Colonial Life and Plight of the ‘Sick Poor’

Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg
Source: Wikimedia Commons Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, who became Princess of Wales after her marriage to Frederick, Prince of Wales, was the namesake of Augusta.

Augusta, Ga., may have been a named after a princess, but its early days were anything but regal.

On June 14, 1736, James Oglethorpe (photo above, source:  Wikimedia Commons) gave orders to lay out the town of Augusta in the same design used for Savannah several years earlier. The new municipality, with its low–lying land and free-roaming livestock, made for a swampy and unsanitary environment.

Disease and poverty were rampant. As such, burgeoning towns like Augusta faced the difficult question of how to deal with their “sick poor.”

Sick and disabled residents during this era were often run out of town by leaders who “refused to be burdened with their care and support.” Contagion was not readily understood, and trained physicians were especially rare, as most had little reason to leave established practices in Europe for “a country that was essentially inhospitable to their craft.” Clergymen who had little health care experience often dealt with the ill and indigent by default:

According to the 1941 book The Sick Poor in Colonial Times, “There was a host of lay practitioners, male and female, from bonesetters to charlatans, peddling an infinite assortment of panaceas. For the great mass of people, kitchen psychic, compounded of astrological lore, grandmother remedies  –  many of them of time-tested excellence  –  and a plentitude of superstitious ingredients served as the medicine of the day.”

The colonies’ first recorded proposal for institutional medical teaching came in 1717, and by the 1730s towns like Philadelphia, New York, Boston and Charleston were creating institutions for the sick poor. By the turn of the 19th century, some towns reimbursed citizens who were kind enough to help the sick and indigent. Augusta was one of these, and city council meeting minutes show reimbursements dating back to at least 1805.

In July 1808, the Augusta Herald called for a meeting of area physicians to form a medical association. It’s likely that this group of leaders looked to Savannah, where the state’s first hospital for the poor opened in 1809.

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