One of the most interesting buildings at the Fort is the Hospital, even though the original 1786-7 structure did not have a hospital. In that spot on the map there actually was a magazine where the gun powder was stored. When the reconstruction was being completed in the 1990s, we had a lot of information about the doctor of the Fort, a fellow called John Elliot. We even have a list of the specific supplies he needed at the facility and a major donation of period medical equipment. That provided an opportunity to talk about 18th century medicine with our visitors.
After our young visitors go to the Fort’s recreated hospital, they may not be so keen to visit again, after hearing of the amputations, surgeries, and other terrible sounding treatments common in the 18th century. However, we might make it sound more terrible than it actually was. In reality, the doctor of the Fort did not do any major surgery and no one that we know of lost a limb. The primary role of the doctor at the Fort was to prescribe medicines. We have quite a list of different herbs and compounds that the doctor could create from his supplies to help any sick patient. Every morning the doctor was required to be present for roll call to assess that the soldiers were all fit for duty that day. That order came from Baron von Steuben’s own drill manual which was followed pretty closely.
One of the practices that some doctors performed in the 18th century was a procedure known as bloodletting. It was believed at that time that if one was sick, it was due to one of the bodies four humors being unbalanced and it was the bad blood in you that was causing the misfortune. The doctor could extract some blood from the patient using a special bloodletting tool or use a leech to do the job.
With all the unsettling things in the hospital at Fort Steuben, we do remind visitors to be thankful for our modern medical techniques and procedures. We may look critically at the events of the past and pass judgement on their actions. However, Dr. John Elliot, even though he could do a bloodletting procedure and had the power and supply to prescribe a patient opium from the Fort, was at the top of his profession, having graduated from Kings College, now Columbia University, and had firsthand battlefield experience in the Revolutionary War. Maybe in 200 years or so, folks in the future may look at our common medical practices and deem them wildly unsafe. Maybe they will open our hospitals up as tourist attractions in 200 years to educate folks on the medical practices of the 2020s. At least bloodletting is not a common practice any longer. For that, we can all express a collective sigh of relief.