Medical Terms Used in the 18th Century

Jar with leeches used by doctors in Colonial Times.

Medical Terms Used in the 18th Century

Colonial American’s were just as focused on their medical care as modern Americans are today and doctors and dentists were active members of the community. Disease was rampant in the colonies, often killing off large numbers of people every year. Unfortunately, treatments were very limited.

Craig Thornber has some excellent information on his website about the general state of medicine in the 18th and 19th century. He has also compiled a GLOSSARY OF MEDICAL TERMS USED IN THE 18TH AND 19TH CENTURIES, and so it is suggested to follow the link to his page to get a comprehensive list.

Names for some common diseases are as follows:

SMALL POX– A viral infection that resulted in the death of 30% of the people who were infected. Immunity could be imparted by surviving a previous small pox infection, being infected previously with cow pox, or being variolated with a milder form of cow pox obtained from the pustules of an infected person.

VARIOLATION – The process of opening a small flesh wound and inserting the pus from the pustule of an infected person. For small pox, it was important that the pustule be from a person infected with the milder variant of the small pox virus.

PALSY – A generalized loss of feeling or motion often resulting in paralysis.
SCURVY – A disease caused by a deficiency of Vitamin C (ascorbic acid), which results in softened gums and general structural disabilities. Scurvy was often observed on long sea voyages and could be avoided by including citrus fruit in the diet of sailors. British sailors were later called limeys because of the adoption of limes for this purpose. The selection was unfortunate in that lime juice contain less vitamin C per volume than either lemon or orange.
MELANCHOLY – Sadness or depression.
DYSPEPSIA – Stomach upset or indigestion.
MORTIFICATION – Gangrene. Rotting of the tissue cause by a loss of circulation either due to disease or a wound. Gangrene was a common effect of a bullet wound which was why amputation was usually necessary even after the bullet was removed. Oral antibiotics were not discovered until 1928.
FALLING SICKNESS– Any disease which causes a seizure, including but not limited to epilepsy.
MANIA – Insanity or madness.