Medical Care in 19th Century America

What is the difference between medicine today, and medicine in the 1800s?  Well, as we all know technology has severely advanced since the 19thcentury which allows medical aspects to continually grow day by day.  I would like to focus more on the 19thCentury America when health professions started to outbreak.  During this time period the “Colonial America” went through some of the worst hardships upon health, due to multiple diseases being spread and discovered, logically caused by the absence of medical care. Eventually after the American Revolution (1775-1783), the upkeep and survival for many Americans became crucial. Health professionals weren’t yet established through the government, but they were evolving as time passed, contributing to the health of Americans as much as they could.  Two major key players were William Carson and Sir Wilfred Grenfell who contributed to the evolution of medical care by establishing the first civilian hospital in Saint Johns in 1814 called “The Riverhead Hospital” and opening a chain of hospitals and nursing stations located in Labrador and Northern Newfoundland.[i] 

Many americans pictured with diseases. There was a broad range of people affected by public diseases and they desperately needed medical care.

As the colonies grew, the population fluctuated due to deaths of the ill and the birth of new babies.  But who delivered the babies at this point of time?  There were no obstetricians or gynecologists to assist women through pregnancy and labor like recent times.  Midwifes were very popular and imperative in the 19thcentury. They were present at most births in the American colonies doing so out of the establishment of their own home. They developed these skills from Great Britain, who were more medically informed. Women from West Africa that were slaves in America assisted the birth of women both white and black in the south. In 1863 after the Emancipation Proclamation was passed, black women still presented midwifery tendencies while still caring for women of color and also white women.  This only took place in the rural parts of the south.  Black women who held these characteristics were referred to as “granny midwifes”.  [i]Martha Ballard is honored in history as a midwife due her deliverance of 996 babies within her career which extended from 1785 to 1812.  Midwives had very crucial experiences delivering babies considering sometimes neither the baby or mother made it through labor.  Anesthesia was discovered in 1846 and used during child birth which relieved some pain from labor for mothers and made the process easier for midwives.

A women giving care to the next, proceeding her though birth.

With the discovery of anesthesia in 1846, this caused a rally in America deeming that there was at least something that could help treat all the diseases that were circulating.[iii]  Medical professionals were not yet recognized as primary care and specific names for certain jobs had not yet been established but the need for surgeons and physicians skyrocketed.  Both of these professions have the same goal, but they also serve a different purpose. Physicians are medical care professionals who help patient in a radical and medically treated form.  On the other hand, surgeons are professionals who do hands on work in order to make a patient healthy.  During this time period surgeons had the easier way since anesthesia had been discovered which made the process of surgery better.  Also, during this time, a lot of research and preventions had not been discovered in order to aid physicians in their field.  On October 16th, 1846 William T. G. Morton, went down in history as the first in the world to publicly and successfully demonstrate the use of ether anesthesia for surgery.  It was not until late 1800s until physicians became prominent. In the year of 1894, E. Amory Codman and Harvey Cushing developed the practice of using anesthesia to record respiratory rates and palpated pulse rates.[iv]



In today’s society nurses hold an important weight in medical care, but it has not always been this way. In the early 1800s nurses had no discovery and if one were to be sick it was the responsibility of their family members to help with their upkeep. It wasn’t until the 1839 when the demand of nurses was recommended through a text by Dr. Joseph Warrington, who was a strong advocate of women engaging into the field of nursing.  Within this text he provided early examples of nursing practices, which led to the establishment of nurses to care for patients directly.  Most of these practices still took place out of the establishment of homes and demonstrated poor quality of the nursing regimen.  Hospitals were built in highly populated areas in America and even then, they were still not oriented the same.  Educated nurses who were ordered by religious sanctions were looked at as more superior to those who participated in general care.  In hospitals with no religious function nurses were viewed as hazardous and treated patients poorly.[v]


Evolution is a powerful word for medical care, as it seems to grow with the flow of time.  In the 19thcentury, midwives, surgeons, physicians, and nurses were all deemed as unestablished until certain discoveries were made.  The hardships and diseases that accumulated during the 1800s is the primary reason why these medical professionals were establish in the means of their jobs.


  • [i]19th-Century Health Care. (n.d.). Retrieved September 24, 2018, from


  • [ii]Rooks, J. P. (2014, May 22). The History of Midwifery. Retrieved September 24, 2018, from


  • [iii], & P. (2017, April 02). 19th Century Midwives. Retrieved September 24, 2018, from


  • [iv]“History of Anesthesia.” Wood Library Museum,


  • [v]“American Nursing: An Introduction to the Past.” Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing • Penn Nursing,