Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science

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Web of Healing

Introduction

The Woman’s Place in Healing:
Midwifery and Domestic Medicine

The 18th century is a fascinating era for historians of American medicine to study.  Not only was medicine beginning to take on the shape we recognize today, but America itself was also coming into its own as an independent nation with a unique culture based heavily on the foundation of the new country’s democratic ideals.1 Within this context of a burgeoning country and a fledgling medical profession, American women at the end of the 18th century held a distinctive place within the world of healing.  This section will help illuminate ways historians can learn about these women and the ways in which women contributed to the Web of Healing in Philadelphia.

Women, Midwives, and Doctors

Despite Philadelphia’s prominence in the 18th century as an American center for medicine and medical education, physicians during this time were just one piece of a larger system of healing practices and knowledge. Women, in their positions as midwives, mothers, sisters, aunts and neighbors, were another key component of the world of healing.  In the first half of the 18th century in America, women served as the primary caregivers and health practitioners for their friends and family.  Historians have suggested that American doctors began the process of organizing into an authoritative body of professionals as early as the 1760s. However, this first phase of medical professionalization was ultimately unsuccessful in securing positions of prestige and privilege for physicians in American society (Starr, 30). It did, however, have an impact on the way women functioned as healers within their own homes.

Putting Women Back in the Web

Telling the history of these women can be both challenging and extremely rewarding. Most of the women who practiced healing for their families did so without leaving much evidence behind for historians to study.  Women healers operated without much of a paper trail, and those who did “make a living” by working as midwives often collected payments in non-monetary forms, keeping these transactions below the radar of the historical record. 

However, historians have discovered that seemingly common artifacts such as daily diaries and recipe books can lead to fascinating historical insights.  Through doing our own digging, we came across two recipe books from 18th-century Philadelphia women.  Inside their pages we found recipes and stories for everything from oyster pie to healing a head wound, as well as mountains of advice for treating a multitude of common ailments.

We hope that our experiences with the history of women and their place in the web of healing in 18th-century Philadelphia will inspire you to think creatively about the sources these women have left behind and how historians can use them to broaden our understanding of the past.

1 For more information about the influence of democracy on American medicine, see pp.30-59 in Paul Starr’s The Social Transformation of Medicine (Basic Books: 1982).