Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science

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Web of Healing

Introduction

Native-American Medicine

This part of the Web of Healing looks at the ways in which Native-American practices influenced the art and science of healing in early Philadelphia. This section of the site will explore notions and methods of healing in American-Indian communities and the ways in which Philadelphian scientists and healers may have incorporated this native knowledge into their own practices.

Uncovering a Missing Past

The last thirty-five years of historical and anthropological scholarship on Native Americans have revealed the myriad ways in which Indian and European cultures interacted in colonial America. Philadelphia was certainly no exception, and much has been made of both the famous and infamous friendships and disputes between early Pennsylvanian leaders and the native peoples of the Delaware Valley. Still, despite the gains we have made in this field, there remains very little secondary literature on the topic of Native-American healing practices and their influence and exchange with the healing practices of American colonizers. However, investigating works such as Virgil Vogel’s American Indian Medicine gives us a place to start. Further investigation of primary sources reveals that the writings of early American naturalists like Benjamin Smith Barton cannot be understood apart from the Indian pharmacopeia. In entry after entry of travel accounts, herbals, and essays, plants are ascribed medicinal properties that “the whites learned from the Indians.”

Through images, essays, and exercises in this part of the website you will be invited to learn about Native-American and medical history, and be given the opportunity to explore writing on these topics from 18th century Philadelphia. It is hoped that the content in this section will provide you with new ways to think specifically about Native-America medicine and its influence on healing more generally, while also prompting you to think creatively about the process of “doing history.”