In 1782 (1 ed, near final printing), just before the end of the Revolutionary War, and 1785 (2ed), just a few years following the end of the war, other editions of William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine were published.  This book was one of the most popular books on medicine for common people to read in quite some time.  William Buchan’s first edition of this book was 1769, seven years before the dawn of the American Revolution.  Following the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1786, Buchan’s book slowly became popular once again to patriots now very much pleased about their victory over the British. 

The underlying social and political scenes at the time when Buchan’s writing entered the popular marketplace prevented this book from impacting much of the philosophy and practice engaged in with medicine during the war.  Some scholars will disagree with me about this, but Buchan’s work had an impact on this type of military service.   But if anything from Buchan’s work made its way into the wartime medical practices, it was information that could be gathered elsewhere, typically from other more professional medical and surgical texts.

Before reviewing Buchan’s work, suffice it to say that the revolutionary War had the potential for impacting medicine in several ways.  First, the need for surgeons rose to such an extent that by the end of the war, there are many more potential surgeon’s mates waiting for their calling to the field once the war is over. Second, there are those people exposed to this fact of life, who witnessed the terror of war–with war comes injury, and along with injury complications like infection and severe illness, and along with that prolonged illness amputation.  The nurse during the revolution war for example, most often a young boy, was witness to some of the most dreadful sights involving an injured soldier.  It was not unusual for someone to lose an arm or hand due to decay or gangrene, or to be missing a part of his body due to the enemy’s firepower, or to the victim of only loss of a part of his youth due to severe powder burns and the scars left behind due to a musket ball grazing by.  

All of these events pertaining to the war and its injuries, and the other forms of punishment members of the militia could tolerate, only made for a sense of greater comradery amongst those most patriotic and most committed to the cause.    Those who were most supportive of whatever the American military was engaged in, be it pertaining to war or something as simple as feeding and housing soldiers and tending to the sick, are the very same people who often fell witness to the consequences of these events.  This meant that to an American private serving in the military, an ounce of patriot’s blood bled and drawn by gun or lancet was equal to ten or more ounces of British blood by musket, leaving less than a half an ounce of blood to be drawn by the surgeon’s lancet.  Neither the sharpshooter nor the surgeon in the British army was better than any American patriot performing the same functions. 


One controversy with which the American physicians did agree with Buchan however was the value of inoculations (although Buchan had little if anything to do with this decision).  This was not the case in the beginning, but less than a few months into the war, due to large numbers of cases developing at times, it was decided that inoculations had to be performed.  The medical staff probably also agreed with Buchan somewhat regarding the relationship that every knew existed between fever and local water and humidity.  However, this again was not anything Buchan had the privileges of introducing to them. 

Thus it is important to note here that Buchan’s work does span a time related to the Revolutionary War.  But this book was not the source of much new knowlege for Americans physicians serving in the War.  For a study of Revolutionary War medicine, Buchan’s words are best reviewed for further insights into disease for the time, particularly  in those editions published before the war began and during its earliest years.  The 1780s editions lack reliability due to the advances in European medicine made which are much unlike the traditional medicine being practiced in the Hudson Valley area prior to and during the war.  Buchan’s theories and philosophies may have also not been part of the Hudson Valley philosophy of medicine practiced during the War.  And since Buchan’s work came out in its first edition after Osborn completed the work on his vade mecum, the lack of experience Buchan had with the local environment of Fishkill probably meant that he had little experience and knowledge pertinent to this specific local habitat.  Osborn’s work is one with recipes and philosophy; Buchan’s work is a book about domestic medicine.  These two views of medicine and its practices are quite different.


The Whiplash of Loyalty

The Revolutionary war involved mostly husbands and sons.  Buchan’s work was still of service to the ladies.  When Jane Austen began exerting her influences upon the role of the woman, Buchan’s work enabled the sick person’s world to be just as important as that of the healthy person. This meant that women’s illnesses and the like were no longer an ambarassment or a concern.  Jane wrote freely about her own bouts with rheumatism and biliary fever.  One who read her writings and was so concerned had these worries diminished somewhat by the commonplace nature of Buchan’s book, not for the men to see but instead for the women. 

Not only were the claims made by popular Scottish and perhaps by default Loyalist writers like William Buchan from Edinburgh impacted by such social statements, so too would the philosophies preached by his book.  In the later years, as these philosophies became more detailed throughout the numerous editions of Domestic Medicine that followed, sooner or later this popularity would once again reerupt, and the loyalty to Buchan’s wisdom about life and health restored.   Until a decade had passed since  the American Revolution and War of 1812, Buchan’s book would not draw that many readers.  Ny the 1820s, it finally began to generate a little bit of popularity amongst Americans, especially in some of the old colonies still demonstrating its heritage like Massachusetts, where there were printers willing to feed this demand by the local and most recently arrived new loyalists.

Buchan’s most important philosophy that never really impacted the soldiers and leaders in the American camps was that of disease and climate.  Buchan had developed a strong belief that many if not most diseases had something to do with the local weather and seasonal climatic changes relative to the people.  Those most susceptible to a disease according to Buchan, and those who engaged in risky activities exposing them to these risks for disease, we more likely to get them.  Along with this philosophy, the old early 18th century notion of acclimation once gain became quite popular.  By the end of the American Revolution, the reprinting of this part of Buchan’s philosophy once again made his work appear very different from that of the old-timer’s American medical practices and traditions.  Prior to the war, American physicians were not teaching this philosophy that much, and those serving on the military pretty much felt the same about disease and its causes as when they first took their position as part of the medical services.  Doctors who came a believers in the humours or fire usually left the war with much the same ideology.  Those who came in with notions that perhaps European writers like Buchan were correct, mostly of European origins themselves, tried to promote this ideology during the war and at the camps.  But their philosophy was often outmaneuvered by the philosophies of one or more local patriots claiming their physicians, published or not, to be much smarter than any common place civilian like Buchan.  Only the British would fully believe in whatever Buchan had to say.


If we take a close look at Buchan’s writings in 1785, we find that he pretty much tried to link most diseases to some sort of outdoor related activity.  In the case of pleurisy for example, Buchan claims “The pleurisy prevails among labouring people, especially such as work without doors, and are of a sanguine constitution. It is most frequent in the spring season”.  He continues:

“The pleurisy may be occasioned by whatever obstructs the perspiration; as cold northerly winds; drinking cold liquors when the body is hot; sleeping without doors, on the damp ground; wet clothes; plunging the body into cold water, or exposing it to the cold air, when covered with sweat, &c. It may likewise be occasioned by drinking strong liquors; by the stoppage of usual evacuations; as old ulcers, issues, sweating of the feet or hands, &c. the sudden striking in of any eruption, as the itch, the measles, or the small-pox. Those who have been accustomed to bleed at a certain season of the year, are apt, if they neglect it, to be seized with a pleurisy. Keeping the body too warm by means of fire, clothes, &c. renders it more liable to this disease. A pleurisy may likewise be occasioned by violent exercise, as running, wrestling, leaping, or by supporting great weight, blows on the breast, &c. A bad conformation of the body renders persons more liable to this disease, as a narrow chest, a straitness of the arteries of the pleura, &c.”

In spite of this new theory as to the cause, Buchan’s overall treatment differed little from before.  

This philosophy of disease and the weather did have its American supporters.  But it wasn’t until well after the war that much of this opinion was expressed, and when it was expressed, Buchan had nothing to do with the reasons for these new philosophies.  By the end of the Revolutionary war, soldiers had experienced the worst winters labelled as a “miniature ice age” by some historians to, the muggiest battlefields where creating a spark could have minimal effects upon the gunpowder, and some of the hottest nights in encampments where mosquitoes engaged regularly in their own battle of superiority.


When Buchan’s writing was once again edited considerable and reprinted soon into the 19th century, Buchan’s anti-American design of this book continued to take hold.  No more obvious about this particular feature of Buchan’s writings appears in how he reviewed some of the most popular topics in medicine for the time.  Event though merchants were trying to pawn off this book to who were now early United States Citizens, the content of this book still wrung like any book promoting the filthy water of the Thames.  Buchan’s review of medicinal waters excluded anything about the now increasingly popular mineral springs and other medicinal waters in the United States.  He covered fairly completely all the valuable waters in Great Britain, expounding upon this even more as the years passed and the size and length of the book increased.  By the mid-1820s, Buchan’s books had a special chapter even on these mineral springs, but never once did he mention the now very famous waters in Ballstown near Saratoga.  As for those who read this new version of Buchan, they strongly believed in the relationship between domestic lifestyle practices, and climate and disease.

Contents page of HMS Bounty’s medical book

See for an epub version of this book.

See also:

Dr. Buchan and American Family Medicine.  At

“Jane Austen and ‘a society of sickness.'”  At