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Preface
Benjamin Franklin—the only Founding Father of the New Republic to
sign the Declaration of Independence, the alliance with France, the peace
treaty with Britain, and the Constitution—has long been a favorite of readers and writers of American history. If we count the number of new books,
articles, and media presentations involving Franklin, it seems that his popularity is growing with each passing year.
Historians have so admirably covered Franklin’s politics, personal life,
printing career, economics, science, philosophy, and ethics that one might be
tempted to conclude that there is little more that can be discovered or written
about this remarkable man. On the pages that follow, however, I shall present a side of Franklin that has not been examined sufficiently and put under
one cover in the past—his numerous forays into medicine.
In a sense, this book has three purposes. One is to examine Franklin’s
major medical contributions in some detail. Another is to show how Franklin
was shaped by, and helped to change, the eighteenth-century medical landscape. A third is to look at what he knew about and how he treated his own
chronic medical disorders. My efforts here are an initial attempt to survey a
wealth of material. Although it is by no means an exhaustive account, it is my
hope that it will lead to a greater appreciation of Franklin as a significant figure in the world of medicine. Ideally, it will also shed more light on the status of the healing arts and preventive medicine in America and in Europe
during the eighteenth century.
After years of collecting, reading, and taking notes on everything that I
could find on Franklin and medicine, I concluded that it would be best to tie
Franklin’s medical interests and contributions to specific periods in his life. It
is clear that he was involved with some problems, such as telling people how
to acquire immunity against smallpox, for more than fifty years. But for most
subjects, a chronological approach seemed reasonable, and it allowed me to
meld his insights and projects with the well-documented narrative of his life
and the medical ideas that were being discussed by the physicians and
laypeople around him.
Hence, after a general introduction on the nature of eighteenth-century
American medicine and Franklin’s multifaceted approach to medicine, Part
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PREFACE
I will examine his most significant contributions to medicine from the
colonies. Part II will turn to what he did as an experimental natural philosopher in the field of medicine while in England, and Part III will do the same
for his years in France. Although Franklin was sent to Europe as a diplomat,
his mind was never far from medicine, and he interacted with and was
respected by some of the most famous physicians of the day, including John
Pringle, Thomas Sydenham, and Benjamin Rush. He also corresponded
extensively with the leading natural philosophers of the time, and these
exchanges aided the development and dissemination of medical advances in
Europe and America. Part IV will be devoted to the final years of his life and
his death in Philadelphia. Even at an advanced age he invented remarkable
devices to compensate for his disabilities, and he experimented and worked
with his physicians to manage an annoying skin condition, his recurrent
attacks of painful gout, and his large bladder stone.
It has been said that everybody can find their own Franklin and their own
unique way of approaching him, even when working with the same
resources. My Franklin will differ from the Franklin presented by a social
historian, who might draw attention to the changing marketplace for medicine; from the Franklin portrayed by a general biographer, who would be
more inclined to concentrate on his politics and social relationships; and
from the Franklin constructed by someone intent on knocking him off the
high pedestal on which he is often placed.
The Franklin to be presented in this book is constructed by a person who
spent more than twenty-five years running a laboratory in the brain and
behavioral sciences before turning to the history of science and medicine. As
such, I shall concentrate on the medical history and eighteenth-century
milieu and let Franklin speak for himself.
I could not have written this book without the editorial help, encouragement, and moral support of my wife Wendy. She deserves a medal or at least
a dream vacation for dealing with my ups and downs and hopes and fears, as
I read until my eyelids closed and occasionally awoke in a sweat, pondering
how best to reach a broad audience.
Robert Lockhart, my editor at the University of Pennsylvania Press, also
deserves my special thanks for his insights about how to present this material
in a stimulating but factual way, as does my copyeditor, Noreen O’ConnorAbel. In addition, I also must thank Lilla Vekerdy of the Washington University Medical School Rare Books Library for her help, and the Packard
Humanties Institute for providing me with a computer disk containing more
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PREFACE
xiii
than 30,000 letters and other pieces from Franklin or sent to him. Without
this valuable resource, this book would have taken much longer to complete.
Of course, I am also grateful to the many people (too many to name) who
looked over one or more of my chapters, and to the American Philosophical
Society, Yale University, and the College of Physicians of Philadelphia for
allowing me to use their resources.
I hope that everyone involved with this arduous project on Benjamin
Franklin and eighteenth-century medicine, even those who might have
approached this very challenging topic very differently, will appreciate this
first step. My hope is that this volume will stimulate additional research in
this area, as there is much more yet to be gleaned about Franklin as a man
of medicine.
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