In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Medicine in the Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Edited Collections
  • Native American Medicine
  • African Medicine and Obeah
  • European Medicine
  • Public Health
  • Slavery and the Slave Trade
  • The American South
  • New England
  • The French Atlantic
  • The Iberian Atlantic
  • Military Medicine and Atlantic Crossings
  • Epidemics

Atlantic History Medicine in the Atlantic World
Katherine Johnston
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0085


Various medical traditions from Africa, Europe, and the Americas converged in the Atlantic world between the 16th and 19th centuries, and all of them changed as a result. On first contact, all three had significant elements in common: the medical traditions of each place had a religious dimension to them, although it was stronger in some than in others, and all three used botanical medicines of various kinds. Although Europeans had traditionally recognized the conjunction of religion and medicine (hospital nurses, for example, were often religious figures, and prayer formed a part of the healing process), they did not recognize the religious components of African or Native American medicine as legitimate. In some cases they denounced these practices as witchcraft, while in others they did not recognize crucial ceremonial components to the medical and healing process. Europeans did, however, seek to obtain botanical cures from the Americas and went in search of plants, as well as knowledge of these plants, to enhance their own medicinal capability. After initially sharing some botanical knowledge with Europeans, Native Americans eventually proved reluctant to share such knowledge. They were more likely to share botanical medicines with Africans, who had some similar traditions and plants as well as knowledge. Both African and Native American medicinal techniques changed as healers learned from one another, and Afro-Caribbean healers developed obeah, which had many uses, some of them medicinal. European medicine also changed during this period. Most European medical traditions relied on a view of the body as made up of four humors, and health depended upon a stable balance between the internal humors and external elements. An imbalance could cause ill health, and a recalibration of that balance could restore health. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the relationship between the body and its environment gained prominence in European medical thought, particularly as increasing numbers of people left their native environments to travel to distant climates. The idea that people’s health depended on their surrounding environments led to an emphasis on preventative medicine through environmental management, and these ideas contributed to the emerging field of public health. Still, physicians continued to rely on plant-based medicines like rhubarb, jalap, cinchona bark, rattlesnake root, arrowroot, dogwood, and many more. While Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans sometimes used the same plants to treat the same ailments, and Africans and Europeans both benefited from inoculation techniques, cultural differences and varying understandings of health, medicine, and the body prevented a comprehensive merging of medical techniques. As a result, health care and medicine remained culturally, regionally, ethnically, and economically specific across the Atlantic world.

General Overviews and Edited Collections

While most of the (monograph) overviews on medicine in the Atlantic world focus on British North America, edited collections can have a broader reach and give a fuller picture of the subject. Still, a couple of surveys are worthwhile overviews: Duffy 1993 argues that medicine and medical practice in colonial British America developed as its own entity, distinct both from British and from Native American medicine but incorporating traits of both. Reiss 2000 offers a fairly comprehensive survey of illness, health, medicine, and treatment in colonial British America, including particularly prevalent diseases and their treatments. Leavitt and Numbers 1985 contains a large range of topics, mostly in the 19th-century United States, from midwifery to yellow fever to environmental medicine to the development of the medical profession, though the essays (with a few exceptions) overwhelmingly discuss the white population. Leavitt’s later edited collection (Leavitt 1999) is a substantial departure from this model, and the range of contributions on women’s health in America from the 17th through the 20th century is both thoughtful and inclusive (although the bulk of the contributions discuss the 19th and 20th centuries). The essays in Arnold 1996 are not exclusively Atlantic in subject, though several touch on medicine, disease, health, and medical knowledge in Brazil, West Africa, and the Caribbean. Delbourgo and Dew 2008 offers an eclectic collection of essays on the connections between the natural world and medical knowledge; standouts include essays on Brazil and on Saint Domingue as well as an essay by Susan Scott Parrish on indigenous, African, and European knowledge sharing, production, and concealment in British colonial America. Cook and Walker 2013 is a special issue of the journal Social History of Medicine, in which the editors have collected essays on smallpox inoculation, bioprospecting, and transatlantic medical networks. Cook and Walker’s introduction to this collection gives a good overview of recent historiography on medicine in the international Atlantic world. Finally De Barros, et al. 2009 focuses largely on the 19th and 20th centuries. But the essays cover a broad range of places, peoples, and subjects, and this is one of the best edited collections of medicine in the Atlantic world today.

  • Arnold, David, ed. Warm Climates and Western Medicine. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1996.

    More than half of these essays are Atlantic in nature and discuss medical knowledge and practices in a range of “warm” places. There is a slight imperial bent, as the focus on other places tends to be on how European medical practitioners changed their practices due to contact with others.

  • Cook, Harold J., and Timothy D. Walker. “Circulation of Medicine in the Early Modern Atlantic World.” Social History of Medicine 26.3 (2013): 337–351.

    Explains the pains European medical practitioners and merchants took to procure various foods and spices for medicinal use during the early modern period. Argues that European medicine changed from a humoral approach to one focused on medicinal simples and compounds as more products became available globally. This introductory overview precedes a special issue of the journal focused on the circulation of medical knowledge in the Atlantic world, containing articles by Pablo Gómez and Timothy Walker (see The Iberian Atlantic), Londa Schiebinger on smallpox inoculation, and Renate Wilson on transatlantic medical networks.

  • De Barros, Juanita, Steven Palmer, and David Wright, eds. Health and Medicine in the Circum-Caribbean, 1800–1968. New York: Routledge, 2009.

    As its title suggests, most of the essays in this edited collection relate to the 19th and 20th centuries, but the subject matter departs from other collections, with several on the Spanish Caribbean and one on the Danish West Indies.

  • Delbourgo, James, and Nicholas Dew, eds. Science and Empire in the Atlantic World. New York: Routledge, 2008.

    Although medicine is not the chief focus of this collection, it appears in several of the essays. Chief among them are François Regourd’s chapter on mesmerism in Saint Domingue; Júnia Ferreira Furtado’s piece on 18th-century Brazil and Portuguese physicians’ incorporation of local medical knowledge into their worldview; and Susan Scott Parrish’s essay on British America, which discusses white perceptions of African knowledge of plants, both poisonous and medicinal.

  • Duffy, John. From Humors to Medical Science: A History of American Medicine. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

    An account of the development of medical practice and physicians in British America. Early chapters focus on the 18th century and on colonial medicine as distinct from native and British medicine.

  • Leavitt, Judith Walzer, and Ronald L. Numbers, eds. Sickness and Health in America: Readings in the History of Medicine and Public Health. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

    A good overview of medicine and public health in the 19th-century United States for women and men of all classes, though mostly white.

  • Leavitt, Judith Walzer, ed. Women and Health in America: Historical Readings. 2d ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999.

    A diverse range of essays on women’s health, including significant sections on health-care providers and public health. Contributions also cover subjects such as fertility, birthing, sexuality, and mental illness for women of different races and ethnicities.

  • Reiss, Oscar. Medicine in Colonial America. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2000.

    A comprehensive survey of illness, health, medicine, and medical treatment in (mostly white) British colonial America.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.