Nursing in Colonial America

When the pilgrim fathers and mothers landed in Plymouth, they did not introduce the art of nursing into the New World .There were, according to Nutting, Jesuit Fathers and Catholic Sisters who established mission hospitals in the southwestern part of North America as far back as the 17th Century..[1] The pilgrim families brought their household remedies with them – nursing was the responsibility of female family members.

If you were sick you were cared for in the home. Women were responsible for caring for members of their family as well as friends, and neighbors.  Family-centered sickness care remained traditional until the nineteenth century.  When illness occurred the last place you wanted to be was in what passed for a hospital.  If you had a family to care for you, you remained at home [4]. Caring for ill family members was the responsibility of women. As Revenby points out caring for ill and aged family members was considered “ a woman’s self-sacrificing service to others”.[5] (p,11).[4]

Colonial households treated most illnesses by long standing  household remedies; a physician – if one was available -w as called only if the illness was considered severe otherwise home remedies were used The earliest immigrants brought many home remedies  such as herbs and other family remedies  with them. Knowledge of healing practices was usually handed down  within the family. Some traditional drugs were available locally and the wealthy could also afford imported chemicals and plants.  Often, those who cared for the sick – whether physician or family ‘nurse’ – had to use whatever was available around them.[5] .The status of medical knowledge at that time was limited - what treatment or remedies were ordered by the physician could be administered by the family member providing nursing care.

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In colonial America, the typical woman gave birth to her children at home. While female relatives and neighbors clustered at her bedside to offer support and encouragement, most women were assisted in childbirth by a midwife. Most midwives were older women who relied on the practical experience they received in delivering many children.. Skilled midwives were highly valued.[1]