Date of Award


Level of Access Assigned by Author

Campus-Only Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Martha J. McNamara

Second Committee Member

Richard W. Judd

Third Committee Member

Diana Long


The practice of medicine was perceived as effective in the nineteenth century. It was the healing system to which the majority of society adhered in both belief and practice despite its reliance on concepts and treatments now deemed questionable. The question is, how could medicine have been a successful healing system if its theories and therapies were ineffective? While historians have ably documented the practices of the nineteenth-century system of healing, they have not answered this fundamental question. This is due in part to the fact that the question is largely unanswerable using only primary documents, which are historians' most common evidentiary sources. While incorporating documentary evidence into its method - doctors' daybooks and medical literature - this work relies mainly on a material culture analysis of the physical aspects of the doctor-patient relationship to explain why medicine was experienced as effective. Medicine was successful in the nineteenth century because it reified the authority of the physician and gave material expression to society's cognitive explanations of health and disease. This study explores the physical manifestations of the beliefs and behaviors associated with antebellum New England medical practice by examining the artifacts and actions employed in the healing event. This work looks at the doctor's bag, its medicines, instruments, and the actions and interactions these material entities created, to see how they embodied the meanings that gave medicine its legitimacy. Character - the enactment of benevolence and resolve - and knowledge of society's shared beliefs about illness and healing gave physicians the authority to perform healing events. These abstract qualities found material expression in the doctor's bag, a symbol of professional authority and culturally sanctioned healing practices. Moreover, medicines and instruments enacted elements of society's healing paradigm - that the body was a mechanical system which could be manipulated - and their results were perceptible by the senses, engendering a palpable engagement with healing. Finally, the performance of healing often required family members to contribute materials and administer treatments, thus securing their intellectual and emotional commitment to the healing act. Medicine was perceived as effective in the nineteenth century because its key elements found material expression in the artifacts, actions, and interactions of the doctor-patient encounter.