In Sickness and in Health

In Sickness and in Health
Louisa Adams: Science, Medicine, Inventions and tech

Skill: High School/College
Time Required: One to two class periods


Any study of the past will tell you that the 18th and 19th centuries were often “hazardous to your health.”  This is particularly true of children, who often didn’t live past the age of five, but it was more generally true of everyone—those who caught contagious diseases, those who were injured in accidents or in war, and those who developed illnesses such as diabetes and hypertension, which today can often be chronic rather than fatal diseases. Indeed, Louisa Adams’s only daughter (she and John Quincy had four children) died in infancy.


Students who participate in this activity will gain experience in researching a topic, in synthesizing information, in comparing and contrasting life in different historical periods, and in taking the part of others.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet; conference materials” if the medical conference option is taken.


1.  Using the Timeline, make a chart of advances in medicine from Abigail Adams’s birth in 1744 to Louisa Adams’s death in 1852.  Include in the chart the incidences of illness in the lives of the First Ladies.  What do you conclude about sickness and health in the 18th and 19th centuries?
2.  Divide into groups and, using the websites listed below, do some research on the state of medicine in the 19th century.
 3.  Having done all this research, spend a few minutes comparing the lives of your 18th and 19th century ancestors with your own lives in terms of sickness and health. 

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson can be extended by including in the research particular discoveries and practices, e.g., the use of anesthetics in surgery) and staging an “historical medical conference” at which students take the parts of doctors and scientists who have just made important “breakthroughs” in medicine.

Sources & Resources:


   From Quackery to Bacteriology

   Major U.S. Epidemics

   A Short History of Quarantine

   "Typhoid Mary"


This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.