Smallpox and Scurvy: Medicine in the 18th Century

By Dustin W. Benge

According to historian, David McCullough, in order to properly understand history one must be immersed in the time and setting of their subject(s). This blog primarily focuses on the life, times, surroundings, influences, and friends of Andrew Fuller. Therefore, before we can “walk in their shoes,” it is necessary to know what is going on in the historical context of which they are apart.

One such topic that greatly affected daily life in 18th and 19th century England was the practice and advance of medicine. The 18th century brought great advances in the knowledge of the human body. Until 1745 craftsmen called “barber-surgeons” performed operations. However, that year brought a separation of the two professions and barbers continued to cut hair while surgeons began to be university educated. John Hunter (1728–1793), sometimes called the “Father of Modern Surgery,” invented new procedure such as tracheotomy. Other advances included the discovery of fresh fruit or lemon juice as a preventative to scurvy. A major scourge of the 18th century was the dreaded smallpox. Even if it did not succeed in killing you, your body would be scarred with pox marks. In 1721, Lady Mary Wortley Montague introduced an inoculation whereby you cut the patient and then placed matter from a smallpox pustule into the wound. The patient would (hopefully!) develop a mild case of the disease and be immune in the future.

Andrew Fuller was personally affected by medical problems within himself and his family. In his biographical account of Fuller, John Ryland, Jr. writes, “Though Mr. Fuller appeared to be of a remarkably strong and athletic make, yet he had been, from his youth, liable to severe bilious attacks, and his lungs were, at different times, severely affected by clods. It was, therefore, a more remarkable favour, that he was spared to us so long. It was not till some time after his removal to Kettering, that he had the smallpox, for which he was, at last, inoculated. But, some time before he underwent that operation, he took a journey to London, where he seemed to have been much in danger of infection from that disorder...”


Dustin Benge serves as the senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Jackson, Kentucky. He is also a PhD candidate at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a junior fellow at The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies. Dustin and his wife, Molli, live in Jackson.