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A Snapshot of the History of Physicians in America

History of Physicians in America

In 350 B.C. Aristotle believed that all matter was made from earth, air, fire, or water. Both he and the Greek physician Galen, who practiced five hundred years after Aristotle, believed these four elements explained illness and disease. According to Galen, the body had four elements called humors and the human body was healthy when these elements were in balance. If it seemed the body had too much or too little of any element, the physician had to restore the patient's balance by bloodletting – which was done by purging or giving the patient a diaric tea - or heating a glass cupping instrument to a very high temperature and place it on the patient's back. When a blister formed, the sores were opened to release the pus.

During the Colonial Period in America, most physicians and medical practitioners followed the theories and practices of Hermann Boerhaave (1668-1738). Boerhaave's studies resulted in his medical theory that disease was an imbalance of natural activities. He believed fever was the body's attempt to keep from dying and that digestion and circulation could be explained by mechanical ideas. Boerhaavethought there were three conditions in the body that led to disease: salty, putrid, and oily. His remedy was to sweeten the acid, purify the stomach, and rid impurities through bleeding and purging.

In 1775, there were approximately 3,500 practicing physicians in America. The first Medical College in America was the Pennsylvania Hospital, which opened in Philadelphia in 1768. It was followed by Kings College which opened in 1777 New York. Most physicians were not graduates of these colleges because they were only accepting a handful. In fact, most American doctors were trained through apprenticeships, receiving seven years of training before they were officially considered physicians.

Although these physicians were highly trained by the standards of their time, their services were not available to all of the general population. Most people either lived too far away from doctors or did not have access to doctors because of social customs or beliefs. For these reasons, people other than doctors often assumed the role of caring for the sick or injured.Women became responsible for family health care and served as doctor, nurse, and pharmacist despite the fact that they rarely received any type of formal education. Trained by their mothers in raising medicinal herbs in kitchen gardens, they were skilled in concocting remedies from available resources.