernity.” The William and Mary Quarterly 68, no. 4 (2011): 690-93. 

Jan Ellen Lewis. “Cleanliness and Culture: Further Thoughts.” The William and Mary Quarterly 68, no. 4 (2011): 694-96.

Ann M. Little. “Where the Boys Were.” The William and Mary Quarterly 68, no. 4 (2011): 697-98.

Kathryn Norberg. “Cleanliness and Rights.” The William and Mary Quarterly 68, no. 4 (2011): 699-700. 


Johnson, Victoria and Hosack, David. “Episode 273: Botany, and Medicine in the Early Republic,” Ben Franklin’s World, 2020

This episode explore medical training in the late 18th century and the use of plants in early American medicine. It also explores how the founding of the first botanical garden in the United States established a framework for creating philanthropic institutions.

Abrams, Jeanne. “Episode 005: Revolutionary Medicine: The Founding Fathers and Mothers in Sickness and in Health,” Ben Franklin’s World, 2014

Summary: Jeanne Abrams explores what the founding fathers and mothers understood about health and wellness during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Osborn, Matthew. “Episode 043: Rum Maniacs: Alcoholic Insanity in the Early American Republic,” Ben Franklin’s World, 2015

Summary: Curious how the practice of medicine became a professional pursuit? Matthew Osborn explores this process by investigating early Americans’ fascination with delirium tremens or alcoholic insanity.

Charters, Erica. “Episode 116: Disease and the Seven Years’ War,” Ben Franklin’s World, 2017

Summary: During periods of warfare, soldiers often find they have to combat many enemies: enemy combatants, supply shortages, lack of information, and sickness and disease. Erica Charters helps us view the Seven Years’ War through the lens of disease and medicine so we can better understand how disease prompted the British imperial government to take steps to keep its soldiers healthy.

Apel, Thomas. “Episode 174: Yellow Fever in the Early American Republic,” Ben Franklin’s World, 2018

Summary: Yellow fever stands as one of the most deadly diseases to take hold in the early United States between the 1790s and early 1800s. Thomas Apel takes listeners through the science of yellow fever and what happened in early American cities like Philadelphia when yellow fever epidemics struck.

Altschuler, Sari. “Episode 263: The Medical Imagination,” Ben Franklin’s World, 2019

Summary: Imagination once played a key role in the way Americans understood and practiced medicine. Sari Altschuler investigates the ways early American doctors used imagination to better understand disease and in their practices of medicine.