Health Histories

News of epidemics and advertisements for cures were common fare for Colonial era diaries and newspapers, says Ben Mutschler, OSU historian. (Photo: Santiago Uceda)

November 3, 2009

Colonial Americans struggled with medical care

By Angela Yeager

In Brief

The Issue

Knowledge of how sickness shaped the lives of Colonial Americans reveals how access to medical care has changed. Ben Mutschler, College of Liberal Arts, author of The Province of Affliction (soon to be published), has explored health care from Colonial America to the present.

OSU Leadership

He and other OSU historians contribute to the health-care debate by illuminating origins and trends in delivery systems and medical practices.

Ben Mutschler's passion for health care recently led him to leap into an area where historians hesitate to tread - current affairs.

In an August 2009 opinion column in The Oregonian, the associate professor of history at Oregon State University argued that a historical context was missing from much of today's health-care debate. While defining how health care should be administered is important, there is a long history of government provision for the sick and afflicted, he explained.

"It is simply not true that it is somehow ‘un-American' for the government to be involved with health care," he wrote. "If you went back in time and visited early America, you would see the government helping out in a number of different ways."

Growing up in the small town of Lincoln, Massachusetts, Mutschler was surrounded by reminders of the past. From Colonial buildings to the yearly Minute Men parades, he lived with history.

Perhaps, then, it is surprising that Mutschler had little interest in the subject and didn't consider making it his career until a high school teacher threw two books down on his desk.

"There were two books on my desk, one by Howard Zinn and another that had a more conservative angle on history," Mutschler says. "And the teacher said, read these and you figure out what seems closer to the truth."

Primary Sources

This idea that history was a living, breathing thing that could have different interpretations excited the young student, who went on to get his undergraduate degree in history from Harvard University in 1988. After graduating, Mutschler left the subject behind and spent a few years as a professional musician, playing jazz in clubs around Boston.

It was a teacher at Columbia University who ignited Mutschler's current passion for the history of illness and health care in Colonial America. Professor Richard Bushman taught his students the importance of working with primary documents. In early diaries, letters and public records from the Colonies, Mutschler started to see repeated references to illness and became intrigued with how life appeared to revolve around health matters.

Shaped by Sickness

"Diaries often note illness and even death in a spare, matter-of-fact way," he says. "Writers were concerned not only with providing for the afflicted, but also with serious disruptions to their daily routines - who would tend the farm or manage domestic chores, for example."

These kinds of records led Mutschler to his current research, which focuses on the ways in which illness shaped and strained basic structures of everyday life in 18th century America.

"When you take illness and put it at the center of our portrait of early American life, how does this change the ways in which we understand politics, society and culture," Mutschler asks. "The past can sometimes be so distant to people, especially to young college students. But when you frame it in the context of something everyone can relate to, such as being sick or knowing someone who has been seriously ill, it gives it immediacy."


Mutschler's forthcoming book, The Province of Affliction: Illness in Eighteenth-Century New England, explores the ways in which "families, households, towns, provincial and state governments, and even Congress itself, tried to sort out the lines of responsibility for illness in a world in which it was so common for one to fall sick."

The government certainly wasn't the first place that people went, Mutschler said, adding that churches and neighbors were usually the first stop when illness came into the household. But as "protectors of the people," Colonial legislatures "fielded an astonishing range of petitions: sick soldiers asking to be compensated for medical bills that they paid out of pocket and by veterans and their families tending the wounded and chronically ill; towns reeling in the wake of epidemics that not only sickened their inhabitants but ruined local economies; immigrants and other ‘strangers' who fell upon hard times and those who cared for them," Mutschler wrote in his op-ed in The Oregonian.

Love for Subject

Currently, Mutschler is developing a course on the history of disability as an outgrowth of his new research. He hopes the class will be offered in 2010.

Mutschler's perspective on this topic was inspired by a student. Two years ago, Captain Terry Christensen, who is legally blind, was in Mutschler's class and helped the professor to understand that many traditional teaching methods, from printed handouts to Power Point presentations, could make life more difficult for people who are visually-impaired.

"I'd like to explore new ways to make the class as accessible as possible, which seems especially fitting for a course on disability history," says Mutschler.

Christensen, who is now doing research in Philadelphia, said that Mutschler's teaching style and passion for his studies will inspire the way he teaches his own students someday.

"His sense of enthusiasm for discovery was palpable. He has really developed a sense of making everyone in the class feel like they are all part of a learning community," Christensen says.

Mutschler is already at work on his second book, tentatively titled, According to their Abilities: Capacity, Disability, and Citizenship in an Age of Revolution. In addition to his research and teaching, Mutschler has an active family life, which includes his wife and two children. He also plays saxophone in an experimental jazz trio around Corvallis on the weekends.

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