Medical Practices in New Netherland

Medicine in New Netherland: Ancient Practices in a New World

By Richard H. Amerman
From de Halve Maen – January 1957  – Vol. XXXI  No.4


With a handful of physicians and surgeons, the Dutch settlement of New Netherland grew up in an era which witnessed the flowering of the Renaissance. The time when Dutchmen came here was an age of adventure: of great voyages and discoveries, of great artistic and literary achievements. In the western world, this volcanic outthrust of creative energy was nowhere more apparent than in Holland, as exemplified in the glories of the Dutch School of painting. At the same time, however, science and scientific method were in their infancy. The intellectual ferment of the age had scarcely touched the science of healing. Medical men continued to follow traditional learning handed down largely intact from antiquity.

To the Dutch practitioner in both old and new worlds, such as Dr. La Montagne and Surgeon Vanderbeek, the works of ancient Greek and Roman physicians were still received as standard authorities. Much of the learning of Hippocrates and Galen had become overlaid with medieval superstition. Thus, in New Netherland, as elsewhere in Europe and colonial America, it was generally thought that diabolic influences created the diseases afflicting mankind. Martin Luther had said that “Pestilence, fever, and other severe diseases are naught else than the devil’s work.” Logically, it followed that natural remedies could scarcely cure illnesses induced by supernatural means, and indeed that it was sinful to expect more of doctors than from divine providence.

Medical learning was therefore largely a curious miscellany bearing little relationship to physical processes, or the real causes and treatment of disease. Instead, doctors concerned themselves with such matters as humors, sympathies, and antipathies. Use of the lancet to bleed patients was well-nigh universal. This practice, supposed to “breathe the veins” and free the body of “hostile humors,” continued into the 19th century.

The Surgeon by David Teniers the Younger, 1670s

The most enlightened physicians of the time prescribed an extraordinary number and variety of remedies from such ingredients as gold leaf, ground rubies, pulverized toads, grasshoppers, and butterflies. In colonial New England, for example, a doctor gave his patient this cure for insomnia: “Bruise a handful of anise-seeds and steep them in Rose Water and make it up in little bags, and binde one of them to each Nostril.” Even the royal physician in England, Dr. Theodore Mayerne, surpassed competitors in recommending as a remedy for hypochondria his famous Balsam of Bats, a compound of “adders, bats, sucking whelps, earthworms, and the marrow of the thigh-bone of an ox.”

In Holland, the condition of medicine was much the same, despite earlier advances in comparative anatomy by Vesalius, a great Flemish physician. When the 17th century began, doctors cured much more by personality than by their remedies and practices. However, enthusiasm for genuine scientific investigation was soon to arise, following rational methods of research advocated by Rene Descartes and Baruch de Spinoza, world-famous philosophers then resident in Holland. As a consequence, this era witnessed the discoveries of Antony van Leeuwenhoek, who built the microscope and was the first to describe the corpuscular formation of the blood, and those arising from Christian Huyghens’ epochal studies in the field of optics. The medical school at Leyden attained world eminence, and on its faculty, Herman Boerhaave was to become the greatest teacher of his time. A letter from China merely addressed “Boerhaave, celebrated physician, Europe,” is said to have been duly delivered. The study of anatomy became inseparable from medical education. Nor was interest in medicine limited to a few, for anatomy classes were the favorite subject of famous Dutch artists, such as Rembrandt, Michael van Mierevelt, and Thomas de Keyser.

Only fragmentary records survive concerning medical practice in the forty years of Dutch rule in New Netherland from 1624 to 1664. In general, these records relate to five types of practitioners: “zieckentroosters,” physicians, surgeons, pharmacists, and midwives. Dutch colonial America was the scene of several probable “firsts,” notably the first coroner’s inquest (1658), and the establishment of the first hospital (1659).

In the beginning, the sovereign Dutch West India Company made relatively little provision for health, although in this regard its record was to improve. Company directors originally required the colonists to support a church and the schooling of children. Their concern with health, however, at first was limited to the appointment of “zieckentroosters,” or comforters of the sick.

These comforters were lay Bible readers. Their function was to bring religious solace to those afflicted with physical ailments. Officially serving in that capacity and receiving pay from the Company at an early day were Eva Pietersen Evertsen and one Molcnaer. Two other comforters of the sick emigrated in 1625, Sebastian Jan Crol and Jan Huyck, Peter Minuits’ brother-in-law. Crol later became agent of the Van Rensselaer patroonship near Albany, and Huyck a Company official in New Amsterdam.

Of the physicians who came to New Netherland, the leader was Dr. Johannes La Montagne, a Huguenot also known as Jean Mousier de la Montagnie. Born in France in 1595, La Montagne’s family had migrated to Holland, where his father became a physician and pharmacist. La Montagne took his medical degree at Leyden. He first visited New Netherland in 1624. Thirteen years later he returned here with his wife and children and spent twenty years in the colony. His abilities were such that Director William Kieft appointed him Councillor in 1638, an office he retained under Stuyvesant. He criticized Kieft’s dictatorial exercise of power and opposed his rash Indian policy which nearly brought the colony to ruin in 1643. His standing as Councillor remained unimpaired for the reason, it is said, that Kieft was grateful toward the doctor for disarming an enraged farmer who attempted to pistol him.

For a time, La Montagne acted as schoolmaster. Later he served as commandant at Fort Orange, where in 1664 he surrendered the post to the English. His son, Jan, was one of Manhattan’s twenty-eight school teachers in 1664, and his daughter, Rachel, became the wife of Dr. Gysbert van Imborch of Esopus. From the record, Dr. La Montagne was a man of uncommon ability, for besides conducting an extensive medical practice among colonists and the Indians, he discharged important executive duties with distinction.

Two other academically trained physicians in New Netherland took up their professional duties late in the Dutch era. One of them, Dr. Samuel Megapolensis, was the son of Domine Johannes Megapolensis, for many years the most influential clergyman in the colony. Samuel was a Harvard student in New England three years before completing his studies in the Netherlands, where he took degrees both in theology and medicine. He returned to New Amsterdam in 1664 and became the first university-trained physician in Brooklyn. Another medical school graduate, Dr. Johannes Kerfbyle, received his degree at Leyden and emigrated to New Netherland in 1664 at the age of 29. During the English administration, he was, in 1687, appointed physician to the poor, and in 1698 he was elected member of the Provincial Council. His investigation in 1691 of the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Governor Slaughter resulted in his performing probably the first autopsy in America.

During most of the colonial period, surgeons practiced both in New Amsterdam and in New Netherland. Surgery had less professional standing in that day, being entirely distinct from medicine. These practitioners were known as “barber-surgeons,” an expression with a curious history. In medieval times tonsured priests served as physicians but were forbidden to perform surgery. Their lay assistants had as their prime duty to shave and bleed the monks. As time went on, these laymen assumed the task of administering surgical treatment outside the religious community and professed to serve the healing art. Guilds of barber-surgeons arose, with the brass basin and red-and-white banded pole symbolic of their public profession. Surgical guilds, dating back to the 15th century in the Netherlands, gradually developed a system of apprenticeship, service, and examination. The famous French barber-surgeon, Ambroise Pare (1510-1590), who discovered the method of ligating arteries to control hemorrhage, did much to free surgery from its humble origin and encrusted superstition. In so advanced a country as England, however, it was not until 1745 that the trade of barber was held, by Act of Parliament, to be “foreign to and independent of the practice of surgery.”

Public health in New Netherland was largely in the hands of Company-employed barber-surgeons. Many emigrated originally as ship surgeons who were competent to bleed, set bones, extract teeth, and perform minor operations. One of them, Dr. Hans Kierstede, was a native of Magdeburg in Saxony. He arrived in 1638 and practiced here nearly thirty years. His wife, Sarah Roelofs, daughter of Anneke Jans, was famous for her knowledge of Indian languages. Sarah acted as official interpreter in many negotiations with the Indians, including the acquisition of 20,000 acres in Bergen County and the peace treaty at Esopus. Kierstede received several land grants from the Company, and in 1640 a legacy of surgical instruments from a colleague, Dr. Jan Pieterson, of Fort Nassau on the Delaware (now Gloucester, N.J.). He died in 1666 highly esteemed for long and faithful service.

Another well-known surgeon was Dr. Paulus Vanderbeek, who came to New Amsterdam with a company of soldiers from Curacao in 1643 during Kieft’s Indian war. He married the Widow Bennett and went to Brooklyn to live on her 930-acre farm which the Indians had plundered. Paulus restored the property and cultivated the land, besides taking up the practice of his profession. Later he acted as tithe-collector and ferrymaster. In the latter capacity, he was the subject of reprimand by Stuyvesant’s Council, which took him to task for making ferry passengers wait “half the day and night before he would carry them across the river.” To obtain ferry service, passengers had to blow the horn fastened to a nearby tree and to pay fare of six slivers in wampum, or six cents. Paulus prospered in his multiple activities, attained the burgher recht, and when he died was accounted a wealthy man.

To another surgeon, Dr. Jacob Hendrichsen Varvanger, goes the honor of founding probably the first hospital in America. Varvanger, a Company surgeon in the Stuyvesant administration, was a practitioner of standing and likewise attained burgher recht status. For several years he imported medicine from Holland at personal expense, later reimbursed. Humane and conscientious, he took steps to have a building set aside where Company employees and soldiers could receive proper attendance and treatment when sick. In 1658 he petitioned the Director and Council to arrange “a proper place for the reception of such patients, to be taken care of by a faithful person, who is to assist them bodily with food and fire.” The Council approved his petition, and soon afterward established a hospital with Hilletje Wilbruch as matron at a regular yearly stipend of 100 florins. In 1658 Varvanger and his colleague, Kierstede, performed the first recorded coroner’s inquest in America.

Dr. Gysbert van Imborch, who married Dr. La Montagne’s daughter, Rachel, served as surgeon in what is now Ulster County, New York. An able and versatile man, he had emigrated originally as a merchant. His medical knowledge derived, it is said, from an apprenticeship with his father-in-law. He also served his community as schoolmaster and town councillor. Indians carried off his wife in the attack on Esopus in 1664, but she escaped and personally led Dutch troops to the Indian camp. When van Imborch died in 1665, inventory of his estate included 40 textbooks on medicine and surgery, among them the writings of Ambroise Pare and the famous Dutch anatomist, Nicolas Tulp.

Other surgeons whose identities are known attained standing in the colony. One of the first to arrive was Harman Mynderts van den Bogaert, who emigrated in 1631 as surgeon aboard the ship Eendracht. He became part-owner of La Glace privateer, Company commissary at New Amsterdam and Fort Orange, and died in a Mohawk wigwam fire in 1647. In 1638 Gerrit Schult and Pieter Vander Linde came to New Netherland. Of Schult, nothing further is known. Vander Linde, in 1640, became Company inspector of tobacco and in 1648 schoolmaster and church clerk, evidently leaving the colony afterward. In 1647 William Hayes and Peter Brucht practiced here. Later the names of several ship surgeons appear, among them John Can, Jacob Mollenaer, and Isaac Jansen. At Fort Orange, Abram Staats and Jacob D’Hinnes became well-known practitioners. Two of Dr. Staats’ sons, Samuel and Jacob, were also physicians. Jacob De Commer practiced in New Amsterdam in 1660 and later in New Amstel (now Newcastle, Del.). Between 1658 and 1680 are found the names of Drs. Peter Vandenburg, Cornelius Van Dyke, and Herman Wessels.

In the 1650s, controversy developed in New Amsterdam between the ship surgeons and resident practitioners. The city men believed themselves exclusively entitled to practice as barbers and surgeons onshore. On the other hand, the nautical doctors insisted on the right to shave people on land while their ships were in harbor. In 1652 the city surgeons brought this dispute before the Director and Council. After argument, the Council issued the first ordinance regulating the practice of medicine in America. The ordinance provided, as to shaving, “… that no man can be prevented operating on himself nor to do another the friendly act, provided it is through courtesy and not for gain, which is hereby forbidden.” The decree further ordered that “ship barbers shall not be allowed to dress any wounds nor administer any potions onshore without the previous knowledge and special consent of the petitioners, or at least of Dr. Montagne.”

Later in Stuyvesant’s administration, in 1657, the Director and Council enacted an ordinance with police provisions familiar to latter-day doctors. When called to dress a wound, surgeons were ordered to ascertain and report the circumstances to the authorities.

Pharmacy, then as now, had a close relation to medical practice. Most physicians had a stock of herbs, simples, Indian remedies, and other materials from which they compounded prescriptions. To their skill in preparing medicine may be attributed the fact that many contemporary cookbooks were written by doctors. A natural remedy known to us as quinine greatly reduced mortality from malaria when introduced late in the colonial era. Called “Cinchona bark” in that day, it took its name from Count Cinchona, Spanish viceroy of Peru in the 1630s. Several apothecaries practiced in the colony, among them the Huguenot Peter Le Feber who in 1652 obtained Council permission to sell medicinal waters at wholesale and retail.

To women was very largely entrusted the field of obstetrics. Midwives practiced in New Netherland, in many cases as Company appointed and compensated officials. Elsewhere in the American colonies a midwife’s pay largely depended on skill and success. A Virginia lady in the 1630s paid a midwife a dozen hens for attendance. On eastern Long Island, midwives were elected in town meeting. In New Amsterdam, Lysbert Dircksen held the official post of town midwife in 1638 and lived in a house built for her at public expense. In 1644, Tryntje Jonas was the official midwife and had her own house on Pearl Street. When Tryntje died, her daughter Anneke Jans collected arrears of pay from the Company for services rendered. Later, Hellegond Joris received an appointment as midwife and served many years in that capacity.

Since the population of New Netherland in 1664 hardly exceeded 10,000 persons, of whom no more than 1,500 lived in New Amsterdam, the number of medical practitioners here indicates genuine concern with public health. In the light of modern achievement, professional knowledge and skill was rudimentary, in some ways even harmful. Imperfectly trained and largely unregulated, the physicians here nevertheless appear to have done their best to fight periodic epidemics of influenza, smallpox, dysentery, malaria, and scarlet fever, besides the lesser maladies.

Fortunately, the climate was healthful. Adrian Van der Donck remarks in his Description of New Netherland (1655) that the local Galens had only “meager beer.” For this reason, virtually every practitioner followed one or more additional callings, such as the ministry, teaching, farming, barbering, and the like. There is no recorded instance of a Dutch doctor attributing curative failure to witchcraft, an excuse commonly made by physicians elsewhere. The colonists themselves were of sturdy stock, and had the physical resources to resist organic disease. Many attained the Biblical three score and ten, among them Bergen County’s Albert Zabriskie who died in 1711 at about 73. Pioneer life in general provided abundant and wholesome food, houses which were not overheated, and a simplicity of outlook relatively free from tensions characteristic of the present time. Large families were the rule; and it is assuredly fact that the descendants of these hardy Dutchmen are numerous to this day.



F. H. Bosworth, M.D., The Doctor in Old New York, pub. in “Historic New York,” Vol. II, pp. 279-317 (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1808).
I. Snapper, M.D., Meditations on Medicine and Medical Education (Grune & Stratton, New York, 1956).
S. E. Jelliffe, M.D., The Dutch Physician in New Amsterdam, Vol. 4. pp. 145-161, “Medical Library & Historical Journal” (Brooklyn, 1906).
T. J. Wertenbaker, The First Americans, ch. 7 (Macmillan,
I. Snapper, M.D., Meditations on Medicine and Medical
Education (Grune & Stratton, New York, 1956).
S. E. Jelliffe, M.D.. The Dutch Physician in New Amsterdam,
Vol. 4. pp. 145-161, ”Medical Library & Historical
Journal” (Brooklyn, 1906).
T. J. Wertenbaker. The First Americans, ch. 7 (Macmillan, 1929)

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