Master Gardener Second Saturday Review – Colonial Medicine

Article by Barbara Raczkowski

Photo courtesy of

Did you ever meet anyone, who owned their own still?  Then… discover that the owner of this apparatus is an 86yr. old woman, attired in period clothing, who has a PhD. in history from Bryn Mawr College.” Oh, my….this is going to be interesting.”

This was my experience when I met the speaker at the Master Gardener’s “Second Saturdays” event, which was held on Aug. 10.   Her name is Clarissa F. Dillon, whose scholarly knowledge covers two continents….North America and Europe.  She talks about 17th and 18th century housewifery. Standing behind her still, which she calls her penguin as it does indeed look like a copper bird, Clarissa began her lecture talking about “Dr. Mom”. Colonial women besides being wives and mothers were also doctors, nurses and apothecaries.

The lecture was illustrated by a table filled with colonial artifacts….tool, syrups, compresses and herbs, referring to different objects Clarissa lead us through a mesmerizing and fascinating lecture.

Our colonial ancestors evolved from the belief that an evil life style caused  disease, (the devil made me do it…..blood letting anyone?) to a more enlightened and scientific approach of cause and effect.

What I found particularly fascinating was that Clarissa goes back and studies first hand, original documents.  She told us that it was customary for colonial women to notate their experiments and their results and very often the “successful cures” would be passed down from generation to generation and often from friend to friend.  She has researched hundreds of these documents from ordinary citizens.  In addition, she jokingly told us her PhD and scholarly acclaim have also given her access to some colonial celebrity healers such as  Ben Franklin’s first wife….whose name was Guilelma Springett.

Even more fascinating is the fact that she then goes back like the scholar that she is and duplicates all the receipts (recipes) which she researches.  She shared many interesting things including the fact that there are three different plants which, when applied to a bleeding human body, will stop the blood flow.

If you are interested in learning more about her, you can go to her web-site: Clarissa

And just for the record, Clarissa has a permit for her still, which holds less than a  gallon of liquid…..and uses it for scientific and historic purposes only…..and she never served us any “refreshments” although Second Saturdays are always accompanied by tasty treats !  Hope you will join us for some upcoming events……