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Medicine and the Mayflower

In honor of the upcoming holiday, here is an intriguing snippet of medical history from the roots of our Thanksgiving traditions. On November 11, 1620, after 65 days at sea, a storm-battered ship named the Mayflower ended its long journey at Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Among those first pilgrims who founded a colony at Plymouth was a doctor by the name of Samuel Fuller, who served as the primary physician and surgeon during the founding of the colonies. Samuel had brought an apprentice named William Butten with him, but he unfortunately died two days before reaching the New World. William Butten was hardly the only casualty of the Pilgrim's journey. Already weakened by their two-month voyage, most of the passengers failed to survive the first few months of winter in their new home. Fortunately, the native Wampanoag people and their leader, Massasoit, shared their knowledge of local crops and navigation with the settlers, helping them to survive. The first thanksgiving was, in fact, a weeklong feast held a year later to celebrate the pilgrims first successful harvest. Far from turkey and cranberry sauce, the meals were more likely to include duck, venison, seafood, cabbage, and corn. While the Native Americans shared their knowledge of the land, the pilgrims shared their knowledge of medicine. In 1623, the Wampanoag chief, Massasoit fell ill and was nursed back to health by Plymouth Colony governor, Edward Winslow. After his recovery, Massasoit felt duty-bound to observe "whilst I live I will never forget this kindness they have showed me." Despite the tragedy of future relations with the Native American tribes, these humble beginnings can be appreciated for the simple harmony our ancestors found - and the integral role that medical knowledge and basic human caring played in maintaining peace during those first difficult years.