Mayflower Medicine

The Pilgrim expedition to Plymouth Colony in 1620 was a gambit. The separatists risked comfort and life itself to secure religious freedom. Illness was an ominous threat, met with archaic theories such as the “humors” and with herbal remedies. But the Mayflower manifested two important medical resources: a copy fThe Surgeon’s Mate by Dr. John Woodall, and someone who could read and apply it—Deacon Samuel Fuller. 


Medical practice in America during the Pilgrim era was an exercise in sheer pragmatism. Theory was still largely based on ‘the humors’ as presented by Hippocrates, and perpetuated by Galen. Treatment was based on herbalism, phlebotomy and prayer.

Ambroise Pare had published surgical best–practices over fifty years earlier, but William Harvey was still eight years away from discovering the circulation of blood. An academic physician class was emerging in Europe, where the medical arts were jealously divided between physician, surgeon and apothecary. In the New World, however, medical practitioners needed to be all of these.

Spiritual and corporeal healing were intertwined. It is no mere coincidence that the first doctor in Massachusetts, Samuel Fuller, was a deacon of the church. He had lived in two major centers of medical education, London and Leiden. But his only classroom was to be the colony itself.

Surgeon’s Mate—the Book

Before we meet him, let’s look at the most valuable medical asset brought over from the old world—a book, courtesy of the East India Company.

Naval medicine was on the cutting edge of knowledge and standardization.  The cure of scurvy stands as a well known example.  No less significant was the shipboard dissemination of medical knowledge. The Surgeon’s Mate: The First Compendium on Naval Medicine, Surgery and Drug Therapy (1617) was written at the behest of the East India Company. 

From The Surgeons Mate

From The Surgeons Mate

Surgeon's Tools

Surgeon's Tools

The entire text is available online. In it we learn of dismembering saws, the uses of rose oil, the nature of belly fluxes and hundreds of other topics to inform the well read healer of every stripe as the new century dawned. It contains a gallery of woodcut portraits that celebrate physicians of antiquity—‘Asculapius, Paracelsus, Avicenna, Hipocrates and Galenus’.

The author, Dr. John Woodall (1570-1643) rose from barber-surgeon to the first Surgeon General of England. He made a fortune stocking surgical chests, practiced at the Great St. Bartholomew Hospital in London for decades and along the way spent some time in jail for ‘effrontery to royal privilege’ after he tried to collect on his loan to an aristocrat. 

The medical advice in his textbook was dispensed with equal parts of Christian humility and fervor: 

These recited medicines for Christian charitie, I thought not amiss to publish…admonishing young men to be wise…in the use thereof…and then the praise and comfort shall return to themselves, which God grant.

Healing required faith and knowledge, and could be approached from either direction. Plymouth colony had deacons, but no trained doctors.

Maladies and Medicine: Exploring Health & Healing, 1540–1740

It also explains the hierarchy of healers from university trained physicians, to the itinerant women healers who traveled the country offering cures based on inherited knowledge of homemade remedies.

‘Indean’ Fever

Plymouth Colony also had fewer Indians than expected, their well-tilled land all but left for the benefit of the newcomers. A decimating contagion had wiped out many coastal Indians during the three years before the arrival of the Mayflower.

"In their sickness, [they avowed] that the Englishmen’s God was a good God; and that, if they recovered, they would serve him.” – John Winthrop (1633)"

Was it the plague? Buboes were not described. Also, the climate was too cold for Yersinia Pestis, or for Yellow Fever either. Perhaps smallpox? But adult Europeans of the time were generally immune, making white visitors unlikely as a source. And later linguistic analysis, by Roger Williams in fact, showed different native words for the pre-Puritan epidemic and a later known smallpox epidemic. Leptospirosis currently enjoys popular speculation.

Regardless, the epidemic reduced the native Indian population dramatically, an event taken by the Pilgrims as an act of God.

Cotton Mather said “The woods were almost cleared of those pernicious creatures, to make room for a better growth.” And Daniel Denton latter observed “that where the English come to settle, a Divine Hand makes way for them.

Drawing on previously unpublished household papers ranging from recipes to accounts and letters, this original account shows how health and illness were managed on a day-to-day basis in a variety of 17th-century households. It reveals the extent of self-help used by families, explores their favourite remedies and analyses differences in approaches to medical matters.

Household Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England

Drawing on previously unpublished household papers ranging from recipes to accounts and letters, this original account shows how health and illness were managed on a day-to-day basis in a variety of 17th-century households. It reveals the extent of self-help used by families, explores their favourite remedies and analyses differences in approaches to medical matters.

The Deacon Surgeon

This brings us to Samuel Fuller, who was instrumental in organizing the Pilgrim migration and a signer of the Mayflower compact. He became physician to the Plymouth Colony, for reasons unrecorded. His task was onerous—about half of the Mayflower contingent died during that first winter. Eventually added to his responsibility was the neighboring Massachusetts Bay Colony, totaling about 900 persons in all by 1630.

Enactment at Plimouth Plantation

Enactment at
Plimouth Plantation

Actual Residence

Actual Residence

His tasks included treating scurvy, performing phlebotomy and ministering to the spirit. He himself suffered early loss of loved ones, two wives and several children. He died in1633, from smallpox, which along with diphtheria, yellow fever and malaria, killed with abandon. His grave site is unknown.

His reputation survived the vitriol of an anti-Puritan resident of Plymouth, Thomas Merton, who said: “he deserves to be set upon a palfrey (horse), and led up and down…that men might know where to find a quacksalver (quack).” Merton was such a thorn in the side of the  Puritans that Captain Standish banished him back to England.

Nathaniel Morton, on the other hand, eulogized that Fuller “had much helped others, and was a comfort to them; he was their surgeon and physician, and did much good in his place…and was much missed after God removed him out of this world.

According to A Brief History of Medicine in Massachusetts “following his death…there was no practitioner of note in Massachusetts for nearly a hundred years. During this period the sick were cared for by the governors [John Winthrop]…ministers [Thomas Thacher] and by school masters.

These were humble beginnings that led to the likes of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital and The New England Journal of Medicine. sic parvis magna.

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