Thomsonism and Ayurveda


As far as the modern clinical herbalist is concerned, the significance of Samuel Thomson and the reform he brought to health care during the 19th century is without question. A poor farmer with no education, Thomson challenged the practices of the college-trained doctors of his day with nothing other than his experience, conviction, and the wild plants that grew around him. In a few short years of self-sacrifice and perseverance, Thomson single-handedly created a thriving industry in North America, with hundreds upon thousands of people purchasing and practicing his patented system of medicine.

From a strictly anthropological perspective, Thomson’s incredible success can be seen as the culmination of several favorable factors that supported his ideas and enterprise. The United States that Thomson was born into was a young country, full of the ideals of Jeffersonian democracy, and with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which added some 2 million square kilometers to the country, there were seemingly limitless opportunities for expansion. Thomson’s ‘do-it-yourself’ approach to health care, which in large part made the professional physician obsolete, greatly appealed to the aesthetic of a citizenry that had been made aware of its power and was increasingly distrustful of those that withheld it from them.

But rather than simply rationalizing him as a product of this environment, Thomson’s devotion to the cause of health care reform, his ability to reach a great diversity of people, as well as his remarkable effectiveness as a practitioner, demonstrates that he was indeed a singular individual. In India, another is mentioned, named Dhanvantari, revered for rediscovering the practice of surgery, long after the people had forgot it. Traditional belief among Hindus is that Dhanvantari was an avatar of the god Vishnu: an incarnation of a divine agency, made manifest out of a great compassion for human suffering. As both a clinical herbalist and student of Ayurveda, I see a certain resonance between the myth of Dhanvantari and Thomson’s own life. Thomson too, rediscovered and promulgated a way of medicine that had been long forgotten by the people, and after it had been introduced, significantly raised the standard of the practice of medicine in 19th century North America. But beyond facile comparisons, with this paper I hope to show that the principles and practices of Thomsonism bear many remarkable similarities to Ayurveda, and that in fact they are the same form of medicine: a system of healing knowledge rooted in our sensuous relationship with the community of nature.

Sense and Sensibility

According to traditional Indian history, when disease and suffering began to afflict humanity, an accomplished sage named Bharadvaja volunteered among his peers to uncover the secrets of health and longevity. Bharadvaja traversed the rugged terrain of the Himalayan mountains to finally arrive at the court of Indra, king of the gods. Indra had learnt Ayurveda from a lineage of other gods, all of whom had learned it from Brahma, Lord of Creation. Indra told Bharadvaja that when Brahma awoke to create the universe, he remembered the teachings of Ayurveda. Once Bharadvaja had completed his study with Indra, he returned home, and presented this teaching to his disciples.

The story of Bharadvaja is told to all students as they begin their studies in Ayurveda, and while most probably wouldn’t spend too much time trying to justify it on historical grounds, many take it to mean that the practices of Ayurveda have existed, unchanged, since time immemorial. The suggestion that Brahma recalls Ayurveda before creating the universe however suggests a kind of knowledge that isn’t necessarily mediated by our intellect, something similar to what phenomenology calls ‘preconceptual experience.’

Thomson tells us in his memoirs that it had been his habit, as a child wandering the pastures in search of cows, to closely observe the wild plants that grew around him. At the age of four he discovered the powerfully acrid emetic properties of Lobelia, and would later take great delight in testing its properties on his unsuspecting playmates. By the age of five, Thomson’s rather severe father put him to work on the farm, but having been born with a clubfoot, the young boy found the work exceedingly difficult, and suffered from chronic hip and back pain. One of his few respites was an old woman named Benton who lived on a farm nearby, and served the local community as a root doctor.

Young Samuel would walk with the older woman as she gathered roots and herbs, asking her questions and observing her treatments. As a result, Thomson’s fascination with the local flora grew, and soon, as he states in his memoir, he was “… constantly in the habit of tasting everything of the kind I saw,” and having a good memory, “recollected the taste and use of all that [was] ever shown me by others, and like-wise all that I discovered myself” (Thomson 1825, 26-27).

In these formative years, Thomson had learned to rely upon his senses to determine what plants were medicine and what properties they contained. This reliance upon the senses has long been an important tool of traditional herbalists all over the world, and even remains an important diagnostic tool among European pharmacognoscists. In the Sankhya system of the Vedic sciences, it is said that all matter is formed from the tanmatras of smell (gandha), taste (rasa), sight (rupa), touch (sparsha), and hearing (shabda) (Gupta 1996, 55). Thus, according to the Sankhya system it is not matter that constitutes the universe but our perception of sense. This idea is related to the concept of maya, that each of us creates our reality based upon externally reinforced, self-developed illusions. By relying upon and emphasizing the importance of the senses in his work, Thomson echoes the transcendent perspective of the Sankhya system, which is fundamental to the theoretical structure of Ayurveda. Viewed in this light, Thomson’s anti-intellectual stance, criticized by many of his contemporaries such as Alva Curtis who wished to see herbal medicine become a regulated, licensed profession, contains an important warning for modern herbalism, which finds itself at similar crossroads. Today, as herbal educators, we train students to memorize the phytochemistry and pharmacology of medicinal plants, but are they taught to truly know the plant?

The Digestive Fire

In his book Kindly Medicine, John S. Haller Jr. suggests that both 19th century Regular medicine and Thomsonism operated on the same mechanistic premise: that the key to health lay in altering and controlling the body’s various secretions (1997, 16). But while this is arguably true, the net result of these two systems, especially where patients were concerned, was dramatically different. A key difference between Regular medicine and Thomsonism, apart from their respective materia medicas, is the description of an independent force called ‘vitality.’ Phrased in rather abstract terms by the later physiomedicalists, vitality was for Thomson the innate “heat ” of the body, which resided in the stomach (1835, 8). This notion parallels the Ayurvedic principle of agni, the deity of fire who resides principally in the amasaya, or stomach. Thomson stressed that the stomach was the foundation of health, “the depository from which the whole body is supported” (1835, 8). Similarly, Ayurveda places a premium upon the correct functioning of the amasaya, wherein agni “cooks” the ingested food to sustain the body (Srikanthamurthy 1994, 404-405). The loss of this bodily heat is called anujyoti, and is a matter of grave concern and a premonitory symptom of death (Sharma and Dash 1985, 577).

For both Thomsonism and Ayurveda, the archetypal disease is an affliction of the digestive power. Using the analogy of a wood-burning stove, Thomson explained that when the coals are too weak to ignite a proper burn, soot accumulates, clogs the stack, and prevents a proper draw that facilitates the circulation of heat (1835, 8). Thus it is an insufficiency of heat, or coldness, which is the primary cause of disease in Thomsonism. The manifestation of this disease is what Thomson called “canker,” observed as a “white feverish coat attached to the mucous membranes” (507, 1841). Those familiar with Ayurvedic diagnostic techniques will see this symptom as more or less synonymous with Kapha dosha.

In Ayurvedic terms, it is not only the weakness of the digestive fire which promotes canker, but, using Thomson’s analogy, the kind of fuel used to heat the stove. As anyone who has lived in the country can appreciate, some kinds of wood burn very poorly. This means that when food acts in opposition to the catabolic activity of heat, “the stomach becomes foul, so that the food is not well digested” (Thomson 1835,8). The product of poor digestion is called ama in Ayurveda, identical with what Thomson referred to as “putrefaction,” which is the result of canker (Thomson 507, 1841). Thomson states that when “putrefaction commences” and the “animal heat [is] not strong enough to overcome its progress, it will communicate with the blood, when death will end the contest between heat and cold” (Thomson 507, 1841). Similarly, when ama mixes with the blood (rakta) and lodges in the different tissues (dhatus) of the body, death is its ultimate result (Srikanthamurthy 1994, 127).

Expanding upon the Thomsonian idea that heat is the sole representative of vitality Ayurveda describes the existence of another component of the body called ojas. According the Vedic agni-somiya principle, ojas is the feminine counterpart to the masculine agni, representing nurturing, supportive, and pacifying characteristics. In contrast, agni destroys, exposes, and stimulates. Both of these principles are interdependent entities: ojas is derived from tissue (dhatu) metabolism, a process which is guided by a subset of agni called the dhatvagni. Once created, ojas circulates throughout the body to protect and sustain the dhatus and to serve the creation of life during reproduction. But ultimately, ojas will feed itself to agni, to extract the nutrients that feed the tissues, which in turn ensures the replenishment of ojas.

When either ojas is depleted or agni is weakened the eventual result is ama. Like ojas, ama bears heavy, cooling and moistening properties, but unlike ojas, nourishes itself at the expense of the body. When ojas is strong, the eyes are bright, the limbs have great energy and strength, digestion is good, and the mind and senses are sharp (Srikanthamurthy 1994, 164). In contrast, the presence of ama is recognized by symptoms such as fatigue, pain, bloating, irregular elimination, mucoid accumulations, a sense of heaviness and constriction, puffiness under the eyes, and problems with fertility (Srikanthamurthy 1994, 187; Lad and Frawley 1986, 42).

The Unity of Disease

The formation of ama or putrefaction is the prerequisite to disease in both Thomsonism and Ayurveda. The primary form of this disease is fever, or jvara. All diseases described in Ayurveda are more or less based upon the etiology and pathogenesis described in jvara. According to Ayurveda, fever occurs because ama (as Kapha) accumulates in the amasaya and blocks the channels (srotas) of the body (Srikanthamurthy 1995b, 12). Thomson too describes that it is when the “canker assumes the power” inside the stomach that fever results (Thomson 1835, 16). According to Ayurveda, when this congestion disrupts the labile force of Vata, agni (as Pitta) is pushed to the periphery of the body. The presence of ama also blocks the svedavaha srotas, or sudoriferous glands, and when the heat is forced outwards but cannot escape as sweat, the result is fever.

Ayurveda differentiates the symptoms of jvara according to the different doshas. Thus, the symptoms of Vataja jvara are irregular and labile in nature with sudden rises and decreases in body temperature, migrating body pain, dryness of the oral mucosa, constipation and abdominal distension, and frequent yawning (Srikanthamurthy 1995c, 7). Pittaja jvara displays symptoms of consistently high body temperature, insomnia, ulcers of the oral and nasal mucosa, burning sensations, delirium, and fluid eliminations of feces and catarrh with a yellowish discoloration (Srikanthamurthy 1995c, 7). Kaphaja jvara is recognized by symptoms of coldness with a mild rise in body temperature, lassitude and a sense of heaviness, nausea, coryza, indigestion, and whitish discolorations of the feces and mucus (Srikanthamurthy 1995c, 7). The symptoms of each kind of jvara may appear in association with other symptoms, and thus jvara can also manifest as a combination of any two or all three of the doshas.

Kenneth Zysk describes that in ancient India, jvara existed along side takman (yakshma), or consumption, as the archetypal form of disease (1998, 15). Those familiar with the ideas of 18th century Scottish physician John Brown will see that his idea of sthenic and asthenic conditions is more or less synonymous with jvara and takman, respectively. Simply stated, takman is the end result of jvara, in which the continual disturbance of agni and accumulation of ama results in the depletion of ojas and the vitality of the body (Srikanthamurthy 1995c, 42).

The Treatment of Disease

In the treatment of disease both Thomsonism and Ayurveda stress the importance of removing accumulated wastes that impair vitality. The basic Thomsonian approach was a series of treatments numbered one through five: No. 1 to enkindle digestion; No. 2 to raise the heat; No. 3 to clear obstruction; No. 4 to correct the secretions of the liver; and No. 5 to strengthen the body (Thomson 1841, 581-628). Taken as a whole, Thomson’s system bears remarkable similarity to certain aspects of Ayurvedic pancha karma and rasayana treatment.

The botanical inspiration for Thomson’s system were his early experiments with Lobelia, what he later used to enkindle the heat of the stomach, acting like “dry wood shavings” added to a fire (Thomson 1841, 507): dry, light, and easily consumed. This use of Lobelia closely parallels the Ayurvedic notion of dipana, an herbal action used to enkindle agni (Srikanthamurthy 1984, 17). Lobelia is such a strong stimulant to digestion however, that like a fuel added to a fire that causes the flames to shoot upwards, Lobelia may cause the fire of digestion to rise upwards and initiate emesis. Thomson used Lobelia in relatively large doses to take advantage of this property, to throw off the congestion of canker by emesis as well as restore heat to the stomach (Thomson 1835, 38). Many botanicals used by Ayurvedic physicians in emetic recipes in the treatment of fever also display this dipana activity, such as Madana fruit (Randia dumetorium). Madana fruit is reputed to be the safest of emetics; its hot, dry and light properties are comparable to Thomson’s description of Lobelia (Nadkarni 1976, 1048). The Ashtanga Hrdaya states that the fruits should be harvested just as they ripen in late spring, bundled in the sacred Kusha grass (Desmosthachya bipinnata), smeared with a layer of cow dung and concealed in a heap of grain, and allowed to ferment for eight days (Srikanthamurthy 1995b, 529-530). The fruits are then soaked in a decoction of Madhuyasti (Glycyrrhiza glabra) overnight, dried in the sun, and then powdered (Srikanthamurthy 1995b, 529-530). The powder is then administered with Pippali fruit (Piper longum), and honey or salt, followed by drinking warm water (Srikanthamurthy 1995b, 174).

For emetic therapy, or vamana, Ayurveda maintains a long list of conditions in which treatment should be avoided, such as in pregnancy or in the elderly, but also in conditions where ama has not ripened, and remains embedded in the dhatus. “Just as it is difficult to obtain the juice from an unripe fruit,” the Charaka samhita states, emetic therapies are to be used only when ama is in a stage of utklesha, or ripening. Ama is ripe for emetic therapy when it is located in the amasaya, initiating symptoms such as nausea and catarrh (Sharma and Dash 1988, 153).

Among the more important therapies to promote the ripening of ama are the purva karmas, or preparatory methods of snehana (oleation) and svedana (sweating) (Dash and Sharma 1988, 153). Thomson too was a resolute advocate of sweating therapies, believing that in many cases, his “system of practice… would… be insufficient to effect a cure” (1835, 20). Ayurveda expands upon this Thomsonian practice by the application of medicated oils, called taila, prior to sudation. Such oils protect the body from the high heat used in svedana treatment, and have an additional effect for the ripening and removal of ama. Examples of medicated oils used in ama conditions include Kottamchukadi taila and Bhrat Saindhavaya taila (Sahasrayoga, Tailaprakarana, 12; Bhaishajyaratnavali, Amavatadhikara, 157-15). Sometimes an oil is applied very warm, imparting an additional svedana activity, such as in pizzichil or pinda sveda.[i] After each snehana treatment the patient typically sits or lies inside a specially constructed chamber and is exposed to steam.

Thomson’s use of Capsicum spp. as his No. 2 to raise the natural heat of the body is identical with an herbal action in Ayurveda referred to as pachana. In fact, until Thomson discovered the utility of Capsicum, he used herbs such as Shunti (Zingiber officinalis) as his No.2, which is an important pachana remedy in Ayurveda (Thomson 1841, 594-597; Dash 1991, 133). Pachana herbs are those that “cook the undigested food,” thereby assisting in the removal of ama which allows the heat of the body to emanate from its seat in the amasaya (Srikanthamurthy 1984, 17).

Thomson’s No. 3 remedies such as Myrica cerifera, Nymphaea odorata, and Hamamelis virginica are all astringent remedies, to “scour the stomach and bowels, by removing the canker” (Thomson 1835, 54). This class of therapeutic agents evokes a herbal action in Ayurveda called grahi, which, while possessing both dipana and pachana properties, has an additional astringent property to “dry up the tissues and wastes of the body” (Srikanthamurthy 1984, 18). One herb from the Ayurvedic materia medica designated as grahi is Gajapippali fruit (Scindapsus officinalis), an herb with dry, light and warming properties (Srikanthamurthy 1984, 18; Nadkarni 1974, 964-965, 1117). Nadkarni states that this herb is specific to Kapha conditions, which as I have suggested, represent a set of signs and symptoms that are identical with the Thomson’s notion of canker.

Thomson’s No. 4 remedies, comprised of bitter-tasting botanicals such as Populus tremuloides, Berberis vulgaris and Chelone glabra were used to correct the secretions of the liver and gall bladder (Thomson 1841, 613-618). This class of remedies is very similar to the therapeutic regimen in Ayurvedic medicine called virechana, which is a treatment to Pitta and the organs with which it is associated, namely, the liver-gall bladder and small intestine. Purgation therapy was of course used widely by Regular physicians during Thomson’s day, but rather than to simply stimulate the liver (to diminish “arterial excitability”), Thomson’s No.4 remedies and virechana therapies are used to correct and restore the function of the liver. Several of the important virechana drugs used in Ayurveda, such as Haritaki (Terminalia chebula) and Amalaki (Emblica officinalis), are of great interest to both researchers and clinicians, not just for their hepatorestorative activity, but for their wide-ranging ability to support and regulate several aspects of physiological function (Sharma and Dash 1992, 65; Rege et al. 1999)

Vasti, or enema therapy, is an important aspect of pancha karma, and Thomson too relied upon “injections” to a great degree, although he used this technique primarily to promote diaphoresis in fever, and clear canker and inflammation from the bowel (1835, 22-23). While Ayurveda mentions the use of enemata in fever, it is used especially after virechana treatment to restore and pacify the function of Vata, whose seat is in the colon and lower pelvic organs (Srikanthamurthy 1995b, 194). Vasti therapy typically alternates between niruha, or decoction enema, with anuvasana, or oil enema. These two aspects of vasti therapy are used to tone and strengthen the bowel, as well as correct the function of Vata.

Lastly, Thomson used his No. 5 remedies to restore digestion and strengthen the body after his No. 4 remedies had been employed. The names that Thomson gave such remedies, such as the “Syrup for Weakly Patients” or the “Antidyspeptic Conserve,” (Thomson 1841, 707, 709), suggest that Thomson thought it necessary, especially in cases of chronic illness and debility, to restore the patient after treatment. This approach bears strong similarity with Ayurvedic rasayana treatment, which is used after pancha karma to rejuvenate the body. Thomson also used his No. 5 remedies as a general preventative to maintain health, much as rasayanas are used today in Ayurveda (Thomson 1835, 82-83). When compared to the relative sophistication of Ayurvedic rasayana treatment Thomson’s approach seems modest, especially in his choice of remedies such as Cherry pits (Prunus virginiana) as restorative agents. Such remedies would not rate high on a list of rasayanas considered by the Ayurvedic physician. If we remember however, that Thomson was solely concerned with the stomach, anything that restored normalcy to its function could be thought of a rejuvenative, and especially the pleasant and aromatic syrups he used as his No. 5. Nonetheless, Thomson and the later physiomedicalists would add several remedies to their materia medica, such as the herb Panax quinquefolium, which could more rightly be described as rasayana agent, used as a “tonic nervine” in cases of “debility” (Thomson 1841, 687).


While many claim it as their own, clinical herbalists today rarely practice the system of medicine that Thomson built around the emetic properties of Lobelia. In truth, herbalists had already begun to turn away from these practices as the movement was in decline by the late 19th century and the low dose orientation of the Eclectics began to dominate the field. This trend is now reinforced by the practice of modern medicine, which, having long since abandoned any pretense of modeling itself after Hippocrates or Galen, views such therapies as emesis or purgation as nonsensical and dangerous. Interestingly, it is from within the field of modern herbal medicine that Thomsonism has taken the most heat, dismissed by some as an outdated form of “heroic” intervention with underlying misogynous elements (Weed 1989, 51-57). Given that Thomson enjoyed considerable success with his methods however, in the treatment of everything from colds and flus, chronic degenerative disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, to highly contagious diseases such as cholera and tuberculosis, I believe that there is sufficient reason to undertake an empirical reassessment of Thomson’s methodologies. Since by in large Thomsonism is no longer practiced, the obvious similarities between it and Ayurveda suggests that practitioners experienced in pancha karma and rasayana therapy could prove to be a valuable resource in this endeavor.

[i] Pizzichil is performed by soaking a piece of linen into a bowl of very warm oil, before wringing it out over top of the patient. The focus of application may be on specific areas of the body, such as the hips or knees, or it may be a more generalized application. Pinda sveda is a technique that uses a ball of medicated boiled grains wrapped in linen. The ball as soaked in warm medicated oil just prior to application and rubbed on the body.


Dash, Bhagwan. 1991. Materia Medica of Ayurveda. New Delhi: B. Jain Publishers.
Frawley, David and Vasant Lad. 1986. The Yoga Of Herbs: An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine. Santa Fe, NM: Lotus Press.
Griggs, Barbara. 1981. Green Pharmacy: A History of Herbal Medicine. London: Jill Norman and Hobbhouse.
Gupta, L.P. 1996. Essentials of Ayurveda. Delhi: Chaukhamba Sanskrit Pratishthan
Haller, John S. Jr. 1997. Kindly Medicine: Physiomedicalism in America, 1836-1911. Kent, OH: Kent State University.
India. Ministry of Health and Family Planning. 1978. The Ayurvedic Formulary of India. Part 1. 1st ed. Delhi.
Nadkarni, Dr. K.M. 1976. The Indian Materia Medica, with Ayurvedic, Unani and Home Remedies. Revised and enlarged by A.K. Nadkarni. 1954. Reprint. Bombay: Bombay Popular Prakashan PVP.
Rege N.N. et al. 1999. Adaptogenic properties of six rasayana herbs used in Ayurvedic medicine. Phytother Res Jun;13(4):275-91
Sharma, R.K. and Bhagwan Dash. trans. 1992. Agnivesa’s Caraka Samhita (Text with English Translation and Critical Exposition based on Cakrapani Datta’s Ayurveda Dipika) Vol. 1 (Sutra sthana). 3rd ed. Varanasi: Chaukhambha Orientalia.
———. 1988. Agnivesa’s Caraka Samhita (Text with English Translation and Critical Exposition based on Cakrapani Datta’s Ayurveda Dipika) Vol. 3. Varanasi: Chaukhambha Orientalia.
———. 1985. Agnivesa’s Caraka Samhita (Text with English Translation and Critical Exposition based on Cakrapani Datta’s Ayurveda Dipika) Vol. 2. Varanasi: Chaukhambha Orientalia.
Srikanthamurthy, K.R. 1995a. trans. Vagbhata’s Astanga Hrdayam. vol. 3 (Uttara Sthana). Varanasi: Krishnadas Academy.
———. 1995b. Vagbhata’s Astanga Hrdayam. vol. 2 (Nidana, Chikitsa and Kalpasiddhi Sthana). Varanasi: Krishnadas Academy.
———. 1995c. Madhava Nidanam: Roga Viniscaya of Madhavakara. Varanasi: Chaukhambha Orientalia.
———. 1994. Vagbhata’s Astanga Hrdayam. vol. 1 (Sutra Sthana and Sharira Sthana). Varanasi: Krishnadas Academy.
———. 1984. Sarnagadhar-Samhita: A Treatise on Ayurveda. Chaukhambha Varanasi: Orientalia.
Thomson, Samuel. 1841. The Thomsonian Materia Medica. 13th ed. Albany
———. 1835. New Guide To Health; or Botanic Family Physician. Boston.
———. 1825. A Narrative of the Life and Medical Discoveries of Samuel Thomson. Boston.
Weed, Susun. 1989. Wise Women Herbal: Healing Wise. Woodstock, N.Y.: Ash Tree.
Zysk, Kenneth G. 1998. Asceticism and Healing in Ancient India. Vol. 2. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.