Part medical guide, part... civics textbook?
Posted on June 12, 2019
In early 1792, Thomas Dobson, a prominent Philadelphia printer in the middle of printing the first American edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, took a much smaller commission: William Currie’s An Historical Account of the Climates and Diseases of the United States of America. A member of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Currie reasoned that doctors could not treat illnesses the same way in different countries because of differences in “the climate, soil, and modes of living of the inhabitants, and of course their constitutions.” Ostensibly a medical guide, his monograph also incorporates plenty of patriotic rhetoric. The conclusion, for instance, notes that “here the dignity of the human species is restored, and man enjoys all the freedom to which he is entitled; for here he is...a framer of the laws by which he is governed” (Currie didn’t factor enslaved individuals and women into his celebratory assessment).
To modern readers, the pairing of medicine and civic pride might seem odd. Yet less than a decade after the American Revolution ended, there was no guarantee that the new republican government would last. Currie and his contemporaries saw living a healthy and moral life as a way for citizens to contribute to their country’s continued prosperity.
While it is often difficult to gauge a work’s public reception, two inscriptions at the front of the book offer insight into who read our copy of An Historical Account:
The “Paedagogium” referenced in the above images was a Moravian boarding school for boys founded in Nazareth, Pennsylvania in 1760. A Germanic protestant sect, the first Moravians arrived in the colonies as missionaries in the early eighteenth century. After the Revolution, the academy began to conduct classes in English as well as German, and in 1787 it admitted its first non-Moravian student. Their mission statement was “to train good servants, workers, and teachers who will be useful in the Lord’s service both at home and abroad, and of whom there is a very great dearth at present in this country.” In particular, the Paedagogium hoped to provide its pupils with a more advanced scientific education than they could receive at their local schools.
In order to present the most accurate information possible, Currie solicited letters about regional medical and meteorological trends from respected doctors and scientists, like Dr. Benjamin Rush and Thomas Jefferson. Each chapter focuses on a different state, with descriptions of local climates and discussions about common seasonal illnesses and their treatments. From passages about which diseases Pennsylvanians tended to suffer in March (measles and “Hooping Cough”) and how to treat Cholera (Laudanum in a Mint Julep) to warnings about the intoxicating effects of tea, An Historical Account offered a valuable trove of data and advice for gentlemen and farmers alike.
Evidently someone associated with the Paedagogium also identified Currie’s work as a natural fit for the school’s scientifically-minded future teachers. Given that Currie wrote his dedication on December 29, 1791 and the first inscription is dated “February 4, 1792,” the book must have been purchased fresh off the press!
Written by Lydia Heaton ('19) as part of the class HIST 211 Books: Tech & Culture (Fall 2018).
 Robert Arner, Dobson’s “Encyclopaedia”: The Publisher, Text, and Publication of America’s First Britannica, 1789-1803 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 3, 8.
 William Currie, An Historical Account of the Climates and Diseases of the United States of America (Philadelphia: T. Dobson, at the Stone-House, No. 41, South Second-Street), 1.