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The Founders Club

Tracing the Philosophical Roots of the U.S. Constitution

Ben Franklin's Cold Advice

Benjamin Franklin had a diverse set of interests so it is not surprising that he was also interested in the medical field. Today we will be reviewing some Medical advice from Dr. Benjamin Franklin.

Now at this time beliefs about health and disease were mostly based on superstition. However, Benjamin Franklin took a great interest in these topics and used enlightenment ideas to study physical health and medicine. He came up with a vast array of contributions to the medical field and even advised many doctors at this time. We are just going to be looking at one of these ideas. His ideas on the common cold.

The commonly held belief at this time was that the root cause of colds were wet clothing, dampness in the air, or cold weather. That is why it was called a “cold.” Franklin took a great interest in looking into this myth. With the medical field still in its infancy, the cold was more than an inconvenience.

Franklin observed that sailors were always wearing wet clothing and were around damp air but they usually stayed healthy. He knew it had to be something else. He wrote to Dr. Benjamin Rush

"I am glad to hear that Dr. Cullen speaks of Catarrhs or Colds by contagion. I have long been satisfy'd from Observation, that besides the general Colds now termed Influenza's, which may possibly be spread by Contagion as well as by a particular Quality of the Air, People often catch Cold from one another when shut up together in small close Rooms, Coaches, &c. and when sitting near and conversing so as to breathe in each others Transpiration, the Disorder being in a certain State. As to Dr. Cullen's Cold or Catarrh a frigore, I question whether such an one ever existed."

Franklin observed that the common cold was spread through the air. He concluded that people often catch cold from one another when they are close together so as to breathe in each other's transpiration. This mostly happens when people are in close confined quarters. This actually led to an altercation between him and John Adams.

In 1776, as part of a delegation sent by the Continental Congress, Franklin and Adams were on their way to Staten Island to negotiate with Admiral Richard Howe to discuss the possible end to the Revolutionary War. As they passed through New Brunswick, New Jersey, they grew tired and needed to stop for the night. That night they found it difficult to find an Inn with an open room and after much searching, they found an Inn with only one room with only one bed.

That night Franklin and Adams had to share the same bed and in the night, Adams went to close the open window in fear that he would catch a cold from the cold air flowing in. As Adams was closing the window, Franklin told him to leave the window open and he would explain his theory on colds. Franklin told him that colds were caused by...

“People often catch cold from one another when shut up together in small close rooms. It is the frowsy corrupt air from animal substances and perspired matter from our bodies, which, being long confined in beds not lately used, and clothes not lately worn . . . obtains that kind of putridity which infects us, and occasions the cold observed in sleeping in, wearing, or turning over such beds [and] clothes.”

He explained to Adams that they needed the clean air flowing into the room or they would be suffocated. This began a small argument and John Adams wrote in his journal

“…that began a upon air and cold and respiration and perspiration”

Adams conceded to Franklin but he remained unconvinced by Franklin’s argument. Adams wrote again

“…I was so much amused that I soon fell asleep, and left him and his philosophy together.”

This led to Jefferson and Adams refusing to travel with Benjamin Franklin whenever possible. Franklin however turned out to be right. Franklin was right decades before we developed the germ theory. Like most things, Benjamin Franklin took his theories to the extreme and he often left the windows in his own house open to increase air circulation and he would often take air baths where he would sit nude by the window for an hour or two to let his body absorb the clean air and condition itself

It’s no secret that Benjamin Franklin was an interesting personality but there was a certain genius in that personality. There is so much we could learn from Dr. Franklin, especially in our day and age. Not only how not to catch colds or other illnesses but how to solve problems. By looking at a problem from a unique perspective, you can come up with new unique solutions and I believe this is one of the major reasons Dr. Franklin was so successful.

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