I rise with peculiar diffidence to address you upon this occasion, when I reflect upon the entertainment you proposed to yourselves from the eloquence of that learned member, Mr. Charles Thompson, whom your suffrages appointed to this honour after the delivery of the last anniversary oration. Unhappily for the interests of science, his want of health has not permitted him to comply with your appointment. I beg, therefore, that you would forget, for a while, the abilities necessary to execute this task with propriety, and listen with candour to the efforts of a member, whose attachment to the society was the only qualification that entitled him to the honour of your choice.
The subject I have chosen for this evening’s entertainment, is “An inquiry into the natural history of medicine among the Indians in North-America, and a comparative view of their diseases and remedies, with those of civilized nations.” You will readily anticipate the difficulty of doing justice to this subject. How shall we distinguish between the original diseases of the Indians and those contracted from their intercourse with the Europeans? By what arts shall we persuade them to discover their remedies? And lastly, how shall we come at the knowledge of facts in that cloud of errors, in which the credulity of the Europeans, and the superstition of the Indians, have involved both their diseases and remedies? These difficulties serve to increase the importance of our subject. If I should not be able to solve them, perhaps I may lead the way to more successful endeavours for that purpose.
I shall first limit the tribes of Indians who are to be the objects of this inquiry, to those who inhabit that part of North-America which extends from the 30th to the 60th degree of latitude. When we exclude the Esquimaux, who inhabit the shores of Hudson’s bay, we shall find a general resemblance in the colour, manners, and state of society, among all the tribes of Indians who inhabit the extensive tract of country above-mentioned.
Civilians have divided nations into savage, barbarous, and civilized. The savage live by fishing and hunting; the barbarous, by pasturage or cattle; and the civilized, by agriculture. Each of these is connected together in such a manner, that the whole appear to form different parts of a circle. Even the manners of the most civilized nations partake of those of the savage. It would seem as if liberty and indolence were the highest pursuits of man; and these are enjoyed in their greatest perfection by savages, or in the practice of customs which resemble those of savages.
The Indians of North-America partake chiefly of the manner of savages. In the earliest accounts we have of them, we find them cultivating a spot of ground. The maize is an original grain among them. The different dishes of it which are in use among the white people still retain Indian names.
It will be unnecessary to show that the Indians live in a state of society adapted to all the exigencies of their mode of life. Those who look for the simplicity and perfection of the state of nature, must seek it in systems, as absurd in philosophy, as they are delightful in poetry.
Before we attempt to ascertain the number or history of the diseases of the Indians, it will be necessary to inquire into those customs among them which we know influence diseases.