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Topsfield Historical Society: Medicine in Topsfield through the years

Time:2016-12-02 00:51wine - Red wine life health Click:

Medicine years Society Topsfield Through

In the early days of New England, there were no doctors as we know them today. Medical treatment, such as it was, was taken up as a sideline to another calling, often minister or schoolmaster. Foreseeing the possibility that they might have to flee England, many Puritan ministers familiarized themselves with medical knowledge so as to be prepared for emergencies that might arise in a new settlement.

Puritan Medicine

Along with the inherent diseases and accidents of colonial life, depression appears to have been common, as ancient journals refer to remedies meant to “chear the heart,” “drive melancholy” and “for the megrums,” an ancient term from which we derive the word migraine.

Treatments for various ills included “picking the gums with the bill of an osprey for toothache” and “bear’s grease for aches and cold swellings.” For fevers, it was customary to take “two salt white herrings and slit them down the back and bind them to the soles of the patient’s feet.” To cure ulcers and broken bones, a mixture of powdered crabs’ eyes and wine vinegar was sure to do the trick.

Gradually, these practices were dropped, and in their place came herbs. Every household had its simple domestic remedies for common complaints, including ingredients such as wormwood, dandelion, catnip and mint. The Capen House property includes a small herb garden containing herbs and plants that Priscilla Capen would have used for cooking and medicinal purposes.

In the absence of regulation, there was no lack of scammers and pretenders. So in 1649, a law was passed confining the practice of medicine and surgery to skilled persons. It read in part, “Chirurgions, Midwives, Physitians. It is therefore Ordered, That no person or persons whatsoever, employed at any time about the bodyes of men, women or children, for preservation of life or health, presume to put forth any act contrary to the known approved Rules of art, nor exercise any force, violence or cruelty upon, or towards the body of any. Which Law nevertheless is not intended to discourage any from all lawfull use of their skill, but rather to incourage and direct them in the right use thereof.” You might notice it reads like an amalgamation of the Hippocratic Oath and the Good Samaritan Law.

The Doctors of Topsfield 

From the time of its founding until the early 1900s, Topsfield was served by at least 17 doctors. In its first few decades, the town’s medical needs were most likely met by men from Salem, Topsfield having been a part of Salem and Ipswich prior to its incorporation in 1650.

Michael Dwinell, the first recorded “physician and chirurgeon” in Topsfield, was born here in 1670 and lived on land off Salem Street. What, if any, formal training he received is unknown, as is the exact date on which he began practicing, as he isn’t referred to as a doctor until a 1724 deed. Interestingly, he was assigned to guard accused witch Sarah Good at the Ipswich jail in 1692. Doctor Dwinell was married at least five times and possibly as many as seven.

The second physician was Michael’s nephew, Amos Dwinell, who may have received his training from his uncle. Following the younger Dwinell was Joseph Bradstreet, grandson of both Governor Simon Bradstreet and Parson Joseph Capen. His practice did not require all his time, for records show that he also kept the town school.

During the generation immediately preceding the Revolution, the science of medicine made progress and ceased to be combined with other occupations. Doctor Dexter, who practiced from 1740 until his death in 1783, was probably the first practitioner in Topsfield to devote his time exclusively to it.

In 1759, when the French Acadian family of Michael Dugoy was under the care of the town, Doctor Dexter charged the town 18 shillings for “13 professional visits, Hystarick pills and powders, 3 purges Stumatick mixter, blisters and purgative powders.” Compensation varied according to a family’s circumstances with poorer families offering “country pay” of vegetables, meat or grain in return for medical services.

Next followed David Norwood and Caleb Rea, the latter perhaps being the first surgeon practicing in Topsfield, as his probate listed surgical instruments. During the Revolution, Doctor Rea enlisted as a surgeon, serving on privateers fitted out in Salem and Beverly.

In 1783 came two young physicians, Nehemiah Cleaveland and John Merriam, who divided between them the medical practice of the town and often extended their visits into the neighboring towns. Dr. Royal Augustus Merriam, the son of Dr. John Merriam, practiced from 1813 to 1823 and was the first doctor in Topsfield to receive his education at a medical school, having graduated from Dartmouth Medical School. He returned to resume his practice in 1832.

Fresh out of medical school, Dr. Jeremiah Stone came to Topsfield in 1826, and Dr. Charles French and Dr. David Choate provided services in the mid-part of the century. Although Choate liked Topsfield and the citizens were highly satisfied with his professional services, he was unused to the hardships of the winter travel involved in visiting patients and moved to Salem. Dr. Justin Allen of Hamilton purchased Choate’s practice and served from 1857 until his retirement in 1894. He was the first president of the Topsfield Historical Society and provided the funds for the memorial monument on the library green.

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