Thomas Jefferson once wrote, "the state of medecine is worse than that of total ignorance." Yet, he did not completely reject medical ideas and practices, and was an early advocate of smallpox inoculation. In this episode, part-time Monticello guide David Brown looks at Jefferson's health habits and beliefs with an eye to how they stack up with contemporary medical ideas.

David Brown: Welcome to Mountaintop History, a podcast produced by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. Mountaintop History brings forward meaningful stories from the past and the present. I'm David Brown. Thanks for listening. We hope you'll learn something new.

Thomas Jefferson read and wrote about almost everything, and that included health and medicine. He had numerous medical books in his library and frequently wrote about his ideas on health. In this podcast, we will explore his health habits and belief with an eye to how they stack up with contemporary medical ideas.

First, a little background. Thomas Jefferson had a very low opinion of the practice of medicine in his day, with its reliance on bloodletting, purging with harsh laxatives, and inducing vomiting.

He once said, “the state of medecine is worse than that of total ignorance.” He also wrote this about bloodletting, and the Philadelphia physician, Benjamin Rush, wrote this “in his theory of bleeding, [and mercury,] I was ever opposed to my friend Rush, whom I greatly loved; but who has done much harm, in the sincerest persuasion that he was preserving life and happiness to all around him.”

But Thomas Jefferson did not completely reject medical ideas and practices. He was an early advocate of smallpox inoculation. At a time when there was a widespread belief that inoculation spread rather than prevented disease. A topic explored in another Monticello podcast. He also consulted physicians and received treatment for his more serious problems such as infected boils and an apparently enlarged prostate.

Overall, however, Thomas Jefferson looked to the natural world for the treatment of disease and the maintenance of health. In his notes on the state of Virginia, he wrote this about hospitals. “the sick, the dying, and the dead are crammed together, in the same rooms, and often in the same bed. Nature and kind nursing save a much greater proportion in our plain way, at a smaller expence, and with less abuse.”

He struck a similar note in his letter to his daughter Martha, during an illness of one of his grandchildren. He was glad she did not “phsyick him,” but instead left “nature free and unembarrassed … to repair what is wrong.”

Thomas Jefferson grew a number of medicinal herbs in his garden. While I could not find any documentation of his using or recommending them, herbs such as rue and marshmallow have been used medicinally for centuries.

So let's talk about Thomas Jefferson's specific health habits. A number of these practices are clearly recommended by doctors today.

Thomas Jefferson did not smoke, despite the fact that he grew tobacco on his plantation. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson criticized the cultivation of tobacco for its effect on the soil and the farm, writing, it is a culture productive of infinite wretchedness. And there is no evidence in his papers or the papers of others that he ever smoked, except in the context of diplomatic meetings with Native American leaders. Noted biographer Dumas Malone flatly states he did not use tobacco.

Thomas Jefferson exercised regularly. He wrote to his nephew, Peter Carr, that a strong body makes the mind strong, and he recommended two hours of walking each day. He understood that a person could improve their capacity to walk, and that walking was a key to health and longevity. He wrote to his son in law, Thomas Mann Randolph, “A person who never walked three miles will in the course of a month become able to walk 15. or 20. without fatigue. I have known some great walkers and had particular accounts of many more; and I never knew or heard of one who was not healthy and long lived.” His grandchildren said that after his long days of studying as a student at William Mary, Thomas Jefferson would run a mile or more and that he once swam 13 times across a quarter mile wide mill pond.

As he aged and developed arthritic complaints, Thomas Jefferson turned more to horseback riding for his daily exercise. At age 77, he wrote that he no longer walked much but was, “riding without fatigue six or eight miles a day, and sometimes 30 or 40.”

Thomas Jefferson ate a lot of vegetables. He had his garden terraced with a protected southern exposure, expanding the range of vegetables that could be grown, and recorded over 330 varieties of vegetables in his garden.

He said, "I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, and that, not as an aliment so much as a condiment for the vegetables, which constitute my principal diet." His diet was commented on by the visiting Daniel Webster in 1824, who wrote, "He enjoys his dinner well, taking with meat a large proportion of vegetables."

His granddaughter Ellen wrote, he lived principally on vegetables. The little meat he took seemed merely as a seasoning for his vegetables.

And Thomas Jefferson was a moderate drinker, at least for the times he lived in. He avoided strong drinks, instead writing, “I double however the doctor’s glass and a half of wine, and even treble it with a friend; but halve it’s effect by drinking the weak wines only. the ardent wines I cannot drink, nor do I use ardent spirits in any form.”

But a couple of Thomas Jefferson's health practices may seem a bit unusual today. Visitors comment on the length of Thomas Jefferson's bed compared to his 6 foot 2 and a half inch height. It may well be that he slept significantly propped up on pillows. Sleeping propped up was a recommended position in the 18th and early 19th century, especially to aid digestion. Today, sleeping with the back elevated can be recommended for problems such as sleep apnea, coughs, or acid reflux.

And Thomas Jefferson said that he rarely caught a cold. Attributing this good health to another unusual practice: "I have, for 50 years, bathed my feet in cold water every morning. and having been remarkably exempted from colds, not having had one every 7 years of my life on average, I have supposed it might be ascribed to that practice." Therapy use of cold water goes back at least to Hippocrates. Thomas Jefferson may have been influenced by a 1715 book in his library, Baynard on Cold Bathing. It reviews a history of beneficial cold immersion and specifically recommends Bathing feet in cold water.

Whole body cold immersion is a bit of a trend today. There are three locations in Charlottesville area where people can cold plunge, i.e. pay to sit in a tub of ice water for several minutes seeking health benefits. Athletes today commonly use ice baths after vigorous workouts. Although research on cold water therapy is not clearly established, there are positive studies in the literature, including a 1997 study that found improvement in immune function. However, modern research does not yet include cold foot baths.

Thomas Jefferson was vigorously active for most of his life. Visitors commented on his stamina. He rode his horse Eagle just three weeks before his death in 1826 at age 83. And while the cause of his death is not completely clear, it does not appear to be due to any lifestyle related illnesses. His core health practices, diet, exercise, not smoking, and moderation in eating and drinking served him well and remain a model for today.

This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a production of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. Join us for new episodes every two weeks on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, and the Virginia Audio Collective. To learn more about Monticello or to plan your next trip, visit us online at


Epidemics and Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson knew a thing or two about epidemics. The virulent diseases most feared in his time were smallpox and yellow fever.


A look at bathing habits in the in late 18th and early 19th centuries.