The Influence of European Medical Texts on Colonial New England Medicine.

Rosemary Pollock, MA        

University of California-Los Angeles, UC-Santa Barbara, CA, USA

This article explores the influence of eighteenth-century European medical texts on the lives of two colonial New England physicians, Dr. Thomas Williams (1718-1775) and his apprentice Dr. Elihu Ashley (1750-1817) of Deerfield, Massachusetts.  Dr. Williams was given the “Charge & Duty of Chirurgeon” to the regular and provincial troops by Royal Gov. William Shirley. He served from 1744 to 1748 in King George’s War, and again in 1756 until the end of the Seven Years War.  Dr. Williams’s personal library held more than twelve multi-volume medical texts from Europe that were used to sustain the health of the individual, the viability of the colonial soldier, and the training of apprentices.

This article will challenge the idea that New England physicians were isolated from the advancements of a medical education available only in Europe. The influence of these texts in the treatment of Dr. Williams’ patients during King George’s War and the Seven Years War in Massachusetts, and during the apprenticeship of Elihu Ashley will be explored herein. Their journals and personal papers provide an opportunity to place European theory and the practice of medicine within the framework of colonial New England medicine. 

Keywords: European medical texts, apprenticeship, Deerfield, Line of Forts, King George’s War, Seven Years War. 

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The Influence of European Medical Texts: The Contributions of Dr. Thomas Williams and Elihu Ashley

Four days before the death of Dr. Thomas Williams on September 28, 1775, Elihu Ashley, his most respected apprentice, was called home by the family to the bedside of his mentor and friend.  Ashley traveled the twenty miles from Worthington, Massachusetts on horseback, arriving late in the evening and sitting beside Dr. Williams’s bedside until sunrise. 

“Just able to whisper he told me he has some proposals to make me which were that I should come and take care of his Family and set up the Practice here and take his Medicines, which he gave me, said I might keep two Cows upon the Farm as he Expected I should marry Polly, whom he desired I should Treat with Kindness. Also Desired I would take the whole care of the Business as if it were my own.”[i]

At the age of only twenty-five-years, the young Dr. Ashley accepted this offer and assumed both a great deal of responsibility and opportunity.  With agreeing to marry Polly, Dr. William’s daughter whom he loved and had always intended to marry, he assumed the responsibility for a large household of ten. These included the widow Williams, her two daughters, aged twenty-two, and eighteen, five sons aged, twelve, nine, eight, six, and two; the management of a large house and farm and the commitment to care for the health of the majority of the community of Deerfield and for many patients in the surrounding towns. This is how Dr. Ashley’s forty-two-year medical practice commenced in the town of Deerfield, Massachusetts in the middle of the eighteenth century. Dr. Ashley continued to care for Dr. Williams’ patients and family until his death in 1817.

What had prepared Elihu Ashley to accept this daunting task?  Although limited in practical experience as a physician, Ashley was most qualified by the training and study he received as a medical apprentice to Dr. Thomas Williams.  From this experience, he was connected to the scientific revolution occurring in Europe through the study and application of currently published and readily available medical texts.

Little has been written about the influence of European medical texts on the practice of eighteenth-century colonial New England medicine and their extended influence on medical apprenticeships.  Although eighteenth-century Massachusetts was geographically separated from the medical and educational opportunities of England, Scotland, and the Netherlands, it was not excluded from their influence. The publication of important medical texts from Europe provided colonial New England physicians and their apprentices with the latest medical knowledge that allowed them to thrive in an enlightened intellectual culture of their own.[ii]  Acquiring the latest European medical texts and applying this knowledge in the daily treatment of medicine provided the colonial New England physician with the latest medical knowledge to sustain the health of the individual, the viability of the colonial soldier, and the well-being of the community at large.  In addition, physicians taught their apprentices the most current medical knowledge available for the benefit of future generations. 

Many believe that New England physicians were isolated from the advancements of a medical education available only in Europe.  Europe had a medical tradition of study based on the writings of classical authors and scientific lectures given at the foremost medical universities in Leiden, England, and Scotland.  However, through a wide circulation of printed medical texts, many colonial New England physicians and their apprentices received medical knowledge that was currently being taught in Europe. [iii]

London medical schools provided a predominantly practical education based on anatomy, dissection, and surgical techniques, while the curriculum from Edinburgh stressed medical theory.  It has also been argued that Massachusetts’ physicians focused primarily on practical medicine at the expense of theory, preferring instead the standard treatment of bleeding and purging.[iv]  However, this is not the case.  The focus of this paper will be to show the practices of Massachusetts physician such as Dr.  Thomas Williams contrary to this assertion.  Both were influenced by the medical and scientific knowledge in Europe as evidenced by regularly purchased medical texts for the study and application of new theory to their daily practice of medicine.  

Teaching Hospitals and European Texts

A demand for British medical texts increased during the colonial period along with a dependence on imported drugs and surgical instruments.[v]  Medical students were less eager to subscribe to the traditional ways of learning, available at Oxford and Cambridge, and were increasingly eager to attend the teaching hospitals in Edinburgh and London.[vi]  The increasing need for colonial physicians to have the benefits of a teaching hospital without the expense of traveling to Europe initiated a copy of the two-tiered system of the Edinburgh model in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia model allowed hundreds of medical students to attend lectures every year without the cost and commitment of obtaining a degree.  Founded in 1765, University of Pennsylvania adjusted three years of formal study to two, and changed the language component from Latin to English for medical students. The goal of the University was to “bring the university and city considerable advantages, and, in return, carry the fame of their learning and their professors to every quarter of the globe.”[vii]  Not all physicians and medical apprentices attended the University of Pennsylvania. Travel and the time required for a lengthy commitment to study were expensive and not available to the majority of medical apprentices.  Instead, many relied on purchasing and studying printed European texts on their own or under the direction of a mentor.

Three medical notebooks, in addition to multiple European medical texts survive in the Thomas Williams papers collection. They provide evidence of his interest in the scientific changes occurring in Europe.[viii] All three medical notebooks are dated 1738, the presumed last year of his apprenticeship with Dr. Wheat. The first is a twenty-eight page, personally copied text of a book by William Salmon, M.D. entitled, The English Herbal: or History of Plants.  The text is an alphabetical listing of herbal medicinals complete with definitions, qualities, applications, and recipes for the formulation of each.[ix] 

The second of Thomas Williams’ books is “The Aphorisms of Hippocrates.” [x]  This thirty-one page book, also handwritten by Thomas Williams, starts with explanations of Hippocrates Aphorisms, along with their qualities, applications, and recipes for formulation, much like that of William Salmon’s book. It also includes a large section on Robert Whyte. Finally, the book has an index of entries and mentions Whyte’s Remedies in Nervous Diseases.[xi]

The remaining text is eleven pages long and begins with the title, Bite of a Mad Dog and includes several discussions of differing illnesses and treatments including ardent and intermittent fevers, with medical recipes for their treatment, specific instructions for the treatment of phrenitis or inflammation of the brain, quinsy, an inflammation of the tonsils, and Physics pulmonalis.[xii] These texts and others became part of Dr. Williams’ cache for reference and use while treating patients and colonial troops. These medical notebooks demonstrate the influence of European medical texts on Williams’ own apprenticeship training and provided a critical reference for his later use as a practicing physician.

Dr. Thomas Williams of Deerfield played an important role in laying an educational foundation for medical knowledge and scientific change.  More than twelve multi-volume European medical texts comprised a portion of his library.[xiii]  Dr. Williams used this European derived knowledge in treating British soldiers and French prisoners during King George’s War and the Seven Years War, local patients in Deerfield and in the surrounding towns, and as a central core of instruction for his medical apprentices like Ashley.  Thus, Dr. Thomas Williams connected the scientific revolution occurring in Europe to Deerfield, Massachusetts.

Deerfield and Dr. Thomas Williams

In the mid-eighteenth century Deerfield was a self-contained community with forty-three house lots and thirty-eight households. It sustained a population of approximately three hundred persons, with a total population of about eight hundred surrounding area of forty square miles.[xiv]  As early as 1650, 50 doctors served a population of 50,000 in Massachusetts.  During the early to mid-eighteenth century, more than eight-hundred men referred to themselves as doctor in Massachusetts with the ratio increasing from one in a thousand, to one doctor for every 417 people by 1780.  At the time of independence, Massachusetts contained about ten percent of the population of the colonies and nearly twenty percent of all the doctors in the new republic. [xv]

Dr. Thomas Williams was born in Newton, Massachusetts in 1718.  Williams and his brother Ephraim were raised by his grandparents following the death of their mother just eleven days following his birth.  Williams’ grandfather, Jackson, provided Thomas with an education that led to his study of medicine with Dr. Wheat of Boston and an ample inheritance at his death in 1741.  During this same year, Williams received an honorary M.A. degree from Yale by paying a fee of £9 that covered three years of tuition for the same amount of unattended time in school. He eventually settled in Deerfield to practice medicine in 1739 and married Anna Childs in 1740. After her death in 1748, he married Esther Williams of Weston and together they had twelve surviving children. [xvi]

Dr. Williams was from a well-connected family with political associations that extended into social and business relationships utilizing his expertise as a trusted physician and placing him in many positions of legal influence and military service. The influence of the latest medical and scientific knowledge in Europe on greatly affected Dr. Thomas Williams’ practice of medicine and contributed to his trust and success. The question to be asked then is how did the scientific changes occurring in Europe make their way to Deerfield on the edge of Massachusetts’ western frontier?

Military Service and European Texts

A call for provincial troops and the need for a physician to accompany and care for them in battle brought Williams into military service. He served faithfully from the onset of King George’s War in 1744 to the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748, and served again during the Seven Years War, starting in 1755 through 1763.  Dr. Williams was officially commissioned as physician to the Line of Forts by Massachusetts Gov. William Shirley in 1746.[xvii]  He served as surgeon to the Line of Forts under the command of his brother Captain Ephraim Williams and with this service permanently established his reputation as a physician and Colonel. Military service enhanced the Williams’ family economic and political power and collectively earned them the cultural title of “River Gods.”  Bonds of kinship and class-consciousness distinguished them from their yeoman neighbors.[xviii]

Williams regularly traveled between settlements toward New York including trips to Crown Point, Lake George, Fort William Henry, Fort Edward, Fort Shirley, Fort Pelham, and Fort Massachusetts, carrying with him medical textbooks and his medical and surgical instruments. [xix]  During the mid-1740s and again to Lake George during the 1755 campaign, Dr. Williams carried with him a 28 ½ in. wide x 21 ¼ deep slant-lid desktop. [xx] The portable desk carried important papers and writing materials, medicines and surgical instruments, along with a variety of medical texts to treat the ailments and injuries that accompanied war. 

One of the most important books he carried, A Treatise, or Reflections, Drawn from Practice on GUN-SHOT Wounds by Henry Francis LeDran, helps to illustrate the links between Williams’s medical practice and emerging European medical ideas. [xxi] The inside jacket provided a provenance of sorts about the ownership of LeDran’s work in addition to its lasting importance. It carried a remaining fragment of Thomas Williams’ signature along with that of his daughter Cynthia Williams, who received a portion of his library upon his death in 1775, his son, physician William Stoddard Williams dated 1791, and his grandson, physician Steven West Williams dated 1829. [xxii]

Dr. Williams’ lengthy service was intermittently uneventful but not without risk. On August 14, 1746 Dr. Williams, the Rev. John Norton, and fourteen soldiers left Fort Shirley, and passed through Fort Pelham and Fort Massachusetts, where men were suffering from “dysentery, gripping, and the flux,” on the way to their final destination of Deerfield.   They were unaware they were being spared the destruction of Fort Massachusetts, to occur five days later on August 19th, as the undetected and not fully assembled enemy of 400 Frenchmen and 300 Native allies allowed them to pass.[xxiii] The Peace Treaty in 1748 concluded King George’s War and Dr. Williams was able to return home to Deerfield to build a house and reestablish his private practice of medicine.

By 1754, this short period of uneasy peace ended with a renewed outbreak of fighting in the Ohio Valley.  In 1755, Gov. William Shirley issued a request for troops to defend the colony against French and Indian attacks.  The battle of Lake George was the first action fought by French army regulars in the Seven Years War and Dr. Thomas Williams’ services were again required as regimental surgeon to the troops. Dr. Williams was assisted in his work at Lake George by Doctor Charles Pynchon (1719-1783) of Springfield, and two additional assistants.[xxiv] 

Dr. Williams served under the leadership of his brother Major Ephraim Williams Jr. who was commander of the provincial regiment and present at his death.  He wrote the following to his wife in a letter in a very personal, but matter-of-fact account of the battle at Lake George. 

“My dear brother Ephraim was killed in the beginning of the action, by a ball through his head.” [xxv]

In addition, he recorded it was, “the most awful day that my eyes ever beheld…for nearly four hours…there seemed to be nothing but thunder & lightening & perpetual pillars of smoke…The wounded were brought in very fast & it was with the utmost difficulty that their wounds could be dressed fast enough, even in the most superficial manner, having in about three hours near forty men to be dressed.” [xxvi] 

On this same day, September 8th Dr. Williams treated the wounds of captured Major-General Jean-Armand Dieskau, a German-born baron who had served for more than 30 years in the French army.[xxvii] Six days after the battle, Dieskau wrote to the French Secretary of War stating the he received four bullet wounds, one of which “passed from one hip to the other.” Williams and Pynchon cared for Dieskau for nine days before he traveled as a prisoner to Albany.[xxviii]

For the remainder of his life Dr. Williams was part of an elite group of old soldiers and answered to the familiar title of Colonel Williams to many long after his service in the war ended.  In addition, Dr. Williams served in many civilian posts; town clerk, representative, selectman, probate judge and justice of the Court of Common Pleas until his death in 1775 on the eve of the American Revolution. [xxix] Dr. Williams’ legacy as a mentor includes the names of nine medical apprentices and covers the years from 1749 through 1774, just one year prior to his death. [xxx]  However, most notable, due to his surviving diary, is the recorded apprenticeship of Elihu Ashley to Dr. Thomas Williams.

Apprenticeships and European Texts

As an apprentice, Ashley was a good investment for Dr. Thomas Williams. He was reliable, talented, and held a reputation for possessing a level head and a kind disposition during the volatile pre-Revolutionary times. Ashley’s academic background had prepared him with the ability to read Latin and Greek, and a necessary understanding of the math and science needed to prepare and formulate medicine.  Over a nearly two year period, Ashley logged approximately four to six hours a day, usually three to four days a week, reading medical texts from Williams’s library. During his study he completed twelve European medical texts in addition to twelve novels for pleasure.  Additionally, Ashley completed his medical apprenticeship over a two-year period, amidst an active social life, an growing base of patient visits, and as a part time commitment as a scribe for the legal needs of the community. [xxxi] There is no direct mention of the financial cost of his apprenticeship only the speculation of an invoice dated December 13, 1774 that he mentions before leaving Dr. Williams’ care, “the whole of my things amounted to fourteen Pounds 9/3 LM [legal money].”[xxxii] 

Knowledge was always important to the residents of Deerfield and the surrounding areas.  Elihu Ashley lived in a rich educational environment of graduates from Harvard, Yale, Williams College, and Hatfield Academy. In his diary, he mentions the names of thirty-eight acquaintances who graduated from Harvard and seventy-eight who graduated from Yale. [xxxiii]  

As an apprentice, Elihu Ashley was able to study and apply to practice the lectures and scientific writings of influential men of science and letters from universities such as Leiden, Edinburgh, and the Royal College of Physicians. Through a regimen of daily study, coupled with practical experience gained from working alongside Dr. Thomas Williams, Ashley was a dedicated student of medicine. With the knowledge and experience he gained from studying more than twelve European medical texts, Ashley was able to diagnose, treat, and prepare a wide variety of therapeutic medicines in the treatment of illness and disease in his practice. Detailed entries in Ashley’s diary, during his internship and from the eleven months of practicing as a doctor in Worthington, Massachusetts, provide a window into the practice of medicine in the eighteenth-century town of Deerfield, Massachusetts and show the important role that the exchange of medical texts had in bringing European medical ideas across the Atlantic, and into colonial America.

Twelve multi-volume medical texts comprised Ashley’s curriculum. The writings of Herman Boerhaave, who taught medicine at Leiden from 1701 to 1738, marked some the more prestigious readings.[xxxiv]  Booerhaave’s lectures, along with the books of Gerard Van Swieten, and Daniel Turner’s Discourse Concerning Fevers, remained within the next two generations of the Williams’ family of physicians providing a background of medical knowledge that mirrored what was then only to be experienced in Europe.[xxxv] Dr. Thomas Williams most likely purchased these and other texts from Boston physician and apothecary Dr. Sylvester Gardiner. [xxxvi]

The first of the twelve texts read by Ashley was Gerard van Swieten’s The Commentaries, which were a digest of Hermann Boerhaave’s, Aphorisms on the Diagnosis and Cure of Disease published in 1709.[xxxvii] They were considered Boerhaave’s most difficult material. Hermann Boerhaave (1668-1738) was a Dutch physician and professor of medicine who graduated in philosophy from the University of Leiden in 1684 and in medicine from the academy at Harderwijk in 1693. He spent the entirety of his professional career at Leiden where he served as professor of botany and medicine. Boerhaave was known as the great clinical or bedside teacher and was a leading medical teacher of the early eighteenth century. His works on medicine and chemistry were being used widely as basic textbooks.[xxxviii] The aphorisms were applications of chemistry and were originally spoken in Latin during Boerhaave’s lectures. His fame as an author of basic medical texts, as a physician, and as a professor of medicine at the University of Leiden, was renowned throughout Europe long before he died and the Commentary was standard reading for medical students.[xxxix]

Ashley also made more than seven references to reading Van Swieten’s Commentaries, in the first three months of his apprenticeship. The first reference was in March of 1773, and the last when finishing the final fifth volume on July 5, of the same year.

“This morning I returned to my Books and began to read the fifth Volume of Boerhaaves Lecures, having finished the Van Swictens

Commentaries Saturday last. I read all the Forenoon, …after dinner…studied till half after five.” [xl]

Additionally, Ashley read Dr. Boerhaave’s academical lectures on the theory of physic, in addition to the Commentaries. The Lectures consisted of six volumes printed in English from 1742-1746.  They covered topics such as the structure of arteries and veins, circulation of the blood, structure of the heart and lungs, and information on the nerves and the spirit of the brain. [xli]

Finally, A New Medical Dictionary by John Quincy is also listed among Ashley’s medical readings.  Its purpose was to incorporate mechanical and hypothetical themes in medicine, since Quincy claimed, “there was so little unity in thought.” [xlii]  Several applications of medical treatments from A New Medical Dictionary are found in multiple places in Ashley’s diary. Some of them coincide with another text by John Quincy, English Dispensatory that was published in London in 1761 and frequently used by Ashley for the practical application of its medicinal preparation for treatment. The following letter dated July 15, 1762 from Col. Oliver Partridge of Hatfield provides some information indicating the value of the text and that it was first used by Dr. Thomas Williams during campaigns in the Seven Years War.

 “Dear Sir, I am this moment returned from my Shoffield & Salisbury Tour have found Quincy Dispensatory at Salisbury and the people there tell me the use of the book were carried away by Col. Williams of Pittsfield

in his sons Chest.” [xliii]

Col. Williams of Pittsfield was the brother-in-law of Dr. Thomas Williams who had a son that studied medicine with Dr. Williams. William Williams was a surgeon’s mate to Dr. Thomas Williams in 1755 at the battle of Lake George and a surgeon in the expanding campaign of 1760. It is William that Col. Partridge is referring to as Col. Williams’ son. [xliv]  

Medical Theory into Practice

Ashley recorded more than forty uses of Quincy’s Dispensatory in his diary.  He used the Dispensatory as a recipe book for making medicines. For example, on April 5, 1773 Ashley wrote:

“Studying all the forenoon. In the Afternoon the Doctr set Murray and myself making the Ethiops Mineral, four Ounces of Each, we

worked upon till dark…” [xlv]

On May 4, 1773, Ashley was given the responsibility to make Unguentum Caeruleum Fortius, a strong blue ointment that consisted of hog’s lard, mercury and sulfur. [xlvi]  This was to be used as a mild ointment for dressing wounds and eruptions of the skin.[xlvii] The formulary in Quincy’s book extends for several paragraphs and requires an expertise in working with the temperatures and consistencies of multiple ingredients. As a medical apprentice it was necessary for Ashley to be proficient in to formulate these recipes in order to prescribe and administer them to his patients.  Nine days later Ashley recorded,

 “This morning I returned to my Study, about Eight the Doctr set Majr and myself a making the Species Hier Picka. We finished it half past twelve…about two I returned to my Books, studied till seven and then went home, spent the Evening there &c.” [xlviii] 

Lazare Rivière, (1589-1655), physician to the king of France, provided the recipe for the pills that Ashley made for Williams on September 10, 1774 as part of his apprentice duties. “Spent almost all of the forenoon in making Reverie’s Pills [sic],” Ashley recorded in his diary.  The Practice of Physick in Seventeen Several Books… was a translation of the works of this renowned doctor.  Lazare Rivière’s works also include four additional books containing five hundred and thirteen observations of famous cures. A fifth book provided medicinal counsel in addition to a table of principle matters. Rivière also includes a dictionary to explain many of his terms that were difficult to understand.[xlix]

Ashley was not only becoming proficient in the formulation of new apothecary he trusted its effectiveness in the treatment of his patients as he incorporated the necessary skills of observation learned from Boerhaave and Sydenham. Dr. Ashley also believed in what he practiced, as he was literally not afraid to take some of his own medicine. On December 27, 1774 he recorded,

 “I then went to reading, had not read long before I was Taken with a prodigious Giddiness, almost Vertigo...not being hardly able to walk…I took a Vomit which vomitted me only Twice… when going to Bed I took Gutto [drops] 20 of Balsm Sulphr anis’d. I slept very well all Night.” [l]  

Ashley also mentions reading the works of Simon Andre Tissot, (1728-1797.)  Foremost in his reading of Tissot, was Advice to the people in general, with regard to their health (Philadelphia, 1771). Tissot is best known for his writings on medical and social sensibilities.   As an apprentice Ashley also read A Compendium of the Practice of Physic, by Theophilus Lobb whose twenty-four lectures were translated into eight volumes of text that were published in London in 1747. [li] Lobb was a member of the College of Physicians and a Fellow of the Royal Society of London.  His work was concerned with causation, secretions, excretions and motions of the body both spontaneous and voluntary. His interest was with the circulation of the blood and how it transmitted deficiencies in the body. Ashley’s experience with Lobb is as follows.

“All the forenoon taken up in Dressing my Patients, the Afternoon was spent in reading Doctr Lobbs Treatise on the Practice of Physick, the Evening I also spent at Home.” [lii] 

Another text to support Ashley’s education in medical theory was Robert Whytt’s Observations on the nature, causes, and cure of those disorders which have been commonly called nervous hypochondriac, or hysteric.[liii]  Whytt discussed the effect of the sympathy of the nerves as a form of pathology. He was president of the Royal College of Physicians in London and a professor of medicine at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Eight volumes were published in 1765, all of which were important and useful to Ashley. On September 6, 1775, he records, “This forenoon I spent at Home in reading Whytts works…[liv] 

Other important medical readings that Ashley utilized include two works on surgery. Samuel Sharp’s Treatise on the Operation of Surgery, published in 1729, 1740, 1769 and Henry Francis LeDran’s, The Operation of Surgery published in 1757, 1768. [lv]Samuel Sharpe (1700-1778) was a fellow of the Royal Society and a member of the Academy of Surgery at Paris. Henry Francis LeDran, (1685-1770) was a French surgeon who gave lectures with the Royal Academy of Paris. He practiced surgery at Hopital de la Charite and is best remembered for his research into cancer which he identified as a local affliction, rather than systemic. LeDran postulated that cancer progressed in stages and advocated surgery for cancer before the tumor was allowed to affect the lymphatic system and his most important contribution is considered The Operation of Surgery, which involves a mastectomy procedure that Dr. Ashley used when he performed an autopsy on his patient, Mrs. Bigelow who died of breast cancer.

Ashley visited the widow Levinah Bigelow near daily from January 1775 until July 1775. When he first examined Mrs. Bigelow, he determined that her condition was cancer but chose to consult with two other doctors regarding the matter, finding her condition inoperable.

“After Looking of her Breast We tarried but a little.  Mr [Huntington] and I Consulted upon the Matter, he advised as wrote in my Diary.”[lvi] 

When she died of cancer on July 26, 1775, he recorded the following after her death.

“Early this morning I went up to Bigelows. Met Mr Hunting there. I took and opened the Widws Breast, found it very Rotten and Spongy. I split it in sever Places, was near and Hour in Examining of it. After I had done I took the Measure of the Cancer which was protruded and it was in Circumference 19 Inches.”  [lvii]

Ashley’s collaboration validated his acceptance by other reputable physicians.  His interest in autopsying the breast displays his knowledge of surgical techniques and his skill in analyzing what he found. His measuring and analysis of the condition are proof of the knowledge and skill acquired from his study of these medical texts. Dr. Ashley’s curiosity about the body and the results of accidents and disease upon it are evidenced in an unfortunate accident that took the lives of a family whose sleigh was crushed when an improperly felled tree hit and killed them.  Ashley recorded the following.

“The Child never breathed, the young Woman lived half an hour, the old Lady about 3 hours.  I went and saw the Corpses whilst they stopt here.The old Lady was struck in the Occiput, her Skull from the Coronal Suture down to the Vertibrae on the Right Temporal Bone, the Kin very much Tore, and also struck on the back part of her head, the Child was struck on the Left Squamose Suture which was much depress’d, so I could lay in my finger for two Inches, also struck on the Occiput, the Child 8 Months old (a Shocking Sight).”[lviii]

In addition to Dr. Ashley’s curiosity and desire to learn more about the body, he was also concerned with causation.  Though not the focus of this paper, it is important to mention that he was inoculated for smallpox on May 7 1775. He fully explains the procedure and his sojourn in and out of poxhouse #5 within his diary.  It seems Ashley’s casual interaction and purposeful seeing of patients and others during the period of inoculation indicates his lack of concern for spreading the disease. Inoculation seemed a growing but controversial practice in Deerfield. Dr. Ashley received a letter from innkeeper Nathaniel Dwight (1770-1831) accusing him of spreading the pox to his granddaughter when Ashley had stopped at his hostelry and inadvertently left his coat. It was never determined that the young girl had the pox. An additional diary entry indicates Dr. Thomas Williams attended to the inoculation of the Taylors family on June 14, 1773 early in Ashley’s apprenticeship.[lix]

The last book I will cover in Ashley’s medical library was that of Dr. Daniel Turner’s, A Discourse Concerning Fevers. In Two Letters To a Young Physician.[lx] As an apprentice, Ashley undoubtedly read Turner’s work as it was part of Dr. Williams’ medical library. Turner was a successful surgeon who was awarded an M.D. degree from Yale, the first medical degree ever issued in the colonies.[lxi]  He was concerned with causation and studied the determinants of disease regarding the nature of fever as it was determined by the pulse and urine. This book is not mentioned in Ashley’s diary but is listed in the probate inventory of the Williams’ family and recorded as owned by Dr. Thomas Williams’ sons, Dr. William Stoddard Williams and Dr. Stephen West Williams.[lxii]  William Stoddard Williams was only twelve when his father died and Dr. Ashley assumed responsibility for the family. Stephen West Williams was the son of William Stoddard and the namesake of his father’s younger brother who died in childhood.

A larger look at Dr. Thomas Williams’ contributions as a physician and Elihu Ashley’s apprenticeship and practice place their lives in a period of dramatic change.  Seminal events such as King George’s War and the French and Indian War defined their lives and those of their patients.  As important as these political and social conflicts were, the  influence of European medical texts helped to shape their practice and had a profound effect on the lives of family, friends, and patients who were citizen-soldiers fighting for independence, loyalists who voiced opposition in this same fight, or uncommitted farmers and merchants. In addition to the importance of these events, it was notable that they occurred within the areas near and surrounding Deerfield and nearby Boston.


Dr. Thomas Williams and Dr. Elihu Ashley, as colonial physicians, were not isolated from the larger medical world community but participated in acquiring and utilizing the many forms of research and medical knowledge that were available from Europe.  These texts found a useful purpose not only in the medical schools in Leiden Netherlands, Edinburgh, Scotland, or in England but in the practice of colonial medicine in the town of Deerfield, Massachusetts.

Interest in European advancements in medicine was always a concern for the physicians of Deerfield, as evidenced by Dr. Thomas Williams’ large medical library and Elihu Ashley’s use of Williams’s collection throughout his apprenticeship and practice. The papers of Thomas Williams and the journal of Elihu Ashley provide an unprecedented examination of an eighteenth-century medical practice and apprenticeship.  Colonial New England physicians were not isolated from the advancements in medical knowledge and educations but instead sought out and embraced the knowledge that was thought to be only available in Europe. As a result, colonial physicians were confident in their ability to practice medicine and were primarily active in utilizing the latest medical information coming from Europe.

Through the publication of important medical texts from Europe, and the practical application of their theory, Dr. Thomas Williams and Dr. Elihu Ashley received valuable medical knowledge allowing them to thrive in an enlightened intellectual culture of their own.  Although they were physically separated from the medical and educational influences of England and Scotland, they were not completely removed from them.  In spite of the distance from Europe, New England actually thrived under the influence of European thought. Colonial medicine, as practiced by physicians Thomas Williams and Elihu Ashley, was more in line with European thought than what was formerly assumed. 

Rosemary Pollock is a Historic Deerfield Fellow (2003) and has Masters Degrees in US History from UCLA and UCSB where she focused on the History of Medicine. She is continuing to research the contributions of Dr. Thomas Williams’ family of four generations of physicians.  Rosemary can be reached for comment at 

[i] Amelia F. Miller & Riggs, Ed., Romance, Remedies, and Revolution: The Journal of Dr. Elihu Ashley of Deerfield, Massachusetts, 1773-1775, (University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 207), p.249.

[ii] Eric H. Christianson, “The Medical Practitioners of Massachusetts, 1630-1800: Patterns of Change and Continuity,” Frederick S. Allis, Jr., Ed., Medicine in Colonial Massachusetts, 1620-1820, Publications of The Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Vol. 57,(Boston, 1980); Paul Nash, “Innocents Abroad: American Students at British Universities in the Early Nineteenth Century, History of Education Quarterly, 1 (1961).

[iii] C. Helen Brock, “The Influence of Europe on Colonial Massachusetts Medicine”p.101; J. Worth Estes, “Therapeutic Practice in Colonial New England,” Frederick S. Allis, Jr., Ed.,  Medicine in Colonial Massachusetts, 1620-1820, (Boston, 1980), p.289; Steven M. Stowe, “Seeing Themselves at Work: Physicians and the Case Narrative in the Mid-19th-Century American South,” Sickness and Health in America: Readings in the History of Medicine and Public Health, Ed., Judith Walzer and Ronald L. Numbers Leavitt (1978, 1984, 1985, 1997), p.161; John Harley Warner, “Science, Healing, and the Character of the Physician,” John Harley Warner and Janet A. Tighe, Major Problems in the History of American Medicine and Public Health, (Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 2001,) p.143.

[iv] Brock, “The Influence of Europe on Colonial Massachusetts Medicine,” pp. 101-116.

[v] Ibid., p.107.

[vi] Nash, Paul. “Innocents Abroad: American Students at British Universities in the Early Nineteenth Century,” History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 2. (June, 1961), pp.32-44; Dow, Derek A., Ed, The Influence of Scottish Medicine: An historical assessment of its international impact, (The Parthenon Publishing Group, New Jersey, 1986), pp. 34-39.

[vii] Lisa Rosner. “Thistle on the Delaware: Edinburgh Medical Education and Philadelphia Practice, 1800-1825,” The Society for the Social History of Medicine 1992 5(1):19-42.

[viii] Thomas Williams Papers, Box 2 Folder 6; William Salmon, M.D., The English Herbal: or History of Plants, (London, 1710).

[ix] Thomas Williams Papers, Box 8 Folder 1, Dr. William Solmons Botonalogy, 1738, PVMA Library, Historic Deerfield, Massachusetts...

[x] Thomas Williams Papers, Box 8, Folder 1 Notebooks on medical subjects, 1738, PVMA Library.

[xi] Robert Whyte, Remedies in Nervous Diseases, does not appear as a stand alone text by Whyte so it may be that Thomas Williams edited a portion of his larger work, Observations on the Nature, Causes, and Cure of the Disorders which are commonly called Nervous, Hypochondriac, or Hysterie…8 vols. (Edinburgh, 3rd ed.,1767).

[xii] Thomas Williams Papers, Box 8, Folder 1, Bite of a Mad Dog, 1738, PVMA Library.

[xiii] Thomas Williams Papers, M926.1 W727p. Inventory list of the appraisals of sundry articles belonging to the estate of Thomas Williams of Deerfield, 1775; Probate inventory includes a list of his medical books. 

[xiv]  Miller & Riggs, p. 23; Sheldon George, A History of Deerfield Massachusetts, Vol. II, Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association Deerfield, 2004, a facsimile of the 1895-96 edition, p.23. 

[xv] Eric H. Christianson, “The Medical Practioners of Massachusetts, 1630-1800: Patterns of Change and Continuity,” Frederick S. Allis, Jr., Ed., Medicine in Colonial Massachusetts, 1620-1820, Publications of The Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Vol. 57,(Boston, 1980), pp.54-55.

[xvi] Michael D. Coe, The Line of Forts: Historical Archaeology on the Colonial Frontier of Massachusetts, University Press of New England, 2006, p.192-193; Sheldon George, A History of Deerfield Massachusetts, Vol. II, p.381.

[xvii] Thomas Williams Papers, Box 8 Folder 1, 15 June 1746, PVMA Library.

[xviii] Kevin M. Sweeney. “Kinship, Class, and Architecture in Western Massachusetts in the Mid Eighteenth Century,” Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 19, No. 4 (Winter 1984), pp.231-255.

[xix] Michael D. Coe, The Line of Forts: Historical Archaeology on the Colonial Frontier of Massachusetts, University Press of New England, 2006, p.1-3. 

[xx] Joshua Lane, curator of Academic Programs and Curator of Furniture, “Doctor Thomas Williams’s Desks,” Historic Deerfield, Vol.9, No.1, Summer 2008. The portable desk survives today and is housed at the Historic Deerfield Museum.

[xxi] Henry Francis LeDran, A Treatise, or Reflections, Drawn from Practice on GUN-SHOT Wounds,(London, 1743).

[xxii] Thomas Williams Papers, Box 8 Folder 1. PVMA Library, Historic Deerfield, Massachusetts.

[xxiii] Coe, p. 31-33.

[xxiv] Philip Zea, President, Historic Deerfield, “Revealing the Culture of Conflict: Engraved Powder Horns from the French & Indian War”; William Williams Jr. served as surgeon’s mate for his uncle, Doctor Thomas Williams; Kevin Sweeney, “During the Later Colonial Wars, 1722-1763”; David Bosse, “The most awful day that my eyes ever beheld,”  Historic Deerfield, Vol.9, No.1, Summer 2008.

[xxv] David Bosse, “The most awful day that my eyes ever beheld,” Historic Deerfield, Vol.9, No.1, Summer 2008, Esther Williams’ papers, Thomas Williams’ papers; Sheldon, p.379.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Michael D. Coe, The Line of Forts: Historical Archaeology on the Colonial Frontier of Massachusetts, University Press of New England, 2006, pp.126-7,192-193; George Sheldon, A History of Deerfield, Massachusetts(Deerfield, Mass., 1972) vol. 2, p.381 .

[xxviii] David Bosse, “The most awful day that my eyes ever beheld,” Historic Deerfield, Vol.9, No.1, Summer 2008

[xxix] Sheldon, vol. 2, pp. 853-857.

[xxx]A. R. Riggs, Main People Folder, PVMA Library, Historic Deerfield, Massachusetts.

[xxxi] Miller & Riggs, The Journal of Dr. Elihu Ashley.

[xxxii]  Miller & Riggs, The Journal of Dr. Elihu Ashley. December 13, 1774, p. 149.

[xxxiii] Miller & Riggs, The Journal of Dr. Elihu Ashley, p.4, and quantitative analysis of biographical sketches.

[xxxiv] E.Ashworth Underwood, and W.D. Hackmann, “Boerhaave’s Men at Layden and after,” The English Historical Review, Vol. 94 (1979).  

[xxxv] Gerard Van Swieten, The Commentaries upon the aphorisms of Dr. Herman Boerhaave …Concerning the knowledge and cure of the several diseases incident to human bodies, Translated into English and abridged by Dr. Schomberg of Bath. (London, 1762), PVMA library, KK-med. 10578; Daniel Turner, A Discourse Concerning Fevers, (London, 1739), PVMA, Kk-med, T942, 1739.

[xxxvi] Thomas Williams Papers, Invoices of Silvester Gardiner of Boston, several dates are; 1757, October 19, 1758, Box 8 Folder 1; June 7, 1760, 20 July 1762, October 8, 1764, Box 8, Folder 3;  Thomas Williams Papers, PVMA library, Historic Deerfield Massachusetts; Sylvester Gardiner was a colonial physician who studied medicine in London and Paris, built up a large practice in Boston, and established a chain of apothecary shops, The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2007, Columbia University Press.

[xxxvii] Hermann Boerhaave, Aphorisms on the Diagnosis and Cure of Disease, Translated from the last Latin edition. With Useful observations and explantations. Box 2, Folder 6 (the title page and other pages are gone from the copy at the PVMA library. An English edition was published by W. Innys and C. Hitch, in 1742 in London and then made available in America and this was most likely the copy that Elihu Ashley read, PVMA Library, KK-med, 12869.

[xxxviii] Charles Coulston Gillispie, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Vol. XIV, Charles Scribner’s Sons (New York, 1970).

[xxxix] Richard R. Reynolds, “Johnson’s ‘Life of Boerhaave’ in Perspective,” The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 5, (1975)

[xl] Miller & Riggs, The Journal of Dr. Elihu Ashley, July 5, 1773, p. 69.

[xli] Dr. Herman Boerhaave, Dr. Boerhaave’s academical lectures on the theory of physic. Vol. 1-6 (London, 1742-46).

[xlii] John Quincy, Lexicon physico-medicum or New medicinal dictionary… Vol. Sixth edition, (London, 1757), PVMA Library, KK-med., 10587.

[xliii] Thomas Williams papers, Box 8 Folder 3. Col. Oliver Partridge, in addition to serving in the military during the French and Indian War, was a lawyer and judge of the Court of Common Pleas. Riggs & Miller, biographical information, p.379.

[xliv] Sheldon George, A History of Deerfield Massachusetts, Vol. II, Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association Deerfield, 2004, a facsimile of the 1985-96 edition, p. 383.

[xlv] Miller & Riggs, “The Journal of Dr. Elihu Ashley,” April 5, 1773, p. 42, Quincy, John. Pharmacopeia officinalis & extemporanea: or, a complete English dispensatory, in two parts, p.341.   

[xlvi]  Miller & Riggs, “The Journal of Dr. Elihu Ashley,” May 4, 1773. p.48,Quincy, John. Pharmacopeia, p. 539.  

[xlvii] J. Worth Estes, Dictionary of Protopharmacology: Therapeutic Practices, 1700-1850, Science History Publications, U.S.A., (1990), p.199.

[xlviii] Miller & Riggs, “The Journal of Dr. Elihu Ashley,” May 13, 1773, p.51. He records that this recipe took 4 hours to make. Quincy, John. Pharmacopeia officinalis & extemporanea: or, a complete English dispensatory, in two parts, p. 510.

[xlix] Lazare Riviere, The Practice of Physics, (London, 1668), PVMA library, KK-med 10573.

[l] Miller & Riggs, “The Journal of Dr. Elihu Ashley,” May 13, 1773, p.153, Quincy, John. Pharmacopeia officinalis & extemporanea: or, a complete English dispensatory, in two parts, p. 274.

[li] Theophilus Lobb, A compendium of the practice of physick; or the heads of a system of practical physick: or the heads of a system of practical physick contained in twenty-four lectures, (London, 1747).

[lii] Miller & Riggs, “The Journal of Dr. Elihu Ashley,” June 28, 1775, p.227.

[liii] Robert Whytt, Observations on the nature, causes, and cure of those disorders which have been commonly called nervous hypochondriac, or hysteric…, 8 vols. (London and Edinburgh, 1765).

[liv] Miller & Riggs, “The Journal of Dr. Elihu Ashley,” September 6, 1775.

[lv] Samuel Sharp, A treatise on the operations of surgery: with a description and representation of the instruments used in performing them, (London, 1739), PVMA Kk-med. S531, 10575; Henry Francis LeDran, The Operation of Surgery, (London, 1757, 1768).

[lvi] Miller & Riggs, “The Journal of Dr. Elihu Ashley, January 26, 1775, p.163.

[lvii] Ibid., July 26, 1775, p. 235.

[lviii] Ibid., January 3, 1775, pp. 154-155.

[lix] Miller & Riggs, “The Journal of Dr. Elihu Ashley,” May 7, 1775, p.207; June 14, 1773, p.63; Miller & Riggs, p.307-309. 

[lx] Daniel Turner, A Discourse Concerning Fevers. In Two Letters To a Young Physician. 3rd. Ed.(London, 1739), PVMA Library, Kk-med T942, 1739.

[lxi] Peter Lewis Allen, “Review of Surgery, Skin, and Syphilis: Daniel Turner’s London (167-1741),” Isis, vol. 92, (2001). 

[lxii] Esther Williams Papers, 1789-1800; Thomas Williams Papers, M926.1 W727p. PVMA Library, Deerfield, Massachusetts. 

Historia Medicinae Editor,
Dec 21, 2009, 8:03 PM