The Colonial Doctor

The Doctor in Colonial Days
By Thomas R. Bayles
Patchogue Advance

Sept. 22, 1947

        A typical example of a country doctor during the early years of the settlement of Brookhaven town was the Rev. David Rose, who was pastor of the Presbyterian churches at South Haven and Middle Island from 1765 until his death in 1799.  He prepared himself to be a physician at Yale College, where he was graduated with the class of 1760.  Afterwards, he turned to the ministry, but his knowledge of medicine proved of great value to him through the years, he combined the work of pastor, doctor and teacher at South Haven and Middle Island.

       In those days, most families had domestic remedies for their ailments, and it was part of the training of a good housewife to know the different herbs, what ailments they were to be used for, and where to find them in the woods.  Catnip was supposed to be soothing to the nerves, Indian posy acted as a tonic, boneset was good for fevers, and skunk cabbage was used for rheumatism.  “Yarb teas” of all kinds were used for most of the common ailments.

       The doctors did not seem to know a great deal about handling different kinds of sickness in those days, and “bleeding and a purge” were both used in case of sickness.  If the patient recovered, the doctor got the credit for it, and if he died, it was charged to Providence.  The following incident is recorded in the diary of a Middle Island woman in 1888, after her grandfather and grandmother had been thrown from the wagon in which they were riding when the horse ran away.  “Papa went as quick as possible and brought them back, and then went after the doctor.  He came and bled grandfather, and believes there are no bones broken.” An interesting account of the fees charged during the years when “Priest” Rose practiced the profession is given in an account book of Dr. White of Southampton.  The fee for a visit in the vicinity was one shilling; for more than a mile distant, three shillings; for a night visit, four shillings; for an all-night visit and medicine, the fee was nine shillings and sixpence.  As was true of the minister’s salary, the doctor was paid largely in farm produce.  One bill of nine pounds, seven shillings was paid in “sundries”—apples, flax, wood, pears, timothy-seed, beans, clams, fish, eels, pigs, watermelons and geese.

        In 1723, a very severe epidemic of smallpox swept over Brookhaven town, and many were the deaths among the Indians and the negro slaves.  The way the government handled the plague had a modern touch.  Masters were required to keep their servants in at night.  Fences were erected around houses in which a case of smallpox occurred, to quarantine the family, and one regulation stated that “all persons are hereby strictly forbid pulling down any fences made to prevent the danger of spreading the smallpox.”  After finding more modern methods of handling this disease, the town trustees in 1765 decided that “Doctor Cyras Punderson shall have liberty to prosecute ye business of Inoculation for the small pox in ye usuall place in ye west Meadow Neck from this present time forward.” “Priest Rose” must have been an interesting figure as he rode over his large parish on horseback, his saddlebags filled with drugs and medicines, and a bible.  There was no question but that he was the most important man in the community which he served, for he combined the three most prized functions of that day, those of a preacher, a doctor, and a teacher.”

(Note.  The material in this sketch has been taken from the history of South Haven Church, by the Rev. George Bothwick.)

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