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Cholera Epidemics in the 19th Century

The Great Plague of London, 1665

The Boston Smallpox Epidemic, 1721

“Pestilence” and the Printed Books of the Late 15th Century

Spanish Influenza in North America, 1918–1919

Syphilis, 1494–1923

Tropical Diseases and the Construction of the Panama Canal, 1904–1914

Tuberculosis in Europe and North America, 1800–1922

The Yellow Fever Epidemic in Philadelphia, 1793

General Materials

Notable People

Related Links


Domestic Medicine

H. M. Plunkett, Women, plumbers, and doctors, or, Household sanitation, 1885. From the holdings of Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine—Harvard Medical School
Women, Plumbers, and Doctors, or, Household Sanitation. From the holdings of Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine—Harvard Medical School.

“Domestic medicine” refers to nursing, medicine, and other healing practices associated with the home environment. Almost all healing work in Europe and the United States took place at home until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and self-care guides and domestic medical manuals were found in nearly every literate household.

Mothers, Midwives, and Surgeons

Most routine care of the sick was performed by family members, primarily mothers, sisters, and daughters. In addition to delivering babies, midwives often performed medical care as well, along with itinerant healers, who might have been male or female; local “root women”; and other traditional healers—all of whom could be quite knowledgeable and skilled. Surgeons, who practiced a craft that was distinct from the work of physicians and considered to be of much lower status, also performed a great deal of the medical care in their communities, focusing on such activities as bone-setting and bleeding. Doctors, when available, usually did not attend except in serious cases, but even this care occurred at the patient’s home.

The boundary between the care of physicians and that of family members, midwives, and surgeons was blurred, and all of these groups shared similar understandings about the body, health, and treatment for illness. The modern professionalization of scientific medicine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is primarily associated with two factors: the rise of exclusive, laboratory-based medical knowledge that was unavailable to the general public, and the move from home care to office-based medical practice.


Until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, hospitals in both Europe and the United States were primarily charitable organizations designed for the destitute or for those unlucky enough to find themselves alone with no family to care for them. Anyone with means would not have considered going there when seriously ill.

Family Medical Manuals and Health Care Guides

The long history of books, manuals, and pamphlets advising lay readers on remedies and treatment protocols, diet, emotions, dress, and other personal matters reflects the predominance of home- and lay-provided care. These works—widely published and sold throughout Europe, North America, and in the various colonies and territories—offered remedies and treatment protocols for the sick and served as manuals on marriage, midwifery, and infant care. Some went through multiple editions and sold well for years.

One of the best-known works was William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine, first published in Edinburgh in 1769 and still in print almost 90 years later. John Wesley’s Primitive Physick, first published in 1747, went through at least 17 editions. In the United States, Samuel Thomson’s botanic medical guide, first published in 1835, made “Thomsonian” medicine extremely popular.

Other 19th-Century Healing Systems

In both Europe and North America, various other healing techniques, such as homeopathy and hydrotherapy, had many enthusiasts, particularly among the educated middle and upper classes. These systems were often promoted as gentle, natural ways of healing, in opposition to the sometimes extreme remedies found in regular allopathic medical practice, such as bleeding and heavy use of mercury.

Resistance to Conventional Medical Practice

The concept of vis medicatrix naturae—the healing power of nature—was also popular in the mid- to late 19th century, and reflected what contemporaries called the “therapeutic nihilism” that had grown up around public belief that the typical physician treatments of bleeding and purging could do little to help in most illness, and could actually cause great harm. There were also important periods of resistance to conventional medical and public health practices based in the rights of citizens and families to choose their own health care, such as the popularity of Thomsonian medicine during the Jacksonian period in the United States, or the response to compulsory vaccination campaigns in England during the mid-19th century.


Selected Contagion Resources

This is a partial list of digitized materials available in Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics. For additional materials on the topic “Domestic Medicine,” click here or search the collection’s Catalog and Full Text databases.

Web Pages

Cholera Epidemics in the 19th Century
Colonialism and International Medicine
Concepts of Contagion and Epidemics
Humoral Theory
Germ Theory
Medical Geography
Public Health


Brown Family Papers, 1802–1963.
Cumings, Mary Augusta Carr, 1837–1904. Diaries, 1866–1880.
Hooker Collection, 1788–1890.
Scrapbook of clippings relating to health and popular medicine, circa 1874–1898.


Buchan, William. Domestic Medicine or, The Family Physician: Being an Attempt to Render the Medical Art More Generally Useful, by Shewing People What Is in Their Own Power Both with Respect to the Prevention and Cure of Diseases: Chiefly Calculated to Recommend a Proper Attention to Regimen and Simple Medicines. Edinburgh: Printed by Balfour, Auld, and Smellie, MDCCLXIX [1769].
Comstock & Co. The General Family Directory: Showing the Remedies Which Every Family Should Keep in Their Houses, and the Manner of Using Them, By Which All Sickness May Be Prevented, or Speedily Removed, Without the Expense of the Family Physician, and Severe and Dangerous Diseases Cured, After His Skill Has Failed. New-York: Published by Comstock & Co., Physicians, Chemists and Wholesale Druggists, 1842.
Osiander, Joh. Fr. (Johann Friedrich). Volksarzneimittel und einfache, nicht pharmazeutische Heilmittel gegen Krankheiten des Menschen: ein Haus– und Familienbuch für die gebildeten Stände. 6. Aufl. Hannover: Carl Meyer, 1865.
Pulte, J. H. Homeopathic Domestic Physican: Containing the Treatment of Diseases, Popular Explanations of Physiology, Hygiene, Hydropathy, Anatomy and Surgery: With Illustrations and an Abridged Materia Medica. 13th ed., enl. and rev. throughout. Cincinnati: Smith’s Homoeopathic Pharmacy, 1877.
Thomson, Samuel. New Guide to Health, or, Botanic Family Physician: Containing a Complete System of Practice, on a Plan Entirely New: With a Description of the Vegetables Made Use of, and Directions for Preparing and Administering Them, to Cure Disease. To Which Is Prefixed, A Narrative of the Life and Medical Discoveries of the Author. [Boston?]: Printed for the author … 1835 (Boston: J.Q. Adams, printer).
Tissot, S. A. D. Avis au Peuple Sur sa Santé, ou, Traité des Maladies les Plus Frequente. A Geneve: Chez P. Pellet, Impr., MDCCLXIV [1764].
Wesley, John. Primitive Physic, or, An Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases.The eighth edition, corrected and enlarged. Bristol: Printed by John Grabham, in Narrow–Wine–Street, and sold at the New Room, in the Horse–Fair, and at the Foundry, near Upper-Moor-Fields, London, 1759.


The following sources were used in writing this page.

Bonner, Thomas Neville. Becoming a Physician: Medical Education in Britain, France, Germany, and the United States, 1750–1945. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Cooter, Roger, ed. Studies in the History of Alternative Medicine. Oxford: MacMillan Press, 1988.
Gevitz, Norman, ed. Other Healers: Unorthodox Medicine in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.
Harrison, Mark. Disease and the Modern World: 1500 to the Present Day. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004.
Rosenberg, Charles. Our Present Complaint: American Medicine, Then and Now. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.
Rosenberg, Charles. ed. Right Living: An Anglo-American Tradition of Self-Help Medicine and Hygiene. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, c1992.
Starr, Paul. The Social Transformation of American Medicine. New York: Basic Books, 1982.
Tomes, Nancy. The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women and the Microbe in American Life. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Ulrich, Laurel. A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785–1812. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.


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