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Of herbal medicine, a “doctor” named Samuel Thomson, and a sure cure for almost everything…
June 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 4
The pathos of this appeal appears to have had little effect, for rivals continued to publish books written along Thomsonian lines, and to sell Thomsonian medicines without cutting Thomson in on the profits. Competition was probably inevitable once Thomson’s system caught on, but Thomson appears to have swelled the ranks of his competitors by the way he treated his associates. A homely man, with a wide, thin-lipped mouth and deep-set eyes, Thomson was once admiringly described, by the author of a pamphlet called “The Steam Doctor’s Defense,” as “a peasant from the wild wood shade and isolated scenery of Alstead.” According to E. G. House, who claimed to have helped Thomson write his New Guide to Health , and who later wrote a book of his own called The Botanic Family Friend , Thomson was “an honest man and naturally possessed a good heart.” But House also noted that while Thomson was kind to his patients, he had an “uncharitable and morose disposition” and, in his business dealings, had come “under the entire influence of what seem to be his ruling passions, avarice and jealousy.” Of the hundreds of agents Thomson had appointed over the years, House wrote, there was “not one as far as our knowledge extends, but what he has denounced as dishonest and unfaithful, and has done all in his power to injure them.”
Even followers of Thomson who had no intention of writing books on botanic medicine often came to share House’s opinion of their leader. When Thomsonians met in Baltimore in 1834 at their third annual convention, a sympathetic historian has written, there were “heart-burnings smouldering in the bosoms of many. … There was a disposition to resent the claims of Dr. Thomson himself to be the umpire of what was genuine and what was heterodox in the views of others. He was dictatorial of temper and jealous of every individual differing from him or disposed to question his ascendancy.”
The collapse of Thomsonianism was also hastened by the insistence of many of the ablest and most energetic Thomsonians, in the face of Samuel Thomson’s angry disapproval, that the movement must have medical schools of its own. Some of the heretics were no doubt sincerely persuaded that even the relatively simple rules laid down by Thomson were best applied by practitioners who knew something about physiology and anatomy. “The time is not yet come for every man to be his own physician . …” the Southern Botanic Journal noted. “As well might you endeavor to make every man his own merchant, his own mechanic, his own lawyer or his own preacher.” It is unlikely, however, that Thomson’s rebellious followers were moved entirely by concern for their patients. They were also convinced that until they had schools of their own, Thomsonian practitioners would be looked down on by many Americans as ignorant root-and-herb doctors.
Thomson’s chief adversary in the fight over the founding of a school was a man named Alva Curtis, who had taken up herbal medicine while teaching at a girls’ school in Richmond, Virginia. In 1831, after indiscreetly letting it be known that he was an abolitionist, Curtis had been fired from his job and had moved to Columbus, Ohio, where, three years later, he had become the editor of the most influential of the Thomsonian journals, the Thomsonian Recorder . Soon afterward, braving Thomson’s wrath, he founded the country’s first school of botanic medicine, the Literary and Botanical-Medical Institute of Ohio.
In 1838, at the seventh annual Thomsonian convention, held that year in Philadelphia, Thomson, in effect, excommunicated Curtis, along with his adherents, one of whom was characterized by a spokesman for Thomson as “that ineffable nuisance, that notorious drunken sot, Dr. Draper.” The excommunicants, who seem to have been in the majority, thereupon joined together, under Curtis’ leadership, to form the Independent Thomsonian Society. Thomson tried to rally his forces by founding a new association, the United States Thomsonian Society, which held one convention, in New York, in 1840. But it showed no further signs of life, and its decease was soon followed by that of Samuel Thomson himself, who died of unspecified causes, in 1843, at the age of seventy-four. According to Nathaniel S. Magoon, a Bostonian who nursed Thomson in his last illness, the old herb doctor’s belief in his own medicines never wavered. “Fanatically zealous in his cause,” Magoon reported in the Botanico-Medical Recorder , ”… he passed from life heroically partaking of lobelia, enemas, and the recognized Thomsonian syrups, teas, etc.”
Within a few years after Thomson’s death even practitioners who stuck closely to his system of therapeutics no longer cared to invoke his name. Curtis and his followers, perhaps believing that they could achieve true respectability only by disowning the unlettered farmer who had set them on the path of botanic medicine, soon dropped the name Independent Thomsonians, choosing instead to call themselves Botanico-Medicals or Physio-Medicals.