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HRVH Primary Sources for Educators: Heroic Medicine Has No Heroes

About the Lesson Plan

Author: Lavonne Hunter and Veronica Dunham

Subject: Social Studies, Science, Physical Education/ Health, English/Language Arts

Grades: 8th Grade, 9th Grade, 10th Grade, 11th Grade, 12th Grade

NY State Standards: ELA2, MST1

Primary Source Resource: The Life and Death of Catharine Deyo

Related Links

Tragedy of the Common: Heroic Medicine Has No Heroes

Tragedy of the Common: Heroic Medicine Has No Heroes

UNIT Life, Death and Calomel in the Hudson Valley

Lesson Summary: Students will be introduced to and explore the uses of calomel, which was considered to be the beautiful black death of heroic medicine. Rare is the occasion when science students are able to uncover the personal tragedies in the history of medicine. In this lesson, students explore an obscure pseudoscience of heroic medicine and evaluate its practices. Through handwritten letters between relatives, we peer into lives of those suspected of consumption (tuberculosis), and the consequences of the common medical treatment: administration of calomel (mercurous chloride). Herein, science, medicine, health, and history are intricately interconnected much like the mercury and chlorine atoms in the compound itself.

Essential Question(s):

  • How does modern medical practices differ from heroic medicine used in 18th and 19th century Hudson Valley?
  • How effective was calomel treatment of various ailments?
  • Why is heroic medicine of the 18th and 19th centuries considered controversial?
  • How do primary sources help to provide deeper understanding of history and medicine?

Content Understanding(s):

  • Exposure to pathogens (disease-causing agents and/or toxic chemicals) have adversely affects on human health.
  • Analysis of primary source documents facilitate a more engaging and deeper understanding of the connections among science, history, health and medicine.
  • Prior to the elucidation of the molecular causes of disease (bacteria, viruses, toxic chemicals), university-trained physicians often prescribed calomel as a treatment.
  • Current advances in science and medicine has revealed that physicians ignorantly caused mercury poisoning of their patients.
  • The history of science and the history of medicine should be included whenever possible when exploring human health.
  • Science and scientific practices are process-oriented.

Concept Understanding(s):

  • Students identify social and cultural contexts and other characteristics of the time period in order to enhance understanding and appreciation of text.
  • Students compare motives of characters, causes of events, and importance of setting in literature to people, events, and places in own lives.
  • Students identify social and cultural contexts and other characteristics of the time period in order to enhance understanding and appreciation of text.
  • Inquiry involves making judgments about the reliability of the source and relevance of information.
  • Inquiry involves asking questions and locating, interpreting, and processing information from a variety of sources.
  • Clarify ideas through reasoning, research, and discussion


  • calomel
  • consumption
  • heroic
  • medicine
  • mercury
  • mercurous
  • chloride
  • tuberculosis

Suggested Time Frame: Three class periods (45-50 minutes)

Professional Development/In-Service Workshop: Using Primary Sources, SENYLRC, July 2013

Supplies Used All are found under Attachments & Worksheets

  • Narrative / Teacher's Background Information
  • #1 Teaching Sequence
  • Letter #21: Activity 1A
  • Letter # 21: Activity 1B
  • Letter # 22: Activity 2A
  • Letter # 22: Activity 2B
  • The Doctors Song: Activity 3A
  • The Doctors Song: Activity 3B
  • Analyzing Manuscripts Through Reflection: Activity # 4

What Should Students Be Able To Do at the End of This Lesson:

  • Examine primary source documents on the administration of calomel
  • Identify and note detailed qualitative observations of primary source documents
  • Make inferences about the effectiveness of calomel as a medical treatment
  • Investigate calomel as a type of heroic medicine therapy
  • Discuss the costs and benefits of heroic medicine
  • Explain why calomel treatment is not used today


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Phone: (845) 883-9065