Colonial Kids Had It Tougher Than You

Children in colonial America met untimely ends from all sorts of odd things, from eating bad beans to the mysterious "failure to thrive."

Forget childhood obesity and behavioral problems. Little ones in the 17th Century met colorful ends from eating poisonous beans, falling off wharves and the vague "failure to thrive," according to Dr. Howard A. Pearson's analysis of colonial doctors' letters in the most recent issue of Pediatrics magazine.

Over one-fifth of infants in some colonial communities died before their first birthdays. So, what was pediatric health-care coverage like in colonial times when kids had it so tough?

Unfortunately, there isn't a clear picture. Minimal medical evidence has been kept from that time. Trained physicians were very scarce, and clergymen and politicians often served as medical diagnosticians.

One very popular politician-cum-physician was John Winthrop the Elder, who not only served the Connecticut community for free, but also preserved a trove of his medical letters, which Pearson analyzes in the article.

Pearson likens the colonial medical consultation process as a precursor to email.

Here is how it worked: Parents would write Winthrop and other physicians letters describing their sick child's condition. In one example, a Connecticut mother wrote a letter bemoaning her four-year-old's intense teeth rot.

The doctor then wrote his diagnosis back in a response letter, explaining that the aforementioned teeth rot was caused by putting the baby to sleep while sucking on "leather pacifiers soaked with honey or molasses."

Another of Winthrop's letters described child abuse some 300 years before Dr. C Henry Kempe gained international fame for conceptualizing battered-child syndrome.

Winthrop often treated kids with his top secret cure-all "rubila," later revealed by Oliver Wendell Holmes to be a mix of antimony and saltpeter, a precursor to the explosive potassium nitrate.

The modern health-care system has evolved considerably since Winthrop and his ilk filled in a dire gap in health care during colonial times. Thankfully, rubila-pushing pseudo-physicians, poisonous beans and leather pacifiers are all now relics of our medical history.

Photo credit: Getty Images; Three boys re-enact the Spirit of 76 in this photo.