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Leeches, Cupping, and Hacksaws: Rough Medicine Indeed!

There will be a Medicine and Surgery of the American Revolution lecture at the Marblehead Museum on May 15.

Courtesy.
Courtesy.

He wasn’t born in the 18th century and his brand of medical practice emphatically does NOT include leeches or cupping. But retired surgeon Dr. Ray Sullivan—an active member of Glover’s Marblehead Regiment (he reenacts the character of Dr. John Warren)—plays the part of a Revolutionary War-era sawbones, and he’s an expert on colonial medicine.

On Thursday, May 15, at 7:30 p.m., he’ll offer some insight into colonial medicine and surgery during his presentation on “Rough Medicine” at the Marblehead Museum galleries, 170 Washington Street, Marblehead.

Sullivan will provide a look at medical practices during the Revolutionary War, based on his extensive research. He’ll provide a tour through the medical beliefs of the time—such as Benjamin Rush’s assertion that “all disease originates from excessive tension, which causes a disturbance of the blood vessels.”  Or Sir John Pringle’s notion that “putrefaction was the greatest cause of illness in armies.”  Sullivan will also examine surgical techniques that’ll make your hair curl. And there’s much more.

Following standard practice during the Revolutionary War, each regiment brought its own physician. Despite varied training, Rev War surgeons did a notable job of attempting to save lives, and most were competent, honest, and well-intentioned, despite conditions and shortages in medical supplies that placed an overwhelming burden on them. They cared for those wounded in battle, as well as those sick from other causes. Common diseases were dysentery, fever, and smallpox. But most illnesses were caused by unsanitary conditions in camp.

Ray Sullivan is a retired cancer surgeon from Waterbury, Connecticut, with an intense interest in New England History. He holds an undergraduate degree from Brown University and a doctorate from Georgetown University School of Medicine. A member of the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Winthrop Society of Great Migration Descendants and Glover's Marblehead Regiment, Sullivan teaches various aspects of New England history at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Connecticut. He is the author of two books on New England history and is currently writing a biography of Nabby Adams, daughter of President John Adams (America’s second president), and her struggle with breast cancer. He is married and has four children and 11 grandchildren, three of whom participate in Glover's Regiment activities. 

Dr. Sullivan’s talk is the last in the Marblehead Museum's spring lecture series, generously sponsored by the Marble Harbor Investment Counsel.

Admission is $10 for Marblehead Museum members and $15 for nonmembers, and a reception with members of Glover's Regiment will follow.

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