- Historic Sites
Of herbal medicine, a “doctor” named Samuel Thomson, and a sure cure for almost everything…
June 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 4
A certificate, or “right,” cost twenty dollars, and with it the purchaser got written instructions in the principles of Thomsonian medicine. At first these instructions were contained in The Medical Circular , a pamphlet that Thomson had drafted while lying on the floor of his Newburyport jail cell. Later, however, each purchaser of a right got a copy of the New Guide to Health . To push the sale of his rights, Thomson appointed regional agents—at one time there were forty-one in Ohio alone—who traveled about in wagons loaded not only with copies of Thomson’s book, but also with lobelia, cayenne, bayberry, poplar bark, and other staples of Thomsonian medicine.
The country’s regular doctors could not stop people from swallowing herbal teas, or giving each other herbal enemas. But they did for a time make it hard for anyone to earn his living as a Thomsonian practitioner. “Every medical society in [New York] became virtually a police station, to which resorted spies and informers to communicate evidence for prosecutions,” one historian has written. “Many [botanic] practitioners were arrested and fined, many were fined and imprisoned for two months.”
The Thomsonians proved, however, to be formidable lobbyists. The New York legislature, for example, could scarcely ignore Samuel Thomson’s son John when he arrived at the capitol in Albany with a pro-Thomsonian petition ninety-three feet long that he had personally trundled up State Street in a wheelbarrow. Moreover, the Thomsonians had a big edge over the regular doctors in that their arguments could so easily be elevated to a lofty patriotic plane. Thus Job Haskell, a leading champion of the Thomsonians in the New York legislature, charged that the law prohibiting botanic physicians from accepting fees was an insult to American democracy. “Intrinsic merit, sir,” he proclaimed, “is the only qualification which ought to be required of any man to entitle him to practice physic or surgery; it is the only qualification necessary to carry a man from the humblest station under our republican government to the presidential chair.” Warming to his work, Haskell spoke feelingly of “the groans and shrieks of the millions who have been destroyed by the lancet and mineral medicines,” and gave it as his opinion that “if the awful sounds could burst upon this hall, that law [penalizing botanic practitioners] would be swept with indignation from your statute book. …” In the end, such rhetoric was too much for the doctors to withstand, and in state after state, including New York in 1844, all laws regulating the practice of medicine were repealed.
Yet, in the very hour of Thomson’s victory over the medical profession, the movement he had founded was beginning to fall apart. One reason was that the patent Thomson had obtained proved ineffective in keeping competitors from stealing his stuff. Other herb doctors, including several former disciples of Thomson’s, wrote books offering instruction in modified versions of the Thomsonian system for a fraction of the cost of the New Guide . “Shall we not use the herbs of the field,” the anonymous author of The Improved American Family Physician wanted to know, “without paying Dr. Thomson, or any other man or person, for the use thereof… the sum of twenty dollars?”
Thomson, for his part, angrily accused his imitators not only of stealing his ideas, but of adulterating them as well. Purchasers of Thomsonian rights received a solemn warning that read, in part, “Hold no counsel or advice with … any who shall pretend to have made any improvement on my System of Practice, as I cannot be responsible for the effect of any such improvement. ‘Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.’”
Thomson was particularly upset by the ingratitude of some of his former lieutenants, and in 1832, when Thomsonians from all over the country met in convention in Columbus, Ohio, he dwelt on their treachery at some length. “To see persons with whom I have spent days, months, and even years, to instruct them in my hard-earned discoveries, come out against me,” he said, “pretending that they are the original discoverers of those things that I have taught them—claiming superiority over me—striving to eclipse the glory of my little star that they saw was beginning to shine, is in my opinion a work too scandalous and mean to pass over without some notice.”