Closer Readings Commentary

A President’s Birthday Salute! The National Library of Medicine Prescribes George Washington

Patricia Tuohy, Head, Exhibition Program, National Library of Medicine. Patricia holds a B.F.A. in painting and an M.A. in art history. Engaged in developing exhibitions for over 25 years, she has led the Exhibition Program at the National Library of Medicine since its inception in 1996.

The best exhibitions encourage curiosity—even about those we think we know well—and entice us to discover more about their subjects. George Washington—our venerated first president, strategic Revolutionary War general, loving family man, and Virginia plantation owner—is a towering figure in the history of America. Yet the public knows little about the decisions Washington made concerning the health and safety of those around him—his family, the staff of Mount Vernon, the enslaved people working his plantation, and the troops who served during the Revolutionary War. The National Library of Medicine (NLM), part of the National Institutes of Health, invites teachers and students to join in a discovery of George Washington and Medicine!

The Exhibition

“Every Necessary Care and Attention”: George Washington and Medicine online exhibition was developed by the National Library of Medicine in collaboration with George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate, Museum & Gardens. Use the exhibition website with students to look at different aspects of Washington’s life and his decisions about health and medicine:

  • “At the Battlefront” explores the implications of Washington’s decisions on the health of his troops;
  • “On the Plantation” looks at Washington’s role in providing for the health of everyone who lived and worked at Mount Vernon;
  • “Home and Hardship” examines life in Colonial America and Washington’s efforts to keep his family healthy and secure;
  • “In Sickness and In Health” looks closely at the health challenges Martha and George Washington faced in their lifetimes;
  • “At Journey’s End” tells of the limits of Colonial medicine as the first president succumbs to illness.

Adapted to the online environment, the project website captures the stories of the exhibition and features a host of primary sources that invite visitors into Washington’s world. For example:

  • The Family Physician, and the House Apothecary is a popular book of treatments that the Washington household would have consulted;
  • A letter from Washington to Lt. Col. Grier orders transport of recruits for inoculation against smallpox—a then innovative and risky treatment;
  • The 1799 list of slaves at Mount Vernon who were the individuals about whom Washington expressed concern be given “every necessary care and attention”;
  • And, the dentures owned by George Washington and his toothbrush.

These and other digital artifacts give students insight into treatments available to Washington (and men of his standing) and those he influenced. In doing so, it shines a light on the sometimes harsh realities of 18th-century life in the American colonies.

Relevant exhibition applications for middle school CCSS English Language Arts Standards include » History/Social Studies » Grade 6-8 Standards CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources and CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.

Exhibition lesson plans

Exhibitions also offer a unique window of opportunity for audiences to look, to think, to feel, and to participate, and for educators, in particular, to offer their students deep and rich resources for study. The National Library of Medicine’s “Every Necessary Care and Attention”: George Washington and Medicine invites students to examine, to compare, to synthesize, to clarify attitudes and values, and thus expand their knowledge about our country’s first president and the society and times in which he lived.

Teachers will find education resources, including the following two lessons plans with activities, to further students’ understanding of primary and secondary sources and 18th-century Colonial America’s experiences of health care and medical treatment.

George Washington: Primary Sources (Grades 5–8)

  • Analyze two paintings featured in the exhibition as primary sources;
  • Examine a Colonial-era book about home remedies in the exhibition and complete a close reading of a specific paragraph;
  • Synthesize the exhibition text as a secondary source and discuss how Washington kept those around him safe and healthy.

George Washington: Then and Now (Grades 7–9)

  • Examine George Washington’s dentures and a Traveling Dental Kit featured in the exhibition, which reflect Washington’s status in society and oral health care during the Colonial era;
  • Share findings, then research a health topic addressed in the exhibition and write how it is understood and treated today.

In the spirit of the Common Core, these lessons engage students as investigators into the social and cultural history of Washington’s life and times. As they discover how science and medicine shape and are shaped by society and culture, they afford further applications of CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.7 Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts and CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.9 Analyze the relationship between a primary and secondary source on the same topic.