Evidence for Early Seventeenth-Century Surgery and Dissection at James Fort, Virginia

Karin S. Bruwelheide, Douglas W. Owsley, Beverly A. Straube, and Jamie E. May


Jamestown , established in May 1607 by a private company of investors, became England’s first successful transatlantic colony. Located on a 1500-acre island in the James River, the initial settlement was based in and around a triangular palisade encompassing about one acre of land that the colonists named James Fort (Fig. 3.1). The Fort endured as the colony’s administrative center until the investors’ Virginia Company lost its royal charter from King James in 1624. After this date, settlement intensified on the rest of the island and more widely along the James River.

Early Jamestown colonists were primarily commercial and industrial specialists sent by the Virginia Company to demonstrate “that Virginia could provide profitable freightage for the ships of England” (Craven 1957, 12). Also included were gentlemen who hoped to profit privately from the venture, trained soldiers, general laborers, and individuals providing support services such as blacksmiths, coopers, men of the cloth, and medical practitioners. The latter proved to be especially needed as high numbers of the early colonists were afflicted with injuries and illnesses. In the words of colonist George Percy writing in 1607, “Our men were destroyed with cruel

K.S. Bruwelheide (*) • D.W. Owsley

Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, PO Box 37012, MRC112, Washington, DC 20013-7012, USA e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it ; This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

B.A. Straube

James River Institute for Archaeology, 223 McLaws Circle, Williamsburg, VA 23185, USA e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

J.E. May

Preservation Virginia, Jamestown Rediscovery,

1365 Colonial Parkway, Jamestown, VA 23081, USA e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2017

K.C. Nystrom (ed.), The Bioarchaeology of Dissection and Autopsy in the United States, Bioarchaeology and Social Theory, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-26836-1_3

Archaeological plan of James Fort as of February 2015, indicating three features dating between 1610 and 1617 that contained partial human crania

Fig. 3.1 Archaeological plan of James Fort as of February 2015, indicating three features dating between 1610 and 1617 that contained partial human crania. Structure 191 contained the partial remains of a cannibalized English female (image: Jamestown Rediscovery)

diseases as swellings, fluxes, burning fevers, and by wars” (Percy 1967, 25). The mortality rate was so high that the colony was only sustained by periodic arrivals of new settlers sent by the Virginia Company.

Three medical men were part of the first voyage to settle Jamestown. Five more arrived on the first two supply ships 8 months later. The two physicians, four surgeons, and two apothecaries embodied the tripartite nature of the healing profession during the early seventeenth century.

Physicians comprised a small medical elite cadre of university graduates. Their education in philosophy, theology, and the arts as well as the sciences prepared them for the role of “dietician, spiritual counselor and general confidant” as they regulated the body’s overall health (Rawcliffe 1995, 12). Trained in humoral theory, the physician’s usual practice was to examine a patient’s urine to assess imbalances in the four fundamental principles of the body—yellow bile, phlegm, black bile, and blood. Dietary modification, bloodletting, and medicines produced from botanical substances were normal treatments for restoring humoral balance.

Walter Russell, identified by Jamestown leader Captain John Smith as a gentleman and “Doctor of Physicke,” arrived in the colony in January 1608 (Smith 1986a [1624], 161). Russell was part of a June 1608 exploration of the Chesapeake

Bay and on this trip treated Smith for an agonizing stingray puncture by applying “a precious oile.” Smith recovered from his pain sufficiently to eat the stingray for dinner, but “having neither Surgeon nor surgerie but that preservative oile” on the expedition, decided to return immediately to Jamestown where there were at least two surgeons who could tend to his injury (Smith 1986b [1624], 228-229).

Apothecaries, medical men who distilled, powdered, and blended the restorative preparations prescribed by physicians, used culinary methods as well as processes involved in dyeing, alchemy, and metalworking (Rawcliffe 1995,152). The Jamestown apothecaries may have provided remedies to the colonists, but, given the early drive for profit, likely spent considerable time exploring Virginia’s flora for both new and proven medicinal substances. These were stored in hand-painted tin-glazed earthenware jars, a practice followed since the fourteenth century judging from period illustrations of apothecary shops. Scores of these jars have been found in James Fort and are the most common ceramic vessel form in the early settlement.

Like apothecaries, the third group of medical men, surgeons , received training through apprenticeship and were considered “craftsmen” in the medical community. Although socially inferior to university-trained physicians, surgeons had a solid economic base through their alignment with barbers, who were permitted to let blood and pull teeth as well as provide haircuts and shaves. The College of Physicians of London tried to control the activities of surgeons by prohibiting them from prescribing medicines and by dictating that physicians must be present during critical operations (Appleby 1981, 252). Surgeons were primarily restricted to the treatment of wounds, making them an integral part of military expeditions and voyages of discovery where injuries were commonplace. Surgeon Anthony Bagnall was included on the July 1608 exploration of the Chesapeake Bay to continue curing Smith’s “hurt of a stingray.” During that trip Bagnall also treated a Virginia Indian prisoner who had been shot in the knee during a brief skirmish (Smith 1986a [1624], 175).

Military campaigns far from home, whether on land or at sea, provided opportunities to the experienced surgeon to hone his craft and were training grounds for the novice hoping to advance a career. The latter was likely often the case at the remote and isolated settlement of Jamestown , Writing of the situation, William Strachey (1953 [1612], 37-38) stated that during the first decade of the settlement the sick were recovering

by very smale meanes, without helpe of fresh dyett, or comfort of wholsome Phisique, there being at the first but fewe physique Helpes, or skilfull surgeons, who knew how to applie the right Medecyne in a new Country or to search the quality and constitution for the Patient and his distemper, or that knew how to counsell, when to lett blood or not, or in necessity to use a Launce [lancet] in that office at all.

Having the settlement serve as a medical “training ground” was likely to the detriment of the colonists, but may have been the only way to persuade medical men to join a risky endeavor, where “Without cities, hospitals, professional contacts, books or instruments, the early colonial doctors required a resourcefulness, an independence of action, courage and ingenuity, bred only in the school of real necessity” (Blanton 1930, xvi).

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >