Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science

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Web of Healing

Welcome & Introduction

Welcome to the Web of Healing! This exploration of healing in eighteenth-century Philadelphia was developed and brought to life by a group of graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania’s department of History and Sociology of Science. Initially developed to be used as a teaching tool for undergraduates, this site is designed to serve as a pedagogical and public history resource. As you explore the Web of Healing, you will be guided through the process of “doing history” while at the same time you will be given access to the world of healing and medicine in Philadelphia during the end of the 18th century. Please read on to learn more about The Web — we hope you enjoy your visit to our site!

The “Web”

The “web” metaphor suggests the wide range and varied coexistence of multiple bodies of knowledge about health and illness. The assumption we make in this site is that when one analyzes the past — particularly in the case of the history of medicine — one must accept that ideas, approaches, and practices that are often taken for granted as “right” today, were not always obvious, or even ideal, options to actors in the past. In this site, we ask you to consider that the varied ways in which people thought about, sought, and accessed healing in the past can be thought of as “nodes” which lie embedded within the larger historically-contingent Web of Healing. Of these nodes, this site focuses on four areas in detail: the health-related knowledge, roles and practices of African Americans, Native Americans, Women, and "Quacks". The presence of physicians in the Web of Healing comes up at various points in this site, but because of their prominent place in traditional medical histories, we have not focused as much of our attention on this group. Under each node you will find information and tools that will help you learn about the process of doing history. At the same time you will be introduced to primary and secondary source materials that will help familiarize you with the issues associated with each topic. While not meant to be exhaustive, we hope that learning about these areas of thought and practice will provide you with a good introduction to Philadelphia’s Web of Healing and the practice of history more generally.

“Doing History”

Despite our intentions to tell a more democratic history of medicine, we realize that the logistics of carrying out this kind of social historical research can be more difficult in practice than in theory. The stories we are most interested in telling are often buried and scattered over a range of locations, academic fields and archives. In order to do justice to the past, we found that we needed to think creatively about how to use the source materials we were able to find. In some cases, we were lucky in finding diaries, lecture notes, and other straightforward documents. However, in many cases we had to dig deeper, pulling stories out of ephemera, material culture, and the landscape of Philadelphia itself. As we investigate questions like how women contributed to healing or how Native American health knowledge influenced the young nation’s health practices, we hope to convince you that studying the history of medicine without engaging with histories of a broader perspective deprives us of the richness of our collective past and obscures our vision in understanding the complexity of our world today.


We hope that as you navigate the Web you will enjoy learning about healing in 18th-century Philadelphia as well as find some tools to help you continue to expand the Web of Healing.