What would George Washington do?

George Washington was much more than America’s first president. He’s a representative of an era when medicine was slowly becoming a licensed profession and a man who often turned to a growing class of experts with new and emerging knowledge about disease and treatment of illness. He’s also a study in contrasts, from the Revolutionary War general who helped shape our nation to the champion of numerous health efforts to the eventual owner of more than 300 slaves.

The first American president took an active interest in medical practice.
The first American president took an active interest in medical practice.

Take a trip through health care and medicine during President Washington’s life with a U.S. National Library of Medicine exhibition in the DMU Library May 13-June 22. Titled “Every Necessary Care & Attention: George Washington & Medicine,” the exhibition explores the “speculative hypotheses, domestic remedies, and the beginnings of scientific investigation and formal education” that characterized medicine and health care of his time.

The exhibition also describes the ways the practices of medicine played out in Washington’s own life. As chief of the Continental Army, for example, he made preventative health decisions about food storage, placement of latrines, disposal of animal carcasses and general provisions to clothe and shelter his troops, including during the brutal winter of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge.

Slave owner though he was, Washington made sure his slaves received routine dental care and treatment when they became ill. And while the first American medical schools were being founded around the end of his life, in 1799, standard medical treatment was unable to save him from his final illness and may even have hastened his demise.

The National Library of Medicine is part of the National Institutes of Health. The “George Washington & Medicine” exhibition in the DMU Library is free and open to the public, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The library is located on the second floor of the Student Education Center.

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