Item of the Day: Transactions of the American Philosophical Society (1793)

Full Title:  Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, held at Philadelphia, for Promoting Useful Knowledge. Volume III.  Philadelphia: Printed by R. Aitken & Son, 1789-1786-1793.


To Vol. the Third.

An Essay on those inquiries in Natural Philosophy, which at present are most beneficial to the United States of North America.  by DR. NICHOLAS COLLIN, Rector of the Swedish churches in Pennsylvania.

Read before the Society the 3rd of April, 1789.

Philosophers are citizens of the world; the fruits of their labours are freely distributed among all nations; what they sow is reaped by the antipodes, and blooms through future generations.  It is, however, their duty to cultivate with peculiar attention those parts of science, which are most beneficial to that country in which Providence has appointed their earthly stations.  Patriotic affections are in this, as in other instances, conducive to the general happiness of mankind, because we have the best means of investigating those objects, which are most interesting to us.  In the present circumstances of the United States some problems of natural philosophy are of peculiar importance; a survey of these may contribute to the most useful direction of our own inquiries, and those of our ingenious fellow citizens.  I submit, gentlemen, my reflections on this subject to your candid indulgence and enlightened judgement.

I.  ARTICLE, Medical Enquiries.

All countries have some peculiar diseases, arising from the climate, manner of living, occupations, predominant passions, and other causes, whose separate and combined influence is but imperfectly known.  In North America we may count five — nervous disorders, rheumatism, intermitting fevers, loss of teeth, and colds.  It is remarkable that nervous complaints are at present more frequent in Europe than they formerly were.  They spring in great measure from the indulgencies of a civilized life; but in America these fiends infest with less discrimination on the dwellings of industry and temperance.  Proteus-like they assume every shape, and often baffle the best physicians.  Their baneful effect on the mind requires the serious attention of legislators, divines, and moral philosophers:  I have myself often seen their amazing influence on religious sentiments.  when extreme, they derange the whole system; obscure the intellects, bewilder the imagination; prevent the natural order and operation of all the passions:  the soul vibrates between apathy and morbid sensibility:  she hates when she should love; and grieves when she ought to rejoice:  she resembles a disordered clock, that after a long silence chimes till you are tired, and often instead of one strikes twelve — These extremes are indeed rare; but the more general degrees are still analogous, and produce a great sum of evil.

Slight rheumatic pains are almost epidemic in some seasons of the year.  Yet, these are scarcely worth mentioning in comparison to the severe fits that afflict a great number of persons, even in the earlier parts of life, growing more frequent and violent with age; not seldom attended with lameness, and contraction of limbs.

Fever and ague is here, as in other countries, the plague of marshy and feeny situations, but what is singular, it also visits the borders of limpid streams.  The lesser degree of it generally called dumb ague, is not rare in the most salubrious places during the months of September and October.  Through all the low countries from north to south this diseases rages in a variety of hideous forms; and chiefly doth the surry quartan with livid hue, haggard looks, and trembling skeleton-limbs, embitter the life of multitudes:  I have known many to linger under it for years, and become so dispirited, as not even to seek any remedy.  It is a soul source of many other diseases often terminating in deadly dropsies and consumptions.

Premature loss of teeth is in many respects a severe misfortune.  By impairing mastication, and consequently digestion, it disposes for many disorders.  It injures the pronunciation; and is a particular disadvantage in a great republic, where so many citizens are public speakers. It exposes the mouth and throat to cold, and various accidents.  It diminishes the pleasure of eating, which is a real though no sublime, pleasure of life; and which I have heard some persons very emphatically regret. Finally, it is a mortifying stroke to beauty; and as such deeply felt by the fair sex!  Indeed that man must be a stoic, who can without pity behold a blooming maiden of eighteen afflicted by this infirmity of old age!  This consideration is the more important, as the amiable affections of the human soul are not less expressed by the traits and motions of the lips, than by the beaming eye. I have not mentioned the pains of tooth-ach, because they are not more common or violent in this country than in some others, where loss of teeth is rare; many persons here losing their teeth without much pain, as I have myself experienced.

The complaint of catching cold is heard almost every day, and in every company.  this extraordinary disorder, little known in some countries, is also very common in England.  An eminent physician of that country said that “colds kill more people than the plague”.  Indeed many severe disorders originate from it among us:  it is probably often the source of the before mentioned chronic diseases.  When it does not produce such funest effects, it is nevertheless a serious evil; being attended with loss of appetite, hoarseness, sore eyes, heach-ach, pains and swellings in the face, tooth and ear-ach, rheums, listless langour, and lowness of spirits:  wherefore Shenstone had some reason to call this uneasiness a checked perspiration.  Great numbers in the United States experience more or less these symptoms, are are in some degree valetudinarians for one third of the year. . . .

These distempers frequently co-exist in the most unhealthy parts of the country; and not seldom afflict individuals with united force.  Comparison for suffering fellow citizens ought in this case to animate our investigation of those general and complicated local causes.  The extreme variableness of the weather is universally deemed a principal and general cause of colds, and of the disorders by them produced; the fall and rise of the thermometer by 20 a 30 degrees within less than four and twenty hours, disturbing the strongest constitutions, and ruining the weak.  A most important desideratum is therefore the art of hardening the bodily system against these violent impressions; or, in other words, accommodating it to the climate.  The general stamina of strength support it under the excesses of both cold and heat.  The latter is, however, the most oppressive as we can less elude it by artificial conveniences.  We suffer especially during the summer four, til 6 a 8, critical extremes, when the thermometer after 86 a 92 degrees, falls suddenly to 60.  Could means be found to blunt these attacks on the human constitution, they would save multitudes from death and lingering diseases.  Sometimes this crisis happens as late as medium September, and is in a few days succeeded by the autumnal frosts:  in such case weak persons receive a shock, from which they cannot recover during the autumn, and will aggravate the maladies of the winter, especially when it is early and rigorous.

 Search for general causes of the mentioned distempers in the popular diet, we should examine the following circumstances — excessive use of animal food, especially pork:  the common drink of inferior spiritous liquors both foreign and home made; not tomention a too frequent intemperance even in the best kinds: the constant use of tea among the fair sex, drank generally hot and strong; and often by the poorer classes, of a bad quality.

In general modes of dress we plainly discern these defects: — the tight-bodied clothes, worn by both sexes, encrease the heat of a sultry summer; the close lacing and cumbersome head-dresses of the ladies are especially injurious to health.  The winter-cloathing is too think for the climate of the northern and middle states, which is for several months at times equally cold with the North of Europe.  Few persons preserve their feet from the baneful dampness of the slush occasioned by the frequent vicissitudes of hard frosts and heavy rains during the winter:  women generally wear stuff-shoes: the American leather, though otherwise good, is very spungy; a defect owing to the precipitate process of tanning.  Nor does either sex guard the head against the piercing north-west wind which is so general for five or six months: on journeys especially the men should exchange their hats for caps that cover the ears and cheeks.

In the modes of lodging these improprieties are observable: — the poorer, or more indolent people, especially in the less improved parts of the country, frequently dwell in houses that are open to the driving snow, and chilling blast:  good houses often want close doors; a chasm of six or eight inches near the floor admits a strong current of cold air, which sensibly affects the legs.  Such houses cannot be sufficiently warmed by the common fire-places; hence the frequent complaint, that the fore part of the body is almost roasted, while the back is freezing:  a situation very unnatural, productive of rheumatism and other distempers.  The larger towns of North-America have, with their spacious streets, a number of narrow alleys; which are peculiarly detrimental in a sultry climate, and in co-operation with the slovenly habits of their poorer inmates, are nurseries of disease.

Among the general customs which may influence health, the most striking is an excessive, and in some cases ill-judged cleanliness: the continual washing of houses, especially in the cold season, has, I am confident cost the lives of many estimable women, and entailed painful diseases on their families.

In the business of life we often remark a very irregular application: indolence succeeded by hurry and intense fatigue.  This must particularly inure our husbandmen, as the neglect of a day may damage a precious crop, if it is not compensated by exertions, which in the sultry heat of summer are very trying to the strongest constitution.

As to nervous disorders, philanthropy compells me to remark, that, besides their general connexion with a sickly constitution, they have in a great measure originated from two singular causes.  One is the convulsion of public affairs for a considerable time past, which occasioned many and great domestic distresses:  the natural events of the late war are universally known:  numbers of virtuous citizens have also felt the dire effects of the succeeding anarchy; especially the loss of property.  The operations of the cause are, however, continually lessened by time that cures our griefs, or buries them in the grave; and such evils will under Providence be for ever prevented by the new confederation of the United-States — The other cause is that gloomy superstition disseminated by ignorant illiberal preachers; the bane of social joy, or real virtue, and of manly spirit.  this phantom of darkness will be dispelled by the rays of science, and the bright charms of rising civilization.


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Filed under 1790's, Medicine, Posted by Rebecca Dresser, Uncategorized

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