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History of Historic Yellow Springs


The Leni-Lenape people named Yellow Springs prior to any European settlements. As the colonists in Philadelphia got word of the healing yellow waters many of them visited Yellow Springs to use the iron rich water for healing. By 1772 doctors were suggesting to their patients that the mineral springs be used for drinking and bathing.     


Dr. Samuel Kennedy bought the springs in 1774. General George Washington retreated to the Yellow Springs Inn after the Battle of Brandywine. Here, he established temporary headquarters and later, during the encampment at Valley Forge, petitioned the Continental Congress to build a medical facility to improve the health of his army. Dr. Kennedy loaned a portion of his property to Congress for the construction of a hospital. The original building was begun in 1777 and completed in 1778. Called Washington Hall, it was the only hospital commissioned during the Revolutionary War and the first military facility. 


The Revolutionary War was fought with fires, cannons, swords, and bayonets that killed, maimed and wounded 1,000 Continental soldiers each year of the war. Disease killed nine times that number. As the men from the colonies gathered to fight, their germs mingled spreading typhus, tuberculoses, smallpox, and influenza. Unsanitary conditions bred typhoid and dysentery. Food shortages caused scurvy and malnutrition.


Few medical practitioners in colonial times had formal education in medicine. Healing was learned by apprenticeships and the title “Doctor” was taken by those who wanted to practice. There was a shortage of doctors particularly in rural areas. The army medical department had problems from the beginning due to a shortage of trained personnel.


Even if trained doctors were available, their training was woefully inadequate due to the taboos on dissection and incomplete understanding of the causes of diseases. Colonial medicine was unable to cure most ailments. Sometimes the patient’s condition would worsen due to treatment. Bloodletting was thought to be beneficial. Lancets and sometimes leeches were used to remove large amounts of blood from the sick. One common theory during colonial times was that the body could only hold one illness at a time. If a second illness entered, the first would leave. This inspired doctors to irritate the skin, called blistering, using all manner of noxious materials. Another method of ridding the body of illness was to induce the patient to vomit or purge his bowels. 


Because few colonists could afford doctors’ fees, they relied on home remedies. The herb garden was a necessary adjunct to health. A few homes had copies of Culpepper’s Herbal published in 1694 which was intended to bring the knowledge of the medicinal uses of plants to layman. Colonists learned from the Native Americans about what plants had healing properties. The Philadelphia Unit of the Herb Society of America planted an 18th century medicinal herb garden in 1987 at the hospital ruins. The site and garden were dedicated as a Revolutionary War Memorial during the “We the People 200” celebration of the 200th anniversary of the constitution.


Learn more about our garden at Historic Yellow Springs.

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