Colonial medicine – today’s research rabbit hole!

I AM writing, right now. Really I am. Words have appeared where they weren’t before. But I’ve also just taken a little side research trip that I wanted to share (and remember!)

Without giving the game away, in my next book I have a character who is very ill one night and rumors of what went on cause a scandal that haunts her for the next twenty years or more. Naturally I need to get the medical facts right about what she says was happening, as well as what perhaps was actually happening on that night in Virginia, in October 1791. It was only a short internet jump from there for me to spend a good hour or so learning about the famous physician, Benjamin Rush. Here’s some highlights.

Benjamin Rush (portrait at Winterthur)

Benjamin Rush was born in Philadelphia in 1746 about an hour away from where I live now. I’d consider going to see the site, but apparently is was ‘accidentally bulldozed’ in the 1960’s. He studied law at Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) and medicine in Edinburgh, Scotland (my home city!) He was active in the American Revolution and a signatory of the Declaration of Independence. A friend of Ben Franklin’s, he was an anti-slavery advocate, active in reforming the treatment of the mentally ill, and had a huge impact on the field of medicine in the US as a teacher at the University of Pennsylvania. He was married, had thirteen children, and died of typhus in 1813.

My two favorite things I’ve found to do with Benjamin Rush this morning, though are these:

  1. His medicine bag – photo and contents:
Benjamin Rush’s medicine chest
Contents of Medicine Chest

2. The Mutter Museum’s Benjamin Rush Medicinal Plant Garden

Mutter Museum Medicinal Plant Garden

This screenshot is just to give you an idea. A pdf leaflet is available here. The herb garden listing is the perfect resource and if that’s not enough, they also are currently asking people to help them name a new ‘corpse flower’ in the garden. Check it out here. Who will you vote for? I chose… well that would be telling now wouldn’t it!!

If you are not familiar with it, do check out the Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia online or in person. It’s one of my favourite museums with highlights that include slices of Albert Einstein’s brain (yes really, I’ve seen them) and a cast of the liver of conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker, two men I’ve an interest in because of their connection to P.T. Barnum.

Now. Back to writing.

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