History of Physiomedicalism


Physiomedicalism is a system of natural medicine that developed during the early 19th century, and in large part is based on the medical discoveries of a poor farmer named Samuel Thomson. Unlike the conventional medical practices of the day, which plied the use of mercury and bloodletting along with a crude understanding of human physiology, Thomson made use of herbal medicines and applied them according an energetic framework that resembles Ayurveda and Unani (Greek) medicine. The Physiomedicalists that succeeded Thomson continued in his stead, refining Thomson’s vitalist concepts into a sophisticated system of clinical practice that married the evolving science of the day with herbal medicine. Today elements of the physiomedical tradition live on among Western medical/clinical herbalists found in North America, the United Kingdom and Australia.

Samuel Thomson: beginnings

Samuel Thomson was born at Alstead, then a frontier settlement in the colony of New Hampshire, on Feb. 9th, 1769. The eldest son of a poor farming couple, Samuel was put to labor by his rather severe and abusive father at an early age, spending much of his early life working in the fields. In so doing, Samuel became familiar with the local flora, and knowing that some plants were gathered as medicines, inquired and learned of their usefulness. It was at the precocious age of four however, that young Samuel came across a plant that he had never seen before while wandering the fields in search of cows. Out of curiosity, Samuel picked some of the fruiting pods and chewed them. The acrid taste of the plant caused his throat to burn and within seconds Samuel began to vomit. The experience made an indelible impression upon him, and for years afterwards young Samuel encouraged his cohorts to consume the same plant, only to delight in watching them purge themselves in a similar fashion. Several years later, as a young man, Samuel encouraged one of his fellow workers to chew on some as they were mowing a field. Thomson recalls that this fellow had a particularly strong reaction to the herb, and saw that “he was in a most profuse perspiration, being wet all over as he could be; he trembled very much, and there was no more color in him than in a corpse” (Thomson 30, 1825). Thomson advised his companion to drink some water, but instead of drinking vomited several times, about “two quarts” (Thomson 30, 1825). Within a few hours the poor fellow was feeling much better, had eaten a hearty lunch, and proceeded to finish the day’s work. “He afterwards told me that he never had anything to do him so much good in his life; his appetite was remarkably good, and he felt better than he had for a long time” (Thomson 30, 1825). Once again the activities of this little plant made a significant impression upon Samuel, and would latter prove to be one of his most important remedies, Lobelia (Lobelia inflata).

Samuel was a sickly child, born with a clubfoot, and knew well the misery of suffering. The ministrations of local physicians provided little relief however, and it was not until his father called in one of the local “root” doctors, the widow Benton, that his health began to steadily improve. This experience added to his fascination with the local flora, to which he later commented that he was “… constantly in the habit of tasting everything of the kind I saw; and having a retentive memory I have always recollected the taste and use of all that were ever shown me by others, and like-wise all that I discovered myself” (Thomson 1825, 26-27). During the times that Samuel wasn’t learning the skill of blacksmithing or farming from his father, Thomson spent much of his time with the widow Benton, learning the skills of a root doctor. With his unusual aptitude for remembering the names and medicinal uses of the local flora, Samuel was encouraged to seek an education as a healer. At the age of 16 he applied to study under a root doctor named Fuller who practiced in Westmoreland, but was soon called home by his parents who insisted they needed him on the farm. So, with resentment in his heart, Samuel reconciled himself to a life as a simple farmer, as that was all his parents had deemed fit for him.

In July of 1790 Samuel Thomson was married to Susanna Allen, the two of them settling on a farm in Surry, New Hampshire, and in July of the following year his eldest child was born. Soon after the delivery his wife went into “fits,” and doctor after doctor were sent for to control her symptoms, with none procuring any respite, and almost killing her with their powerful emetics. Samuel became increasingly agitated with each doctor, as there was no general agreement with how to proceed among the seven different physicians that attended her. One doctor wished to bleed her, whereas another stated that such a procedure would certainly kill her. Realizing that the doctors had no idea how to proceed, and seemed more intent on treating his wife as a kind of medical experiment, Samuel finally sent for one of the local root doctors, “by whose efforts she was restored to feeble health” (Thomson 1841, 495). In the succeeding few years his wife suffered intermittently from colic, but often enough that Samuel eventually convinced a physician to live in a small cabin on the farm, from which he could easily attend her. With the birth of their second child however, Samuel attended the event himself, with the advice of Dr. Bliss, his resident physician.

Two years later Samuel’s second child was suddenly taken with scarlet fever, with a purulent rash spreading over her face, nose, ears, and mouth, with her right eye so wrought with infection that it had swollen shut. The other eye was purplish and swollen, and his daughter’s breathing had become labored as she struggled for air. Dr. Bliss tried everything he could to halt the progression of the condition, but to no avail, suggesting to Thomson that she would not survive. Hearing this, Thomson informed the doctor that he would try to treat her himself. Sitting her down on his lap, Thomson pulled a blanket around both of them, while he instructed his wife to hold a shovel of red-hot coals between his feet. Samuel then poured vinegar on the shovel to raise a steam, and kept steaming his daughter, as hot as she could bear, when after 20 minutes she began to breathe easier. Thomson then applied a cold-water compress to her eyes, replacing it as soon as it had become warm, and followed this treatment with an eyewash made from Marsh Rosemary (Statice limonium), an astringent, wound-healing remedy that Thomson had no doubt learned from the widow Benton. During treatment the rash gradually retreated, and with consistent treatment Thomson was able to save his daughter’s left eye, as well as her life, much to the amazement of Dr. Bliss.

Samuel Thomson: root doctor

In the succeeding years Samuel Thomson grew more and more confident of his healing skills, and less so of men like the schooled physician he paid a pretty price to attend his family’s illness. Although he had secured the young Dr. Bliss to attend to his families ills, Bliss gradually abandoned the botanical remedies he had used initially, in favour of high-priced mineral drugs, as well as bleeding. “It seemed,” said Thomson, “as a judgment upon me and my family, for some one living with me was sick most of the time while the doctor lived on the farm, which was seven years” (Thomson 1841, 498). Thomson became resentful of Dr. Bliss, who not only was able to pay for his accommodation in exchange for treating Thomson’s family, but had also accumulated a significant nest egg at Thomson’s expense. Thomson eventually sent Dr. Bliss packing, choosing to rely upon his own skills to treat the various afflictions of his family. Upon Thomson’s success with his own family’s illness, he began to earn a reputation as a root doctor with the locals, employing the herbal remedies that were commonly known but under utilized. Patients whom he cured, where doctors had failed or had made worse by bloodletting and mercury, did not value his skill however, as he was a farmer like them, and were reluctant to compensate him for his services. It wasn’t until he was constantly in demand for his services that Thomson decided to leave farming alone and purse the business of herbal medicine.

Thomson was an uneducated man, yet insightful and observant enough to understand the different activities of the various herbs he used. It was also clear to him that the emphasis upon mercury administration and bloodletting used by the college-trained physicians often made patients much worse. Yet when Thomson considered his approach, he lacked any kind of methodology or theoretical basis upon which to practice, relying instead on experimentation and on what had worked in the past. Seeing a need to develop such an approach, Thomson developed some very general principles based on his observations. Although Thomson promoted the idea that he was an uneducated man to his prospective patients, he was certainly not illiterate, and through his personal studies adapted the ancient Greek concept of the four elements. “I found that all animal bodies were composed of the elements, and that earth and water were the solids, and air and heat were the fluids, and a proper organization and a suitable temperature produced life and motion…” (Thomson 1841, 505-06) Fundamental to this conceptual framework was a belief that hot and cold were the two primary energetic systems that drove all life, a concept that resonates in every other energetic system of medicine on earth. Indeed, later commentators would suggest that Thomson “without knowing it, has adopted a theory of Galen; and in his idea of the preserving power of Nature, the curer of disease and the preserver of life, appears to be the same as that acknowledged by Hippokrates” (Wilder 1904, 453).

Thomson’s patented system of medicine

According to Thomson’s conceptual framework of bodily function, heat was synonymous with vitality, whereas cold “was the cause of disease” (Thomson 1841, 506) Thomson states “that to restore the heat or animal warmth to its natural standard was the only way that health and strength could be produced” (Thomson 1841, 506). Thomson felt that only “after restoring the natural heat of the body by clearing the system of all obstructions, and causing a natural perspiration, the stomach would digest the food taken, by which means the whole body is nourished and invigorated and the heat of the body… is able to hold its supremacy” (Thomson 1841, 506). Similar to Ayurvedic medicine, Thomson believed that heat radiated outwards from the stomach to the periphery of the body, and was thus the foundation of health. “The heat is maintained in the stomach by consuming food; and all the body and limbs receive their proportion of nourishment and heat from that source; as the whole room is warmed by the fire which is consumed in the fireplace” (Thomson 50, 1825). Thomson believed that concretions could build up in the stomach, impairing absorption and weakening digestion. Thus, cleaning the stomach of these concretions was tantamount to regaining health. To do this Thomson felt “all the art required” was “to know what medicine will do it, and how to administer it, as a person knows how to clear a stove and the pipe when clogged with soot” (Thomson 190, 1825).

According to Thomson’s theoretical framework, diseases would arise when the internal heat of the stomach was obstructed from circulating to the periphery, or if an attack of cold or shock came from without, obstructing the natural flow of the internal heat. Following this theory, Thomson advocated diaphoresis, or sweating therapies, as a general cure to “remove all obstructions from the system (and) restore the powers of digestion” (Thomson 506, 1841). Thomson felt that to “promote a natural perspiration is universally applicable in all cases of disease, and therefore may be considered as a general remedy” (Thomson 506, 1841). Thomson believed that the presence of fever was the most important single factor in overcoming disease, and where obstruction or a deficiency of heat promoted disease, he sought to induce a fever to assist the body in its battle to overcome the underlying pathology of coldness.

Throughout Thomson’s writing he refers to “canker” as an archetypal form that disease can manifest. What Thomson referred to as a canker were the physical symptoms of coldness, noticed as the “white …coat(ing) that was attached to the mucous membranes” (Thomson 507, 1841). “Canker and putrefaction are caused by cold, or want of heat, for whenever any part of the body is so affected with the cold so as to overpower the natural heat, putrefaction commences; and if not strong enough to overcome its progress, it will communicate with the blood, when death will end the contest between heat and cold, or the powers of life and death by deciding in favor of the latter” (Thomson 507, 1841).


The remedy Thomson considered of prime importance to restore the natural heat of the body was Lobelia (Lobelia inflata), what he would later call No. 1 in his patented system of healing. Using the analogy of the wood stove, Thomson compared the activity of Lobelia to dry wood shavings added to a dying fire, enkindling and ensuring a proper burn to draw the smoke out through the chimney. Thus Lobelia was stimulant to digestion, and promoted the movement of the stomach’s heat to the periphery, correcting circulation. And just as the cause of a fire that will not burn properly can be the accumulation of soot in the stovepipe, Lobelia could also throw off the canker through its emetic activity. “It is searching, enlivening, quickening, and has great power in removing obstructions” (Thomson 589, 1841). But just as kindling burns quickly, Thomson found that the activity of Lobelia “…soon exhausts itself, and if not followed by some other medicine, to hold the vital heat till nature is able to support itself by digesting the food, it will not be sufficient to remove a disease that has become seated” (Thomson 589, 1841). He began a search for such a remedy.

Thomson tried various pungent herbs, such as Ginger (Zingiber officinalis), Mustard (Brassica nigra) and Peppermint (Mentha piperita) to hold the heat in the body, and while he had good results with these herbs, found them to be “…more or less volatile, and would not have the desired effect” (Thomson 591, 1841). One day in 1805, on a trip to visit some friends on a farm in Massachusetts, Thomson stopped in at a local residence. When he entered the house he saw a large string of Cayenne peppers hanging on the wall. Although he knew them to be pungent in nature, he wasn’t sure of their medicinal activity. He purchased the string of peppers and took them home, prepared a powder from them, and experimented upon himself. The taste and resulting effect was remarkable to Thomson, certainly the most pungent and heating herb he had ever tasted. Thomson later put Cayenne to the test when he felt a cold coming on, and found that it promoted a good perspiration and dispelled his symptoms. Thomson felt at last he had found his No.2 medicine, Cayenne pepper (Capsicum annuum), something to sustain the fire of digestion after Lobelia had enkindled it. According to Thomson, Cayenne “…is no doubt the most powerful stimulant ever known; its power is entirely congenial to nature, being powerful only when raising and maintaining the heat, on which life depends. It is extremely pungent, and when taken sets the mouth as it were on fire; this lasts, however, but a few minutes, and I consider it essentially a benefit, for its effects on the glands causes the saliva to flow freely, and leaves the mouth clean and moist” (Thomson 593, 1841).

While Lobelia and Cayenne were to become the mainstay of many of his treatments, there were many more herbs that Thomson found useful in practice. In deep-seated conditions, after he employed Lobelia to stimulate the fires of the body and Cayenne to hold it, Thomson found he needed something else to continue the work of removing the canker, without necessarily promoting emesis. For this purpose he employed the pungent and astringent Bayberry bark (Myrica cerifera). “This valuable article may be taken separately, or compounded with other substances, and is the best remedy for canker that I have ever found.” Thomson soon found other plants that could do the job as well as Bayberry, and began to use other, similarly astringent and warming herbs such White Pond Lily root (Nymphaea odorata), Sumac leaf (Rhus glabra), Hemlock bark (Pinus canadensis), Witch Hazel bark (Hamamelis virginiana), Red Raspberry leaf (Rubus ideaus), and Marsh Rosemary root (Statice limonium). Having established these three primary classes of therapeutic activity, Thomson used this approach repeatedly, with excellent results. Thomson was by no means limited however to these three simple approaches however, and as his experience grew so did the subtly of his practice. We find that he added plants to his therapeutic armamentarium continually. After using No.3 to remove the canker, Thomson then gave his No.4 remedy to correct the digestive organs and enhance secretion, which could be dosed as a single or combination of bitter tasting herbs such as Balmony (Chelone glabra), Bitter root (Apocynum androsaemifolium), Poplar bark (Populus tremuloides), and Barberry (Berberis vulgaris).

Thomson’s No.5 remedies were intended to be restoratives to the entire body, prepared as a syrup containing crushed Peach kernels (Prunus persica), Cherry pits (Prunus virginiana) and Myrrh resin (Commiphora mukul). This was an especially important formula in the treatment of dysentery, which Thomson used with great success in the Cholera epidemics. Finally, Thomson developed his No.6 remedy or “Rheumatic drops,” composed of equal parts Myrrh gum and Cayenne pepper, to treat pain and restore circulation. Thomson had learned of the importance of Myrrh when he was a young man working in Vermont, on an acreage his father had bought. Thomson had badly injured his foot, and an old Canadian passing through the area commended the usage of Myrrh tincture (Haller, 23). After this experience Thomson began to use it on others, and upon mixing it with Cayenne discovered that the remedy worked even better.

In addition to these six basic components of his therapeutic program, Thomson also made great use of the now endangered orchid, Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium pubescens), as a reliable antispasmodic and substitute for opium. Overtime, Thomson would add more and more botanicals to his system, and through his efforts many of our most important medicinal herbs were introduced into widespread usage, such as Goldenseal root (Hydrastis canadensis), Osha (Ligusticum porteri), and American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolium) (Wilder 1904, 454).

Although nothing can truly compare to the barbarous practice of the “Regular” doctors, Thomson’s therapeutic approaches were certainly no cakewalk. In one example of Thomson’s courses, a patient would be steamed until he or she were sweating profusely, when the “…veins have become full upon the feet, hands and temples” (Thomson 1825, 83-4), and then put to bed. The second phase of the treatment would continue with the patient drinking a mug of hot wine sweetened with molasses, to which had been added teaspoonfuls of Lobelia, Cayenne, and Bayberry powder. A similar preparation would then be injected rectally, and all would continue to be administered every so often until the patient began to vomit. In between bouts the patient would be given a bland gruel and some Pennyroyal tea (Mentha pulegium). Emetic therapies would only be discontinued once the practitioner had determined that the patient had successfully purged the canker. Once their stomachs settled the patients typically felt much better, and shared in a glass of bitter aperitif to celebrate their health (Griggs 1981, 166-67).

Tribulations and trials: Thomson’s medical heresy

In November of 1806, Thomson was in need of medicine, and headed off to Plumb Island, just offshore from Newburyport, Massachusetts. On his way back, after spending several days on the island, Thomson again passed through Newburyport to gather a team of horses to carry his medicines back home. He stopped in at a store, and while engaged in conversation a man burst in, saying that he was sick and that his wife lay at home at death’s door. Enquiring further, Thomson and his companions learned that his wife had been treated by Dr. French, who after extensive treatment, claimed his patient to be incurable. When this man learned of Thomson’s skill, he implored him to come back home and treat his dying wife. “I commenced with her in my usual way, and in about fourteen hours her fever turned, and the next day she was comfortable and soon got well.” Thomson’s ‘miraculous’ cure soon became the talk of the town. No doubt chagrined that an uneducated ‘hick’ had cured his dying patient, Dr. French stated in defense that this woman had already been showing signs of improvement. In what must have been a rather embarrassing moment for Dr. French however, the patient’s family promptly denied this.

Thomson was suddenly in great demand as a physician, and attended several cases in Newburyport, all hopeless cases given over by the doctors to die. One young man came in out of the cold, with three of his fingers deeply wounded from an accident, and asked Thomson for his assistance. While Thomson cleaned his wounds of mercury, the young man stated that Dr French had attended him for the past few weeks, only to be advised afterwards by French that he should have his fingers amputated. While Thomson attended to the wound a student of Dr. French’s came in, and after expressing his disapproval with Thomson, reminded the young man that his account with the doctor was outstanding. When Thomson learned that the debt was seventeen dollars, he stated that this was a large enough fee to pay for both his and the doctor’s service, and sent the young man on his way without charging him anything at all. Thomson returned home shortly afterwards and continued to practice, traveling where he was requested, and in a very short while he had established himself as a kind of medical savior, delivering countless patients from medical quackery and desperate prognoses with relatively simple cures. Thomson wasn’t content with simply providing treatment however, but educated his patients, invoking the importance of a good digestion, and how to use the local plants as medicines. Of course his increasing popularity rankled the ire of many doctors, and no less so than Dr. French, who became increasingly obsessed with Thomson.

In 1809 Thomson was asked to attend a Captain Trickey who was very ill, but when he found him Thomson felt there was nothing he could do. The family was insistent however, but Thomson refused, only suggesting to the distressed wife what she could try if she felt inclined, which she did. With Thomson refusing to treat the Captain, two doctors were sent for: the first arrived and bled the patient, and when the second arrived he pronounced that the patient’s breathing was labored from Thomson’s medicine. The next day Captain Trickey died, and the attending doctors and their supporters began to spread rumors that Thomson had killed him. After returning home Thomson learned that Dr. French had cited him for murder, and had appealed for his arrest.

The details of Dr. French’s accusation actually referred to an event two years prior, in which Thomson had attended a young man by the name of Lovett. Similar to Trickey, Lovett was also in a very desperate state, and Thomson had expressed his doubts for recovery, although he was eventually persuaded to try. Thomson provided a few treatments, and after several hours the young man had much improved, and Thomson left him to attend others that required his services. Unfortunately, Lovett did not listen to Thomson’s counsel to stay home and keep warm, and went down to the seaside where he subsequently caught a chill. Upon visiting him again, Thomson felt that the young man was beyond his help, and told the family that there was nothing he could do. As his services were required elsewhere, Thomson recommended that the family secure another doctor to manage the patient. Thomson stayed with the patient until two doctors arrived, who then attended the young man until he died the following evening. Based on these events, Dr. French accused Thomson of killing Lovett with Lobelia.

In late November Thomson was arrested while visiting some patients in Salisbury, and was soon confined to a dungeon with a man accused of sexually assaulting a six year-old girl. From his description the dungeon must have been ghastly, without any kind of furniture or windows, dark, unheated and cold, with raw sewage dripping into it from the cells above. The many friends that visited him could hardly bear the stench of his cell, and appealed to the jailer for better treatment. An old bed and a few provisions were provided, which Thomson shared with his grateful cellmate. The plan by Dr. French and his supporters was apparently to kill Thomson by privation, as a court that could hear a charge for murder wouldn’t sit until next fall. Fortunately Thomson had many friends, and no less among them than Judge Rice, whom Thomson had helped by curing his wife of rheumatism. A petition was made to the grand jury, and after much effort on the part of Judge Rice and his lawyer, a trial was set for December 10, 1809.

The first witness to testify against Thomson was Lovett’s father, who while providing a fairly accurate rendition of the events did not portray Thomson in a very flattering light. The next witness called to the stand was Dr. Howe; the physician that attended Lovett after Thomson had left. Dr. Howe stated unequivocally that Thomson had killed Lovett with Lobelia, and then, with a flair for the dramatic, produced a supposed sample of the herb in question. The root was handed around the room with much trepidation, and after all had satisfied their curiosity with it, one of Thomson’s lawyers took it in hand and ate it, which caused quite a flap in the courtroom. Dr. Howe was then cross-examined by Thomson’s lawyers, and questioned if he actually knew what Lobelia looked like, to which Dr. Howe could not reply. A Dr. Cutler was then called up to the stand as an expert on medicinal herbs for the defense, and when questioned about the herb produced by Dr. Howe, stated that it was not Lobelia but in fact Marsh-Rosemary. The prosecution attempted to counter this by calling up their other witnesses, people whom Thomson had never seen before, including one woman who claimed that Thomson had forced his “puke” (i.e. Lobelia) down Lovett’s throat, the young man “crying murder” the whole time (Thomson 1841, 546). To counter these wild claims a few more witnesses were brought to the stand by the defense, including a former patient that was administered Lobelia and who said that Thomson had cured him in one week, even after medical treatments had failed. The last witness was Dr. French himself, who, in a rather abrupt turn of events, stated that Thomson had employed his herbal remedies with apparent success, and had never killed anyone to his knowledge. After this the defense lawyers protested uproariously, and the attending judge lost his patience with the proceedings, charging the jury to acquit Thomson of all charges.

Although Thomson was honorably acquitted, the rumors that charged him as a murderer persisted, only adding to the frustration of the doctors. But, in an ironic twist, some of these physicians began to borrow treatment strategies from Thomson, without giving him any credit. Dr. Manessah Cutler, who testified on behalf of Thomson at his trial, is but one example of this, writing up a case history on the successful use of Lobelia in asthma for a medical journal, even while Thomson was languishing in prison. After the trial, Thomson attempted to counter these rumors by suing Dr. French for slander, but lost the case, and had to come up with more than $600 in costs and damages (Griggs 1981, 168). Historians too, were unkind to Thomson, and in his entry under Lobelia, Dr. Jacob Bigelow writes in his American Medical Botany that in the case of Lovett this “pretending physician…terminated the disease and the patient” (Wood 1992, 95). Subsequent medical histories continued to repeat this error, and it became enshrined as historical fact, casting doubt upon Thomson as a healer and Lobelia as an important medicinal herb. Even today Lobelia is regarded with great suspicion by medical authorities, which confer all manner of toxic and even potentially fatal effects to Lobelia, even though Lobelia’s emetic properties would become active long before a potentially toxic dose could be consumed.


The business of Thomsonian medicine

After his acquittal, Thomson continued his practice and began to train others to use his system, all the while the doctors were losing patients. In many cases however, Thomson was still regarded by his patients as unworthy of payment, adding to his already desperate financial situation from the court case with Dr. French. Mulling his situation over Thomson decided to pursue some way of ensuring some degree of financial recompense for his discoveries, and in March of 1813, was awarded a patent for his system of healing. In his patent, Thomson detailed the framework of six basic therapeutic approaches, labeled one through six. Thomson did this, in part, to obscure the specifics of his system, thinking that by referring to the approaches as a number, he could protect his ideas from being copied by somebody else.

To individuals or families that purchased the patent for $20, Thomson accorded them entry into the Friendly Botanic Society, where members could discuss treatment rationales, seek assistance from more experienced members, and purchase the herbal remedies directly from Thomson. For an additional two dollars, members could purchase Thomson’s New Guide to Health or Botanic Family Physician. Members that sold the patent to others acted as agents for Thomson, and took a percentage of the profits, ensuring a motivated sales force that rapidly introduced Thomsonian medicine to the general public. Thomson also made his patent equally available to women, thus setting a precedent for the first female medical practitioners in the United States.

In many ways, Thomson can be thought of as the first multi-level marketer, and by 1839 claimed over 3,000,000 adherents to his system, included among them many Regular physicians. One such convert was Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, Professor of Theory and Practice of Medicine at Cambridge University, Massachusetts, who rose in defense of Thomson by stating, “…this man is no Quack. He narrates his medical discoveries, gives an account of his system of practice, together with his manner of curing diseases, upon a plan confessedly new; to which he adds the principles on which this new system is founded. He… merits attention” (Griggs 1981, 176). Waterhouse also publicly stated that he had used Lobelia, and had even undergone a few Thomsonian treatments.

Although the cause of Samuel Thomson and his supporters would be affected by the warp and weft of various political interests over the next few years, Thomson’s influence upon the practice of medicine cannot be overstated, even though his name remains for the most part absent from the medical history books. Part of the reason for this was Thomson himself: he was wary of any kind of technical or medical language, preferring simple concepts understood by the people that used his medicines. Thus his methods could not me subjected to the rigor of scientific language, attracting the venomous scorn of his opponents who continued to refer to Thomson as an “illiterate farmer.” And, what we have of Thomson’s writings today is perhaps not the best record of his achievements or methodology, although his Narratives make for very interesting reading. Fortunately Thomson had many adherents that clarified his methodologies, such Dr. Benjamin Colby who wrote an excellent treatise on Thomsonian medicine called A Guide To Health.

Thomson was certainly a man of his times, and its unlikely that an unlettered and simple farmer could have ever attained what Thomson did at any other point in history. During Thomson’s lifetime, the United States was a young country, full of the ideals of democracy and the power of the common man. This ardent republicanism of the United States was inspired and bred by such luminaries as the greatest of the U.S. presidents, Thomas Jefferson, who believed that that “those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God.” Such faith in the power of the people to manage their own affairs stimulated great energy and excitement in the populace, and with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which added some 2 million square kilometers to the United States, the people felt no limit upon what they could achieve. “Determine never to be idle,” Thomas Jefferson said. “No person will have occasion to complain of the want of time who never loses any. It is wonderful how much may be done if we are always doing.” Taking such words to heart, the United States underwent a period of expansion that remains unrivalled in history.

By 1805 Thomson was 36 years old, and for the last several years had traveled hundreds of miles to attend to his patients scattered all over the eastern seaboard of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. For such labors Thomson rarely received the kind of compensation that he felt was due. Given his rather involved courses of treatment, Thomson often spent the entire day applying his methods to one patient, whereas a medical doctor might have a brief interview with the patient, measure out a dose of calomel or quickly drain the required volume of blood, and then be on their way to attend somebody else. This disparity to Thomson was especially evident when the patients he cured refused to pay him. To simplify things Thomson devised a prepayment plan, consisting of the sale of his patent, which then allowed the patients to purchase his remedies. Thomson provided only a partial explanation of the details of his patent before the sale, and after the sale provided specific details of treatment, although he referred to his remedies only as number one through six to maintain his monopoly and prevent anyone from copying his system.

As Thomson’s practice grew, he quickly found that he could not manage all aspects of his business, and sought persons to act as agents on his behalf, selling the patents and instructing the purchasers in its usage. Unfortunately, Thomson was a poor judge of character, something that would haunt him to the end of his days. His first agent was an act of charity, William Little, a man that Thomson had rescued from poverty and to whom he had imparted all his knowledge. Little proved however to be a decidedly bad apprentice, and thanked Thomson by stealing his money and medicines while Thomson was away on business (Haller 2000, 40). The next apprentice also turned out to be a charlatan, charging patients outrageous fees and even taking property as collateral from poor farmers while Thomson was away collecting more medicine (Haller 2000, 40). Finally, Thomson got lucky with an able man named John Locke, and with his help, was able to extend Thomson’s reach to Philadelphia, Washington and Alexandria.

To support his patent holders Thomson organized the creation of four different Friendly Botanic societies, with each society sharing in the profits of the sale of Thomson’s patent and herbal remedies. These societies however proved unwieldy for Thomson, with many members wishing to have a greater degree of autonomy in choosing new agents and how the profits from sales were to be shared. Eventually Thomson realized that four separate societies were four different sources of problems, and in 1818 he dissolved them and created the United States Friendly Botanic society. In this new society, members did not have any share in the profits and Thomson regained control over which people could become agents in his name. Instead, the new society existed solely for the purpose of instruction and support (Haller 2000, 43).

In 1822 Thomson sought a patent for his book entitled New Guide To Health (1822) with some haste, as a former agent named as Elias Smith had published his own medical treatise based on Thomson’s ideas. In this book Thomson delineated 31 directions for the cure and prevention of disease, and while providing much of the theoretical background for his system, he left out the full instructions for the implementation of his different therapies. These instructions Thomson would only provide in person either from himself or his agents to purchasers of his patent. By 1834 Thomson had sold thirteen editions of his book, and claimed to have at least two million adherents to his system. Since Thomson was the only source of the medicines used in his systems, the widespread adoption of his system ensured that Thomson was very comfortable.

But as the practice of Thomsonian medicine grew, so did Samuel Thomson’s inability to control the dissemination and practice of his system. In September of 1832 Thomson called together all the members in his Friendly Botanic Society to a national convention, ostensibly to bring together its many practitioners under one roof to share in their experiences and learn of improvements to the system. Thomson’s real agenda however was to publicize the harm that he thought had been done to his system by former agents who had subsequently published their own treatise on botanic medicine, claiming that they had made “improvements” upon Thomson’s system. In most cases these improvements were simple modifications of his formulations, but in some cases these authors altered the theoretical basis of Thomson’s system. Specifically, Thomson used the 1832 convention to defend his interests against a former agent named Horton Howard, with whom he had a falling out a few years before when Howard withheld a substantial amount of the profits from his sale of Thomson’s New Guide To Health. After his estrangement from Thomson, Horton became convinced that Thomson’s system was still in its infancy, and published his own medical bible in 1832 called An Improved System of Botanic Medicine, Founded Upon Correct Physiological Principles, Embracing a Concise view of Anatomy and Physiology; Together with an Illustration of the New Theory of Medicine. Although rather magnificently named, Horton’s work was largely ghost written by a friend named Dr. Hance, who refused to take credit for the work (Haller 2000, 69).

In his Improved System Howard had even gone so far as to correct Thomson’s theory of “animal heat” or vital capacity, suggesting that it was the friction of the blood that moved through the arteries that caused the generation of heat, not the stomach. A patient that was feverish and perspiring, suggested Howard, was at risk of losing the vital capacity, and Howard thus recommended the use of drastic botanical purgatives to diminish circulation (Haller 2000, 70). Although the remainder of Howard’s text bore striking similarity to Thomsonian practices, it was this fundamental difference, as well as his liberal borrowing of Thomson’s practices, that was repudiated by Thomson and his supporters.

Although Thomson’s outrage at Howard’s book was probably justified, in subsequent conventions Thomson continued to rage against his enemies, both real and imaginary. In his inaugural addresses, Thomson provided almost morbid details of business dealings that had gone awry until by the fourth annual convention in 1835, the patience of his supporters had worn thin. Thomson also worried that many of the delegates who supported the idea of a national Thomsonian infirmary, which he pledged to support, also wanted a training center that would rely upon the kind of book learning to which Thomson was vociferously opposed. No one among his supporters questioned the almost divine role that Thomson had played in shaping medicine, but they also knew that Thomson had done quite well form himself. In consistently focusing on the injustices committed against him, and Thomson’s paranoia with any kind of book learning, some supporters began to wonder if the old man hadn’t soured a little with age. Thomson’s pugnacious and often paranoid behavior at these conventions, and the manner in which he stifled any kind of debate, eventually incited the formation of a schism within his movement, the departing group referred to simply as the “New Light” Thomsonians (Haller 2000, 167).

In 1841 Thomson’s son John Thomson published a revised and “corrected” edition of the New Guide To Health called the Thomsonian Materia Medica. In many respects this book was everything that Samuel Thomson had objected to: it contained extensive information on physiology, anatomy and botany that was plagiarized from other texts, as well as portions of Thomson’s earlier works, and an expanded section of botanical remedies and formulations, many of which had never been used by Thomson. Unlike Thomson’s former works, this was a huge, voluminous text that seemed more in keeping with a medical text rather than a practical, do-it-yourself manual for patent-holders. After the publication of the text Thomson became estranged from his sons John and Cyrus, and with the death of his youngest son, Dr. Jesse Thomson, Thomson was without family. In late September of 1843 Thomson was feeling poorly, and followed through with a few courses of treatment. Nothing appeared to relieve his symptoms however, and in the last few days before his death, Thomson tired of these regimens, and eating only nourishing food and performing an occasional enema, gave himself over to death, at the age of 74 (Haller 2000, 186).


Education and the cause of botanic medicine

In 1832 Thomson’s system of herbal therapy attracted an energetic young man named Alva Curtis. Like many Americans around this time, Curtis had experienced the horrors of Regular medicine firsthand, after his brother died from mercury prescribed by a Regular physician. After reading Thomson’s New Guide to Health at the suggestion of a friend, Curtis became convinced of the efficacy of Thomson’s alternative to Regular treatment. He soon became a competent practitioner and spokesman for the Thomsonian movement, and in 1835 was appointed editor of the Thomsonian Recorder. The journal provided patent holders with the latest news from Thomsonian practitioners, and detailed its trials and tribulations in defense against Regular medicine. Under the influence of Curtis the Thomsonian Recorder slowly changed its focus, increasing its content of letters from practitioners who not only detailed their successes, but also wrote in to ask for help in particularly difficult cases. Over time, it occurred to Curtis that Thomsonism would best be served by having some kind of training center, although his and Thomson’s conception of such an institution were distinctly different. Throughout his life Thomson argued against the pedantic and theoretical training of the learned doctor. “The study of patients, not books — experience, not reading,” claimed Thomson, was the only true path to a proper understanding of health and healing (Haller 2000, 92). Thus while Thomson wasn’t opposed to the idea of a clinic and infirmary that would serve as a training ground for practitioners, he was vociferously opposed to any conception of a Thomsonian medical school. Curtis however saw that many practitioners did not fully understand the tenets of Thomson’s system, and in his capacity as editor of the Thomsonian Recorder, sought to establish support for the creation of a school of medicine based upon Thomson’s New Guide To Health.

A few years before a man named Wooster Beach, similarly disgusted with the practice of Regular medicine, sought to undertake studies with a local root doctor named Jacob Tidd, in New Jersey. Beach is said to have applied several times to apprentice under the old German herbalist, only to meet with Tidd’s consistent refusal. Beach eventually prevailed however, and after studying with the old man until his death, Beach enrolled in a one year medical program in New York City, conferring upon him the right to practice medicine. With this rather impressive array of training under his belt, Beach opened an infirmary in New York in 1827, and two years later established the Reform Medical Society, and published a journal called the Medical Reformer. Beach then attempted to found a reform school of medicine in New York, but was unable to obtain a state charter. In 1930, Beach was invited by Episcopalian-liberal arts Worthington College in Ohio to establish a reform medical college under their state charter (Haller 2000, 103; Wood 1992, 110). Although Beach was a vigorous opponent of high doses of calomel and bloodletting, he preferred to work from within the system, incorporating ideas from both Regular medicine and folkloric systems. Over time the system that Beach developed was referred to by his supporters as “eclectic,” that is to say, taking the “best” from all systems of medicine.

In March of 1836 Alva Curtis and six other botanic physicians met in Cincinnati, Ohio, to discuss the concept of creating a school similar to Beach’s. Such a college, rationalized Curtis, would protect Thomson’s system from becoming sullied by the numerous patent holders that had brought ill repute to the system by employing its principles incorrectly. Curtis suggested that unless the practice of Thomsonian medicine were “raised to the standard of scientific physicians, the confidence of the community never can be enlisted in behalf of the Botanic cause” (Haller 2000, 94). At the meeting, Curtis suggested the creation of a school that would teach only “eclectic principles, taking the foundation of Samuel Thomson as a basis,” while providing additional training in chemistry, surgery, obstetrics, pharmacy, botany, and materia medica (Haller 2000, 94). The meeting attendees were at loggerheads as to which city should be the first location for such a facility, and in the stalemate Curtis successfully promoted a third alternative in Columbus, Ohio, the same city that played host to Beach’s reform medical college.

On March 23rd, 1836, Curtis opened the first session of the Botanico-Medical College of Ohio, with twelve students. Women were not allowed to apply for study as a doctor, but could enrol in a nursing program. The reaction of Samuel Thomson and his most stalwart of supporters however was far from enthusiastic. Thomson’s opinion was voiced in the Thomsonian Manual, a journal published in Boston, when the editor wrote that “It would seem that the object is to make a craft of it (i.e. Thomson’s system), the same as all other crafts have been made; and as long as this is the case, it can have no aid, neither it ought to expect any, from Dr. Thomson” (Haller 2000, 98). Despite these stern warnings from Thomson and some early political setbacks, the Botanico-Medical College of Ohio was given legal status by the Ohio legislature, and became only the second chartered reform medical school in the United States, after Wooster Beach’s college at Worthington, and the first to implement the Thomsonian system of medicine.

Although the idea behind Alva Curtis’ Botanico-Medical College and Wooster Beach’s reform medical program at Worthington College was probably no wider than the few miles that separated the two facilities, advocates of each college wasted no time in putting each other down, pitting their hallowed founders against each other. Beach’s advocates illustrated the rather plebian origin of the Thomsonian system by contemptuously referring to its practitioners as “steam and pepper doctors,” while Thomson’s advocates railed against the continued usage of mineral drugs, lancets and toxic botanicals by reform physicians. The Botanico-Medical College however scored early against Worthington College when one of its lecturers, a Dr. L. Terry, formally resigned from the faculty stating that the reform system lacked any kind of coherent system of practice. This relatively minor victory was soon overshadowed in 1839 when a body that was missing from a local grave was found on the dissecting table at Worthington College. The medical department at Worthington College was stripped of its charter by the state, and was forced to close its doors. After operating as a private college for a few years, the faculty at Worthington College reopened their institute in Cincinnati as the Eclectic Medical Institute.

The Botanico-Medical and Worthington colleges were by no means the only schools of botanical medicine that evolved during this period, and many other institutes opened up to serve regional needs. Perhaps the most notable of these institutions was the Southern Botanico-Medical College in Macon, Georgia. Delegates that attended the Thomsonian Medical convention in Milledgeville, Georgia, in May of 1839, resolved to construct a training center and infirmary to serve the south, and enjoyed a significant degree of support from both the Georgia legislature and Gov. Joseph Brown, as well as from the typically stalwart defenders of Samuel Thomson’s system of medicine. In August of 1840 the cornerstone for the Southern Botanico-Medical College was laid in Forsyth, Georgia, but the facility was soon moved to the capital in Macon to accommodate a larger population. In 1854 the college changed its name to the Reformed Medical College of Georgia, indicating a shift in faculty thinking towards a more eclectic approach to healing. This was subsequently reversed in 1881 to a more or less strict form of Thomsonian medicine, when the college again moved, this time to Atlanta (Haller 2000, 189-90). After a few years in pursuit of this ideology, the college found it too difficult to sustain a sufficient degree of interest, merging with the Georgia Eclectic College (founded in 1867), which finally closed its doors in 1916.

Soon after Worthington College reopened in Cincinnati as the Eclectic Medical Institute, Alva Curtis also moved his institute to Cincinnati, where it was renamed as the American Medical Institute and Botanico-Medical College. The American Medical Institute existed primarily to serve the public good, providing public lectures on hygiene and health, as well as operating an infirmary and retail dispensary (Haller 2000, 198). The Botanico-Medical College on the other hand was a chartered college that could award the degree of doctor of medicine (Haller 2000, 198). In November of 1841, after Alva Curtis assembled a competent faculty to provide students a thorough knowledge of the medical and botanical sciences, the new college opened its doors, providing a two-year doctorate program, although students who completed just one session were eligible for a license to practice. In June of 1843 Alva Curtis secured a much larger and grander location in a fashionable district in Cincinnati called the Bazaar Building. The first floor housed offices for faculty, a consultation room, private infirmary rooms, and a specially constructed room for vapor baths (Haller 2000, 201). Upstairs was a lecture hall that could accommodate as many as 500 attendees, as well as a small chemical laboratory and some private rooms for patients (Haller 2000, 201). On the top floor was a large amphitheatre where anatomy classes were held, as well as several other, smaller lecture rooms that contained various teaching aids including diagrams, charts, botanical and chemical specimens, chemistry equipment, and surgical tools. Alva Curtis and his faculty were justifiably happy with their new institute, and attracted many satisfied and loyal students.

Unfortunately, this happy situation would not continue for long. Curtis’s occasionally arrogant and self-righteous attitude would only prove to be a lightening rod for controversy. Earlier in his career, Curtis had alienated Thomson and his stalwarts by advocating Thomsonian medical training centers. Such vigorous aspirations could be forgiven by forward-thinking reformers, but Curtis would also go on to embrace many highly controversial therapies, including mesmerism, spiritualism, and phrenology. Nonetheless, Curtis was still respected as a leading spokesman for the cause of Thomsonism, or physiomedicalism, as it was now coming to be called.

After alienating some of the faculty of his new college with some questionable decisions, Curtis arrived back in Cincinnati after touring the lecture circuit to find that the faculty had petitioned the Ohio legislature to separate his Botanico-Medical College into two distinct entities. The newly chartered college, now called the Physiopathic Medical College, took all of the enrolled students and most of the faculty with them. The faculty of the new school then publicly rejected the tenets and practices of physiomedicalism, and severed all ties with Alva Curtis. Curtis, however, wasn’t left completely bereft, and received hails of support from many corners, all of whom were afraid that the cause of medical reform would be damaged by the new college. Curtis then applied to have the Literary and Scientific Institute, all that was left to Curtis after the faculty had moved to the Physiopathic college, to become a chartered school, and despite the vigorous and litigious protestations by the dean of the Physiopathic Medical college, Curtis was granted a charter.

In 1851 Curtis opened the doors to new the Physio-Medical department of the Literary and Scientific Institute, located in the Bazaar Building in Cincinnati. In what could be judged as either a sympathetic or rather cynical maneuver, Curtis allowed women to enroll in the doctorate program. Curtis had noted the increasing influence of the Suffragette movement, and stated that women and men would be treated as equals in his college, although women were inexplicably charged $40 more for tuition. Beyond this inconsistency, Curtis assembled a comprehensive syllabus and a reputable faculty, which included Professor William Cook, who was made dean of the college.

The schism between the Physiopathic Medical College and Curtis had left him in dire financial straights, and Curtis was eventually forced to open up the Bazaar building to other businesses. Curtis continued to try to raise more funds for his struggling college, but found it difficult to materialize. Desperate for funds, he traveled east to establish other programs in Boston, Connecticut, and New York, but was unsuccessful. When he returned to Cincinnati in 1854, the prestige of his program was greatly diminished, especially next to the renewed vigor of the Eclectic Medical Institute. This was due, in part, to a precipitous lack of training manuals that reflected the Thomsonian/Physio-medicalist perspective on therapeutics, which could thereby distinguish and promote its cause. It was also due, however, to Curtis’ insistence on graduating students who had failed the program, much to the annoyance of William Cook, the Dean of the college. William Cook finally quit Curtis’ school in a fit of frustration, and opened a new college called the Physio-Medical Institute in 1859, taking much of the faculty with him. Curtis continued such questionable tactics well after his school’s charter expired in 1869, offering to sell a diploma for $18 to students who failed to graduate from Cook’s Physio-Medical Institute. Although Curtis began his career as one the foremost supporters and innovators in the physiomedical tradition, by the end of his career, Curtis had done irreparable harm to the cause of herbal medicine.

The basic approach of Thomsonism however, continued to live on and inspire many practitioners, particularly in the work of William Cook. While he administered the program at the Physiomedical Institute in Cincinnati, Cook assumed editorship of the Physio-Medical Recorder (formerly the Botanico-Medical Recorder, edited by Alva Curtis) and authored the Physio-Medical Dispensatory. With this latter publication, Cook enhanced the original Thomsonian list of about seventy medicinal plants to over 500, becoming the official materia medica of the physiomedical tradition.

Cook’s break with Alva Curtis in 1859 however, would occur at a difficult time in American history. Despite an expected enrollment of forty students for the fall semester in 1862, the Confederate victory at Bull Run set many young men to uniform, and the resulting loss of manpower resulted in widespread financial gloom. During the course of the civil war physiomedicalism took a back seat to Regular medicine, despite Cook’s complaints that Regular physicians with only one semester under their belt were given commissions instead of botanic physicians with years of experience. All soldiers were forced to submit to Regular medicine, despite the fact that many believed in medical reform. This was in contrast to the Confederate army, which allowed the practice of both Regular medicine as well as more sectarian forms of healing.

Classes at Cook’s Physiomedical Institute resumed in 1863, and despite opposition by the Ohio Medical College of Regular physicians, physiomedical students continued to have unfettered access to the Cincinnati Hospital, where students could attend lectures and observe surgeries. Cook continued administering the program in Cincinnati until 1885, when after a series of internal disputes with the appointed trustees of the college, as well as Cook’s belief that in order for physiomedicalism to survive, it needed to be fostered in a larger center, Cook moved the college to Chicago.

Chicago however already had a school of herbal medicine: the Physio-Medical College of Indiana, founded by George Hasty, a graduate of Cook’s college in Cincinnati in 1860 (Haller 1997, 78). Chicago was a big city however, and despite an uneasy tension that settled between the two schools, Chicago soon became one of the most important centers for physiomedical training. Both schools offered four years of training, which included at a complete exposition of the theory and practice of physiomedicalism, as well as training in anatomy and surgery. For unknown reasons, Cook would later open a rival college to his Physiomedical Institute in 1897, called the Chicago College of Medicine and Surgery. Together, these three schools were the apex of physiomedical training in North America, and a Mecca for aspiring students well into the early 1900’s.

Despite the academic rigor of the physiomedicals, and unlike Cincinnati, Regular physicians were able to maintain their stranglehold over the teaching hospitals in Chicago throughout this period. This was an important coup for the Regulars: emergent techniques in patient care such as diagnostic laboratory testing were inaccessible to the physiomedicals. Later, under the auspices of the Indiana State Board of Health, the AMA organized the Council on Medical Education, which found the physiomedical colleges of Chicago deficient in clinical training. Despite the protestations of the physiomedicals that the very reason for this was the AMA’s monopoly over the hospital system, the physiomedicals would continue to feel the carpet being pulled from beneath their feet.


The practice of physiomedicalism

With the scientific discoveries of the 18th and 19th centuries, the medical sciences increasingly adopted a mechanistic conception of the body, and indeed, of all life. These early medical scientists believed that all activities of the body were subject to the same physical and chemical laws that had been recently developed, and that the body was essentially a machine comprised of lifeless constituents. The Physiomedicalists however, wholly rejected such a conception of the body, and continued to embrace and build upon Thomson’s conception of the “innate heat,” which became synonymous with the “vital force.”

Central to the practice of physiomedicalism was the conception of the healing power of nature, vis medicatrix naturae. Thus all medicaments given by Physiomedicalist physicians were intended to restore this vital capacity, not diminish it, as was the end result of mercury administration and blood letting. These remedies were termed sanative or restorative remedies, which not only assisted the activity of the vital force, but helped to sustain it. Rather than imparting any special or intrinsic power to the body, as is the Chinese and Indian conception of restorative remedies like Ginseng (Panax ginseng) or Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), Physiomedicalists believed that sanative remedies simply modified the vital force to promote a favorable change in the body, such as the elimination of “morbid wastes” and the proper digestion and assimilation of nutrients.

While the same pharmacies that supplied the Regular physicians also carried a variety of botanic remedies, Physiomedicalists preferred to buy their remedies from dealers that specialized in herbal medicine for fear of adulteration. Initially, Samuel Thomson and Sons provided the bulk of the remedies on the market, but this was soon augmented by several herbal companies, including Godfrey Meyer and Ward Sears (Haller 1997, 96-97). The early Physiomedicalists took great pride in ensuring that their patients had access to the freshest and best quality herbal remedies around, but following the decline of Thomsonism, fewer and fewer herbal pharmacies remained to service them. By the mid to late 1800’s Physiomedicalists increasingly depended upon the Eclectic druggists, most notably the Lloyd Brothers of Cincinnati, but also from firms that are recognizable today, including Parke, Davis and Co., as well as Eli Lilly of Indiana (Haller 1997, 97). Nonetheless, many Physiomedicalists were uncomfortable with this trend, especially when the great Eclectic John King initiated a relentless pursuit of “resinoids,” a class of “constituents” first derived from Mandrake (Podophyllum peltatum), which King figured to be the ultimate medicinal substance. As a result, many Physiomedicalists lost faith in the pharmaceutical companies, instead collecting and preparing their remedies themselves.

Of the more important debates in medicine that occurred during the latter part of the 19th century was the research of Robert Koch, who devised a method of identifying bacteria, and established the bacterial cause of many infectious diseases, including anthrax, tuberculosis, and cholera. Despite some early confusion between the terms “bacteria” and “virus” Regular medicine rapidly embraced his work and applied it to the practice of medicine. Taking the lead from Edward Jenner’s smallpox vaccine, researchers developed bacterial antitoxins, which, while neutralizing the effect of the bacterial toxins, did little to actually treat the infection itself. Based on these middling results, Physiomedicalists rejected such theories, especially the elder among them, who referred to Samuel Thomson’s success in the treatment of such “bacterial” disease as cholera. To the Physiomedicalists, disease remained a manifestation of some “wrong of life,” not specific etiological agents like little “bugs.” Nonetheless, the burgeoning interest in bacteriology presented an important challenge to the Physiomedicalists, especially if they wanted to continue to learn and work in a hospital environment. Eventually, many of the Physiomedicalists did come around to accepting the tenets of bacteriology, but rather than a wholesale acceptance of bacteria as a cause, they continued to believe that bacterial infection represented some disturbance of the vital capacity of the body.

Eclectic medicine and homeopathy

When Wooster Beach opened his school of reform medicine at Worthington College in 1830, it looked as though he was the undisputed torchbearer for medical reform in the United States. But when the proceeds of a grave-robbery were found lying on the dissection table at the college in 1839, the school lost its charter and Beach’s ambitious plans were dashed. Struggling against all odds, Beach and the faculty gathered themselves together and founded a new school in Cincinnati in 1843 called the Eclectic Medical Institute.

While Beach and his supporters preached medical reform, the guiding principles and practices of Eclecticism were too similar to Regular medicine to really be considered reform. From the inception of the reform medical school at Worthington College, through to its relocation in Cincinnati as the Eclectic Medical Institute, the guiding principle or practice was the “doctrine of substitution.” This meant that where a Regular physician might indicate a bleeding, such as in fever, an Eclectic or reform physician would cord and bind the patient’s limbs to inhibit the circulation of blood, to prevent the loss of the vital force. Similarly, instead of using calomel to “touch the liver” an Eclectic or reform physician would employ drastic vegetable cathartics such as Mandrake root (Podophyllum peltatum) to the same effect. While using these approaches however, Eclectic physicians also borrowed liberally from the Thomsonian and folkloric traditions represented by Beach’s teacher Jacob Tidd, all the while maintaining an appearance very similar to the Regular doctors. Based on their practices, Eclecticism was criticized on both sides of the medical divide, especially by the Thomsonians who saw the Eclectic physician as little more than a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

With the opening of Alva Curtis’s Botanico-Medical College in Cincinnati about the same time as the Eclectic Medical Institute, there was stiff competition for students. To further this humiliation, many graduates of the Eclectic Institute renounced Eclecticism, some, such as William Cook, returning to the Thomsonian fold, and others embracing the newly imported system of homeopathy. When the Civil War broke out in 1861 the Eclectic Medical Institute was on its last legs.

The legacy of John Scudder

At this desperate juncture an Eclectic physician named John M. Scudder stepped in and took over the Eclectic Medical Institute in 1864, saving it from impending ruin. He straightened out the finances and put together an admirable coterie of instructors, including John King, who later authored the monumental King’s American Dispensatory, the most important of any materia medica in the North America. Scudder was, by all acknowledgements, a man of rare abilities, and unlike the early reformers of the Eclectic movement, he lacked the pugnacious and rebellious attitude that raised the ire of the Regular doctors. Although some of the changes that Scudder brought to Eclectic practice were initially ridiculed, within a few years all Eclectics had pretty much adopted his methodologies. His status among later Eclectics was legendary.

Early on in his practice, Scudder was particularly influenced by John Brown, a Scottish physician who nearly a century before had theorized that the phenomenon of life manifests itself as stimulation. According to Brown, disease could thus be broadly classified as a state of either excessive or deficient stimulation, what he termed sthenic and asthenic states, respectively. For diseases of excess, or sthenic conditions, Brown recommended the typical procedures of bleeding, fasting, and cathartic drugs that characterized Regular practice. For diseases of deficiency, or asthenic conditions, which for Brown comprised 97% of all diseases, stimulation of the vital processes was the primary remedy (Wilder 1904, 242). Harnessing Brown’s concept, Scudder added the concept of “specific medicines,” the idea that a specific, well-defined disease state could be successfully treated by a specific remedy. Although the origin of this term lay in the homeopathic system proposed by Samuel Hahnemann, Scudder’s concept was somewhat different. Unlike Hahnemann’s conception of a specific remedy, which was correlated to a specific symptom, Scudder used the term “specific” to refer to a remedy that could be used to correct a specific set of symptoms that represented a particular “wrong of life.” Later, this concept would be introduced into homeopathic practice. Scudder was roundly criticized however, and especially so by William Cook, who stated that the notion of specific medicines “is an old Physio-Medical doctrine, that remedies should be adapted to the work at hand; and the more exactly they are thus adapted, the better” (Wilder 1904, 681). Indeed, if we look at how the Eclectics used Lobelia as a specific remedy, we might have few complaints from Samuel Thomson, despite the occasional obtuseness of the medical terms:

“Fullness of tissues, with full veins and full arterial flow; full labored and doughy pulse, the blood current moving with difficulty; short, labored breathing; sense of suffocation; dyspnea with precordial oppression; pain in chest of a heavy, sore, or oppressive character; pulmonary apoplexy (full dose); mucous accumulations in the bronchi; dry croupal cough, with scant over-secretion; asthmatic seizures; short lancinating pain radiating from heart to left shoulder and arm; spasmodic muscular contraction; muscular rigidity; infantile convulsions from irritation of the bowels, or from respiratory obstruction; hysterical convulsion; rigid os uteri with thick doughy unyielding rim; perineal and vaginal rigidity during labor; angina pectoris (full dose).”
– H.W. Felter, in the Eclectic Materia Medica, Pharmacology and Therapeutics, 1922

And yet, Scudder’s use of specific medicines did differ from physiomedical practices, most notably, in his use of small, often diluted doses. In this manner, Scudder truly represented the Eclectic ideal, employing essentially the same rationale of use for many botanicals as the physiomedicalists, but sometimes adopting homeopathic dosing strategies. In many ways Scudder was the inheritor of the Samuel Thomson’s emphasis upon empiricism, and while remaining true to the Hippocratic principle of “do no harm,” he experimented with methods from several different schools of medicine, especially homeopathy.

Fundamental to the concept of homeopathy is the concept of potentization, which is mutually supported by the homeopathic similum that “like cures like.” While both these principles were features of the shamanic practices of ancient cultures such as India, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, it is Samuel Hahnemann that rediscovered and introduced them back into Western medical practice

When the German-born Hahnemann began practicing medicine in 1779, his methods were typical of Regular medicine, with an emphasis upon the use of toxic mineral compounds. After noting the desperate effects of these toxic remedies he was duty-bound to prescribe as a medical doctor, Hahnemann began to lose any faith in Regular medicine. In 1789, while translating William Cullen’s materia medica into German, he noted that the author had mentioned that Quinine bark (Cinchona spp.) cured malarial fever by inducing the a fever similar to the disease itself. Hahnemann decided to test Cullen’s hypothesis himself, and ingested Quinine until he noticed that a slight fever had been induced. Although Hahnemann only noted this event in passing, it would later form the inspiration and the initial evidence to support his system of homeopathy. (Wood 1992, 40)

Although Hahnemann was an expertly trained physician, he refused to practice according to the principles of Regular medicine, and spent several years in a rather impoverished condition, with a large family to support. Hahnemann spent these years investigating alternatives to Regular medicine, experimenting with lose doses of toxic substances, noting that in many cases that the more dilute the remedy was, the more effectively it acted to resolve the condition. Hahnemann also began to note that specific remedies were closely tied to specific symptoms. Inspired thus, Hahnemann began to use these specific remedies in diluted form. His experiences with Quinine affirmed a developing belief within him that an agent that produced the same specific physiological symptoms as the disease itself could be used to resolve those same symptoms in a patient. This would become the basis of Hahnemann’s similum, or Law of Similars.

As already mentioned, the law of similars and the concept of potentization are integral to the practice of homeopathy. Remedies are potentized by subjecting a material to a series of systematic dilutions and succussions (forceful shakings). Potencies in homeopathic medicine are designated by the combination of number and a letter (e.g. 6X). The number refers to the number of dilutions the tincture has undergone, and the letter refers to the proportions used in each dilution, as well as the number of succussions the vial of solution undergoes in each successive stage (the Roman ‘X’ numeral means ’10’, and ‘C’ means ‘100’). If for example we wish to prepare a 6X potency, one part of a mother tincture or mineral solution is combined in a vial with nine parts of the carrier liquid, and succussed ten times, making a 2X solution. This process is repeated four more times, for a total of six series of dilutions and succussions, yielding a 6X potency. To make a 30C potency, one part of the material remedy would be combined with 99 parts of the carrier liquid and succussed 100 times in each of thirty steps. Hahnemann himself generally believed that no additional benefit would come from using potencies higher than 30C, but many of his followers continued to experiment with even higher potencies, and a schism erupted within the homeopathic movement, between those who used low and those who used high potencies.

Homeopathy, like physiomedicalism, revolutionized health care practices in North America, gaining many adherents, particularly among the intelligentsia of the major urban centers like New York and Chicago. As an eclectic, John Scudder had some training in homeopathy, and committed to the concept of empiricism, probably felt duty-bound to investigate homeopathy further. He slowly began to incorporate the concept of homeopathic dilutions in his practice, while at the same time, utilizing the rich variety of plant-based drugs instead of relying solely on the homeopathic form of toxic substances like mercury and arsenic. Although Scudder is characterized as a diplomat, it appears that he didn’t agree with the concept of the law of similars, but rather, emphasized the idea of the specificity of a remedy. This freed Scudder from the often dogmatic application of the similum, allowing him to focus instead on the relationship between a specific remedy and a specific disease. In 1870 Scudder published Specific Medication, offering a radical departure from conventional Eclectic practices, influenced by physiomedicalism and homeopathy alike.

Scudder followed Specific Medication with Specific Diagnosis in 1874, a text emphasizing that all disease states and the signs and symptoms derived from them could be understood with a simple, but highly specific application of the senses. Scudder exhorted his students to ask themselves, “when brought into contact with the sick, what do we feel, see, hear, smell, taste that differs from the normal condition” (Scudder 1874, 28). The proper study of the patient, thought Scudder, only occurred when the physician applied these skills, rather than the suspect knowledge gained through medical texts. “The man of educated and acute senses will be far superior to and has every advantage over the man who has not been thus trained and developed” (Scudder 1874, 32). In this monumental work, Scudder describes important techniques for distinguishing specific physical signs, such as the tongue, face, posture, voice, urine, and feces, that could provide clues as to the specific nature of the condition, and thus the corresponding specific medication. While Eclectic medicine is certainly a distinct practice in its own right, in many respects Scudder’s approach to assessment and treatment is remarkably similar to the methods of Traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda.

Eli G. Jones

Among the many physicians that Scudder inspired, there was perhaps no greater student of his eclectic and empirical spirit than Eli G. Jones. After graduating as a Regular from the Dartmouth Medical College in the 1870’s, Jones became quickly disillusioned with his training. Establishing himself early on as a “medical maverick,” Eli G. Jones set out on an enthusiastic study of what he termed the “five schools of medicine,” comprised of Eclectic, Physiomedical, Regular, Homeopathic, and Bio-chemic (i.e. tissues salts) medicine, practicing each of them exclusively for five years. After this twenty-five year experiment Jones assembled all of the knowledge he had gained from experimentation and practice and published his findings in his landmark work Definite Medication. Eli Jones would continue the work of John Scudder, blending together the practices of homeopathy and herbal medicine into a seamless and wholly practical approach to healing. Jones became one of the busiest practitioners in the United States, and a valuable resource for physicians of all schools, consulted on average about 2000 times a year by physicians with difficult cases (Jones 1989, iv). His only other published book, Cancer: Its Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment is arguably the most important text ever written on the subject of cancer and natural medicine. Among his other more important series of works is Reading the Eye, Pulse and Tongue for the Indicated Remedy, originally published in the Homeopathic Recorder (1915-18), and recently republished as a book.

The end of an era

With Scudder firmly at the helm of the Eclectic movement, scores of training institutes and Eclectic medical societies opened up across the United States and abroad, although Scudder was, at least initially, both skeptical and cautious of these new developments. Scudder was afraid that this burgeoning interest would dilute Eclectic training, as he felt that there weren’t enough properly trained practitioners to fulfill the demand. The cause of Eclectic medicine however was far from secure, and by the late 1890’s Regular physicians still outnumbered Eclectics by a factor of seven. At about this time the American Medical Association (A.M.A.) was formed, and proved to be a powerful lobby for Regular medicine, even grand fathering some Eclectic and Homeopathic physicians into the fold. In the face of this bold move by the Regulars, the majority of Eclectic, Homeopaths, and Physiomedicalist practitioners continued to argue amongst themselves, oblivious to what would prove to be their real enemy.

Part of the function of the A.M.A. was to protect the interests of Regular medicine, while at the same time discrediting other medical approaches such as homeopathy and Eclectic medicine. Ever since Dr. French went after Thomson in 1809, the practitioners of Regular medicine had steadily lost ground to the medical reformists, struggling for a way to regain control of their monopoly. Their answer came in 1910, with the publication of the Flexner Report.

Funded initially by the Carnegie Foundation, Flexner was asked to do a major study of all the medical schools in the United States and Canada. In the succeeding eighteen months Flexner visited each of the 155 medical colleges in both countries and attempted to grade them. Flexner was appalled with what he found, finding most of the schools lacking in what he thought were the most basic requirements. The one “bright spot” however was Johns Hopkins, which also happened to be his alma mater. His recommendations were straightforward: schools should be modeled after John Hopkins. Those schools that had potential should be provided with additional funding, and those that didn’t, according to Flexner’s rather subjective criteria, ought to be extinguished.

When Flexner’s report hit the media it created an uproar, and its effect was to undermine public confidence in medical education, resulting in the eventual closure of almost half of the existing medical schools in the U.S. and Canada. Concurrently, the AMA lobbied hard for changes to the medical curriculum, and those schools that didn’t accept the new tenets of biomedicine were denied state funding. This included all of the Eclectic, Physiomedical and Homeopathic schools, which only 50 years before were enthusiastically supported by government, if for no other reason than these systems of healing were highly effective. In this environment, Regular medicine flourished, perhaps no less so than John Hopkins University, which received an endowment of $1.5 million from the Rockefeller foundation shortly after the publication of Flexner’s report.

Flexner’s obvious bias towards Regular medicine, which at that time was undergoing a kind of revitalization by research into synthetic drugs, fit nicely with the modus operandi of John D. Rockefeller. At that time, Rockefeller had the world market in oil products pretty much monopolized, and his Standard Oil Company was a natural to supply the crude petroleum needed to manufacture the chemical drugs religiously embraced by a new generation of Regular physicians. The Rockefeller group would also later become financially involved with several major drug companies, thereby directly profiting from the new medicine it supported and helped create. The amount of money tossed around by the Rockefeller Foundation to support this new evolution of Regular medicine is hard to imagine. At a time when people were earning between four and five dollars per week, the Rockefellers gave away millions in “philanthropy,” much of it targeted to support the dominance of “modern medicine.”

After the Flexner Report, the once defiant and now highly sophisticated systems of healing that had risen in opposition to 200 years of bloodletting and mercury were in tatters. Political agendas, media sensationalism, and intense scrutiny turned the grassroots against these medical heretics. Deprived of state funding and struggling to get by on tuition fees, the last of physiomedical colleges in Chicago were closed down by 1909, and while continuing the struggle for a few more years, the Eclectic Medical College of Cincinnati closed its doors in 1939.
For more than three hundred years herbal medicine played a pre-eminent role in health care delivery in North America. Initially this was out of practicality: colonists had few resources, and were grateful for the little bit of First Nations medicine they had learned, supplemented with old-fashion “Grandma” herbal medicine the colonists wives brought with them. As the colonies expanded however, an increasingly allopathic approach to medicine began to dominate, especially in the burgeoning cities. With the Enlightenment of Alexander Pope and the Age of Reason, scientific adventurers found new vistas in inorganic chemistry and biology. Many of their discoveries would shake the foundation of the way people looked at the world, and hence, an increasingly cynical view of the old humoral theories of Graeco-Roman medicine. In rejecting Galen and Hippocrates however, the struggling new medicine would find itself without much in the way of treatment options, and perhaps inevitably, it continued to rely on basic Graeco-Roman approaches to disease. Mercurial compounds borrowed from the Arabs, used with some success in syphilis, increasingly filled the void left by a vegetable-based pharmacopoeia, discarded along with the other “useless” learning of the ancients. And despite the early advances in anatomy and William Harvey’s accurate concept of a circulatory system, medicine expanded the use of blood-letting, seemingly oblivious to the very real empirical evidence that should have limited such techniques. The pinnacle of this was Professor Benjamin Rush, M.D., who proclaimed in defiant response to the time-Hippocratic maxim vis medicatrix naturae, that nature was nothing more than a “squalling cat.”

In the face of such medical arrogance, grassroots opposition rose up in likes of Samuel Thomson. His approach based entirely on empirical observation, Thomson experimented with and organized an increasingly diverse pharmacopoeia based on herbal medicines. Although he found it difficult to sustain his family on the meager income generated by his early attempts at herbal doctoring, and despite the vicious attacks of the medical profession, Thomson persevered, and reaped the reward of the widespread sale of his patent. Thomson’s system was enthusiastically embraced by a desperate populace, poisoned and exhausted from the years of calomel purges and unnecessary blood-letting. This interest soon manifested itself in a desire by some of the more intellectual supporters of Thomson to see his system administered by college-trained botanic physicians. Thomson however was vehemently opposed to any such training, and along with his increasingly victimized attitude, fostered a schism within the botanico-medical movement: those that preferred that Thomson’s system remain a kind of informal, grassroots approach to healing, and those that advocated academic training. Despite his opposition, Thomsonian-style medical colleges soon popped up all over North America, most notably Alva Curtis’ Botanico-Medical Institute in Cincinnati, and later, Cook’s Physiomedical Institute. Early on in the cause of medical reform, Thomson was joined by Dr. Wooster Beach and his students, and although both were galvanized in their opposition to Regular medicine, their progeny persisted in arguing and fighting amongst themselves. In the end, this more or less constant infighting allowed Regular medicine to fortify political opinion against these medical heretics, and by the turn of the century, the cause of medical reform seems to have been run off the rails.

Despite its relatively short history, the systems of healing that rose up in opposition to Regular medicine represent an important source of knowledge for modern clinical herbalists. Freed from the shackles of humoral medicine, these practitioners based their practices on nothing more than empirical observation, and in so doing, developed a system of practice, including diagnostic and assessment techniques, that are the basis of modern clinical herbal medicine. Although sometimes cloaked in the obtuse and quaint prose of the 18th and 19th centuries, the works of Thomson, Culbreth, Cooke, Beach, Scudder, King, Lloyd and Jones are prerequisite reading to those that wish to evolve their healing art to a high level of practice.

We know, of course, that herbal medicine survived the Flexner Report, as it will likely continue to survive as it has since time immemorial. This weedy nature of the herbalist species has continued to persist beyond the apparent dominance of biomedicine, reflected in the 20th century works of Priest and Priest (Herbal Medication), Jethro Kloss (Back to Eden), and John Christopher (School of Natural Healing). Despite being ignored by modern medicine for almost 75 years, herbal medicine is again making inroads into the practice of medicine, not only as an alternative, but also as a complement. In the short term however, herbal medicine will likely remain, in North America at least, a “back-woods” profession. But rather than being a derogatory statement, herbalists should probably embrace such descriptions, because it is in the forest and fields, amongst the wild plants, that every herbalist draws their strength: from the power of the earth.

Works cited

Griggs, Barbara. 1981. Green Pharmacy: A History of Herbal Medicine. London: Jill Norman and Hobbhouse.
Haller, John. 2000. The People’s Doctor: Samuel Thomson and the American Botanical Movement. Carbondale IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
⎯⎯. 1997. Kindly Medicine: Physiomedicalism in America. Kent, OH: Kent State University.
Jones, Eli G. 1989. Reading the Eye, Pulse, and Tongue for the Indicated Remedy. Wade Boyle, ed. East Palestine: Buckeye Naturopathic Press
Lazarou, J., Pomeranz, B and Corey, P. 1998. Incidence of Adverse Drug Reactions in Hospitalized Patients: A Meta-analysis of Prospective Studies. JAMA. 2279:1200-1205
Scudder, John. 1874. Specific Diagnosis: A Study of Disease, with Special Reference to the Administration of Remedies. Reprint 1994. Sandy: Eclectic Medical Publications.
Thomson, Samuel. 1841. The Thomsonian Materia Medica. 13th ed. Albany: J. Munsell
⎯⎯. 1825. A Narrative of the Life and Medical Discoveries of Samuel Thomson. Boston: E.G. House
Wilder, Alexander. 1904. History of Medicine. Agusta, Maine: Maine Farmer
Wood, Matthew. 1997. The Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants as Medicines. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.
⎯⎯. 1992. Vitalism: The History of Herbalism, Homeopathy, and Flower Essences. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.