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American Medical Schools and the Practice of MedicineA History$
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William G. Rothstein

Print publication date: 1987

Print ISBN-13: 9780195041866

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780195041866.001.0001

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Medical Care and Medical Education, 1750–1825

Medical Care and Medical Education, 1750–1825

(p.15) 2 Medical Care and Medical Education, 1750–1825
American Medical Schools and the Practice of Medicine

William G. Rothstein

Oxford University Press

Medical care at the end of the eighteenth century, like that in any period, was determined by the state of medical knowledge and the available types of treatment. Some useful knowledge existed, but most of medical practice was characterized by scientific ignorance and ineffective or harmful treatments based largely on tradition. The empirical nature of medical practice made apprenticeship the dominant form of medical education. Toward the end of the century medical schools were established to provide the theoretical part of the student’s education, while apprenticeship continued to provide the practical part. The scientifically valid aspects of medical science in the late eighteenth century comprised gross anatomy, physiology, pathology, and the materia medica. Gross anatomy, the study of those parts of the human organism visible to the naked eye, had benefitted from the long history of dissection to become the best developed of the medical sciences. This enabled surgeons to undertake a larger variety of operations with greater expertise. Physiology, the study of how anatomical structures function in life, had developed at a far slower pace. The greatest physiological discovery up to that time, the circulation of the blood, had been made at the beginning of the seventeenth century and was still considered novel almost two centuries later. Physiology was a popular area for theorizing, and the numerous physiologically based theories of disease were, as a physician wrote in 1836, “mere assumptions of unproved, and as time has demonstrated, unprovable facts, or downright imaginations.” Pathology at that time was concerned with pathological or morbid anatomy, the study of the changes in gross anatomical structures due to disease and their relationship to clinical symptoms. The field was in its infancy and contributed little to medicine and medical practice. Materia medica was the study of drugs and drug preparation and use. Late eighteenth century American physicians had available to them a substantial armamentarium of drugs. Estes studied the ledgers of one New Hampshire physician from 1751 to 1787 (3,701 patient visits), and another from 1785 to 1791 (1,161 patient visits), one Boston physician from 1782 to 1795 (1,454 patient visits), and another from 1784 to 1791 (779 patient visits).

Keywords:   Almshouses, Bowdoin University medical school, Chemistry teaching, Dartmouth University medical school, Harvard University medical school, Massachusetts General Hospital, New York Hospital, Rural medical schools, Yale University medical school

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