Leeches and Spiders and Toads, Oh, My! The Emergence of Modern Medicine

Leeches and Spiders and Toads, Oh, My! The Emergence of Modern Medicine
Abigail Adams: Science, Medicine, Inventions and tech

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


When Abigail and John Adams were raising their four children, many children were expected to die before age 5 or 6, usually of infectious disease.  Soldiers, too, during the Revolution, had a good chance of dying of wounds incurred in battle.  Indeed, medicine as a science in the 18th and 19th century was in its infancy, and most medical practice depended on folk wisdom and herbal remedies.  As time passed into the 19th and 20th centuries, basic discoveries about the human body and about the nature of disease increased medical knowledge, until today, we have conquered most contagious diseases and the mortality rate of babies and children is much lower.


After participating in this activity, students will be familiar with basic ideas and beliefs about medicine in the 18th and 19th centuries, understand the development of medical science over that time, be able to see how poverty and disease were linked, be able to debunk many myths about health that arose in that time period, and have some empathy for families who struggled with illness in those days.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet.  Access to computer word processing (optional). Access to the First Ladies Curriculum Timeline.


1.  Using the web resources listed below, as well as the First Ladies Curriculum Timeline, students should explore the history of medicine in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Then, each student should select a particular aspect of that history and do more research on that topic.
2.  Having researched the topic further, each student will write a news account to be published in a “medical journal” developed by the class. Each “article” in the journal should be dated appropriately, and placed in chronological order.  The Journal becomes a record of their collective research.

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson can be extended in a variety of ways:  
  • Students can make an annotated timeline of medical beliefs and developments.
  • Students can write “advertisements” for popular medicines and “cures”.
  • Students can make PowerPoint presentations, complete with illustrations, that could be shown to other classes.
  • Students could interview doctors, nurses, or other health professionals to compare treatments today with those of the 18th and 19th centuries, or, in some cases, to see how early medicine actually was on the right track.

Sources & Resources:


     Colonial diseases and cures 

     18th Century Medical Myths from Williamsburg    

     From Quackery to Bacteriology: The Emergence of Modern Medicine in 19th Century America 

     18th Century Medicine

     19th Century Medicine

     Medicine in 1860s Victoria (Canada) 


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