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Postponing the Inevitable: Martha Washington’s Advice on Health

By Lynn Price, Assistant Editor
April 27, 2018

Martha Washington died on Saturday, May 22, 1802. She outlived two husbands, her four biological children, several siblings, her favorite niece, and many friends. Unsurprisingly, the editors of the forthcoming volume of Martha’s correspondence have discovered one theme that has continually appeared—concern for loved ones’ health and her subsequent advice. Martha was never far-removed from loss.

Martha Washington’s favorite niece, Fanny, died in 1796. This image is a memorial to her, believed to be painted by Martha’s granddaughter Nelly. Courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

An ever-present fear during the Revolutionary War was the spread of smallpox. In 1776, Martha was inoculated against the disease; a live virus was implanted into her skin in order to cause a milder outbreak. This made her immune to further outbreaks and therefore safe during her visits to General Washington’s winter encampments. She then set out to secure the same treatment for her family. In a letter to her sister, Anna Maria Dandridge Bassett, on Nov. 18, 1777, Martha described the good behavior and mild symptoms of her nephews John and Burwell, Jr.: “they have had the small pox exeeding light and have been perfectly well for this fortnight past.” Martha then took the opportunity to lightly scold her sister for not being inoculated: “I have often wished for my Dear sister and Fanny [Bassett], as the small pox was so trifleing with the Boys—believd that it would have been as slight with them.”1 Sadly, Anna Maria did not have the chance to comply with her older sister’s wish. Less than a month later, she was dead.

Decades later, on Jan. 21, 1793, Martha was directing her medical advice to Anna Maria’s daughter, Frances “Fanny” Bassett Washington. Fanny married George Washington’s favorite nephew, George Augustine Washington, in 1785. In the early 1790s, George Augustine began to suffer from pulmonary issues, and his complaints grew progressively worse. Henry Lee wrote President Washington on Jan. 6, 1793, “Your amiable nephew at Eltham continues to linger without the smallest chance of recovery, and Mrs [Fanny Bassett] Washin­gton enjoys a tolerable state of health in the midst of calamity.”2 Martha continued to offer suggestions for therapeutic care. On Jan. 21, she wrote, “I am truly sorry that the major has still so many complaints—are this you can give some guess how the breast milk will agree with him, that it may have a favorable one is the earnest wish of your friends—hear.”3 In the 18th century, breast milk was considered medicinal for adults.4 Fanny’s 1793-1795 Daybook verifies that Martha’s advice was followed. A Feb. 1, 1793, entry records 14 shillings, “By Mrs Farthing p[ai]d her for the use of her breast milk for Mr Washington.” 5 Four days later, on Feb. 5, George Augustine died.

Martha Washington gave additional advice to Fanny in a June 15, 1794, letter, this time about Fanny’s toddler-aged daughter. Martha expressed concern, then gently chastised her niece for her role in her children’s health:

I have not a doubt but worms, as the principle Cause of her complaints[.] children that eat every thing as they like and feed as heartely as your does must be full of worms—indeed my dear Fanny I never saw children stuffed as yours was when I was down and reather wondered that they were able to be tolarable with such lodes as they used to put into thair little stomacks—I am sure thare is nothing so pernisious as over charging the stomack of a child—with every kind of food that they will take—expearance will convince you of the impropriety if nothing else will.6

Leeches were used in 18th-century medicine, particularly for bloodletting. They were believed to cure and prevent illnesses by balancing out the body’s “humours.” From The American Cyclopædia, ed. George Ripley and Charles A. Dana (1879), 10:310.

Martha emphasized her maternal and caretaking abilities through her displeasure with Fanny’s decisions, reminding her niece that experience should always be respected.

Of course, Martha’s letters also included comments about everyday complaints and illnesses. She shared her use of “pepper mint water” to alleviate her symptoms of colic in a letter to Fanny on April 22, 1792.7 On May 10, 1795, Martha wrote about her granddaughter Elizabeth Parke Custis to Fanny, “Betcy you know is often complaining—I dont think she has much cause of complaint as she looks much better than she did when she came up to this place [Philadelphia].”8 Martha also lamented her sister Elizabeth’s fever and illness as a result of her home near Williamsburg, Va., writing on Aug. 20, 1797, “I was in great hopes that you would have moved to a health[i]er place before this.”9

The ever-present fear of loss permeated Martha Washington’s correspondence to family and loved ones. Her maternal nature and confident approach created the image of a woman who knew what was best and demanded that others follow her advice. Despite her efforts, Martha would lose many of the people most important to her, the final being her husband George Washington, whom she outlived by almost two and a half years.

 


  1. Martha Washington to Anna Maria Dandridge Bassett, Nov. 18, 1777, ALS, Library of Congress.
  2. “To George Washington from Henry Lee, Jan. 6, 1793,” Founders Online, Library of Congress, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-11-02-0375. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series 11:592.
  3. Martha Washington to Frances Bassett Washington (Lear), Jan. 21, 1793, ALS, Cloud County Historical Society Museum, Concordia, Kansas.
  4. Merril D. Smith, Women’s Roles in Eighteenth-Century America (Santa Barbara, Calif., 2010), 12.
  5. The original book is located at Mount Vernon’s Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington.
  6. Martha Washington to Frances Bassett Washington (Lear), June 15, 1794, ALS, Rosenbach Museum and Library, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
  7. Martha Washington to Frances Bassett Washington (Lear), April 22, 1792, ALS, David Library of the American Revolution, Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania.
  8. Martha Washington to Frances Bassett Washington (Lear), May 10, 1795, ALS, Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California.
  9. Martha Washington to Elizabeth Dandridge Aylett Henley, Aug. 20, 1797, ALS, Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, Mount Vernon, Virginia.