June 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 4
Of herbal medicine, a “doctor” named Samuel Thomson, and a sure cure for almost everything…
In the late 1820’s and 1830’s American physicians found themselves with a major rebellion on their hands. The rebels were their own patients, or ex-patients, and the rebel leader was a onetime New Hampshire farmer and itinerant herb-and-root doctor named Samuel Thomson, who had published, in 1822, a book called Thomson’s New Guide to Health; or, Botanic Family Physician.
On Thomson’s recommendation, hundreds of thousands of Americans were no longer calling in conventionally trained and licensed physicians when they were sick. Instead, they were either doctoring themselves according to the instructions contained in the New Guide to Health , or were consulting disciples of Thomson who had set themselves up in business as botanic healers.
It was Thomson’s passionate conviction that most physicians of the day were no better than torturers and murderers. Their chief crime against suffering humanity, he argued, was their insistence on dosing patients with “metallic” medicines, by which he mainly meant calomel, a widely used and horribly effective cathartic whose active ingredient was mercury. In Thomson’s view, the way to cope with illness was to administer certain herbal remedies—he particularly favored lobelia, a powerful emetic—and to put the patient in a steam bath to make him sweat. Thomson held that it was possible by using these methods to cure every disease known to man, from dyspepsia and croup to cancer and tuberculosis.
Thomson’s rebellion was launched at a time when American physicians had been trying, with some success, to enhance their status (and incomes) by putting the practice of medicine on a more professional footing. Before the Revolution, and for some time afterward, in most parts of America anyone with a mind to do so had been at liberty to treat sick people and to call himself a doctor. But in the early 1800’s the country’s “regular” physicians, led by graduates of the medical schools of Columbia, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania, set out to change this. At their behest, state after state established licensing requirements for physicians and imposed penalties on persons practicing medicine without a license. At the same time, new medical schools were founded in the South and West, and young men were entering the profession in such numbers as to assure, before many more years, an adequate supply of licensed physicians for all but the most remote and sparsely settled regions of the country.
The nation’s growing medical establishment began to react vigorously—and understandably—to the threat that Thomson posed to its members’ self-esteem and to their pocketbooks. His notions about medicine were denounced as at once laughable and dangerous. In a book called Humbugs of New-York a New York physician named David Meredith Reese expressed the prevailing view in medical circles when he dismissed Thomsonian practitioners as uneducated quacks, noting by way of proof that their principal remedies were commonly known “by the classical and euphonious names of screw augur! ram-cat! and hell-scraper! ” These names clearly point to the emetic action of lobelia, which was also known, for reasons that are not so clear, as “belly-my-grizzle.”
Reese went on to charge that if anyone was killing innocent patients, it was the Thomsonians, whose medicine, he explained, had “systematic arrangements for clandestinely murdering its victims” in infirmaries where patients were “taken care of on the Thomsonian plan, until they either run away … or are quietly buried.” (Thomson himself, early in his career, had been tried for the murder of one of his patients.) State and local medical societies called on the authorities to deal harshly with unlicensed practitioners, and some Thomsonians were actually thrown into jail.
But such tactics were unavailing. Between 1822 and 1839 the New Guide to Health went through thirteen editions and sold more than 100,000 copies. This was an astonishing total considering that the population of the United States in 1839 was less than seventeen million, and that a copy cost twenty dollars.
Thomsonians also founded, and supported with their subscriptions, some forty journals in which the theory and practice of Thomsonian medicine were expounded. Their pages were filled with stories of the miraculous healing powers of Thomsonian remedies. Typically these accounts told of patients who had been left for dead by their regular doctors—the latter were customarily referred to in terms like “these slick-tongued, high-minded, small-pill-bag, metallic gentry”—and had been restored to robust health within twenty-four hours after swallowing their first dose of belly-my-grizzle. In one variation of the formula it was reported that an old lady in Crawford County, Missouri, had polished off most of a bottle of tincture of lobelia under the mistaken impression that it was whiskey. “I thought I would die,” she was said to have told a local Thomsonian practitioner. “But sir, I did not die; for I commenced puking … and please God, sir, I have not had one hour’s sickness since.”
By the 1830’s Thomson was claiming three million followers. This was doubtless an exaggeration, but there were parts of the country where a very large percentage of the populace was taking steam baths and lobelia. They included Mississippi, whose governor gave it as his opinion in 1835 that half the people of his state were Thomsonians. In that same year, regular physicians in Ohio were said to have conceded that one out of three Ohioans had deserted to the enemy. And while steam doctors, as Thomsonian practitioners were often called, were most numerous in the South and West, they did a thriving business in some Eastern cities such as Boston, where it was estimated that by the late i Sao’s ten thousand of the town’s sixty thousand inhabitants had been won over by Thomson.
As the metallic gentry took pleasure in pointing out, Thomson’s ideas appealed most strongly to the poor and uneducated. But there were many exceptions. The noted Cincinnati physician Daniel Drake observed sadly in 1829 that the vogue for Thomsonian medicine “was not at present limited to the vulgar. Respectable and intelligent mechaniks, legislative and judicial officers, both state and federal, barristers, ladies, ministers of the gospel, and even some of the medical profession … have become its converts and puffers.”
Thomson’s ideas fitted in beautifully with the spirit of Jacksonian democracy. Self-educated and self-made, Thomson argued that a free people could well dispense not just with doctors, but with lawyers and ministers and all other specially educated and, in his view, parasitic professional castes. It was all right with him if someone who had carefully studied his New Guide to Health should choose to apply its teachings to the cure of disease in others. But he thought it was much better for people to learn how to cure themselves, and toward the end of his life he was deeply troubled because some of his followers, including his own son John, wanted to establish Thomsonian medical schools. Such schools, he feared, would spawn a new elite, and “the benefit of my discoveries will be taken from the people generally, and, like all other crafts, monopolized by a few learned individuals.”
But the egalitarian mood of the United States in the late iSzo’s and :83o’s does not alone explain the remarkable popularity of Thomson’s ideas. Quite apart from the way people had come to feel about bankers and lawyers, Americans had a specific—and justified—grudge against the medical profession. For this was the golden age of heroic medicine, when doctors were taught that it was their duty, at the first signs of illness, to attack it with harsh therapies—therapies that seldom did any good, and that were often far more unpleasant, and sometimes far more dangerous, than the illness itself.
One of the doctor’s most trusted weapons in combating disease was the lancet, which was commonly used in treating even the most trivial disorders. “I remember that a horse kicked me once as Dr. Colby was passing the house,” a survivor of the age of blood-letting wrote years later. “I was not injured much, yet mother called in the doctor, and he at once proceeded to bleed me—I presume on general principles.”
Bleeding did tend to reduce a fever. But it often did so at the price of a throbbing headache and an overwhelming feeling of weakness, and it seems to have had no other beneficial effects. Bleeding was also dangerous. Many doctors believed in letting the blood flow until the patient lost consciousness, and some patients lost their lives as well. Reminiscing in 1878 about medical practice in Ohio in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, a contributor to the Cincinnati Lancet and Clinic recalled “a neighboring physician who proposed to cure and did cure common intermittent [ i.e. , malaria] by blood-letting alone; he bled the patient till he was too weak to shake, and then the disease and the patient went off together.” Physicians in Thomson’s time also tormented patients by raising huge blisters on their bodies, breaking the blisters, and then irritating the resulting sores, a procedure that sometimes led to the development of ulcers and gangrene.
More widespread than either bleeding or blistering, and probably more dangerous as well, was the practice of stuffing sick people with calomel. Unpleasant even when taken in small quantities, in the huge doses favored by many doctors it often had terrible side effects on the patient’s mouth and salivary glands. “It is but the other day,” a Dr. G. C. Howard wrote in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal in 1835, “that I saw a case of gastroenteritis, in which calomel was pushed till the countenance exhibited a most frightful appearance, owing to the excessive swelling of the cheeks, lips, tongue … and throat, while the saliva flowed in streams.” Many doctors regarded these classic symptoms of mercury poisoning as hopeful signs that the drug was doing its work.
Howard, one of the few regular physicians who did not share the prevailing enthusiasm for calomel, went on to point out that patients who asked why they had to take the stuff did so at their peril. Their doctors, he wrote, “in the plenitude of their wisdom and power, are determined to inflict summary vengeance on them for their temerity and doubt, by a ten times more frequent and greater use of the article in question, than they otherwise would have done.”
While most physicians were satisfied that bleedine. blistering, and purging were good for their patients, they did not agree on just why this should be so. Some believed, with the celebrated Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, that virtually all disease was caused by an overstimulation of the blood vessels, and that this, in turn, was the result of too much blood in the system, a condition that the physician was in a position to correct with his lancet. (In cases of serious illness Rush advised tapping as much as four-fifths of the patient’s blood supply—not all at once, to be sure, but in fairly short order.)
Other doctors had other theories, equally bizarre. Only a few were inclined to agree with Thomas Jefferson, who scoffed at all contemporary theory-spinners and put forward the radical notion that in many cases the physician’s proper office was to stand aside and let nature do the healing.
Thomson, too, was a theory-spinner. Like Rush, he held that all disease stemmed from a single cause. In Thomson’s view, that cause was a lack of bodily heat, brought about by the body’s failure to digest food properly. Consequently the first step in a course of Thomsonian therapy was usually to steam the patient thoroughly.
“When the sweat rolls off as thick as your finger,” a Maryland man noted in 1837, in a letter to his son, “the body is washed with cold water and the patient is straightway put to bed with hot bricks to bring back his heat. Then a powerful vomitive is administered, composed of bay berry , of cayenne (red pepper) and lobelia, which suffer naught impure to remain in the stomach, and all these herbs are mixed in 40 proof brandy, after which warm water is drunk until there has ensued the most extraordinary vomiting. Next, the patient rises and takes a second bath, like the first. He takes again to his bed, after having been laved with cold water and is surrounded with hot bricks and remains in bed for an hour. At the end of this time he takes two injections [ i.e. , enemas] of penny royal, cayenne pepper and lobelia and the treatment is over for the day.” Thomson also recommended various mild tonics, such as tincture of myrrh, “to give tone to the stomach and bowels, and prevent mortification.”
All this was no more likely to cure a patient than bleeding or purging him. But Thomson’s system had several advantages over conventional therapies. One was that a family owning a copy of the New Guide to Health , which even gave detailed instructions for building a home steam bath, did not need to call in a doctor when someone was sick. Another advantage was that Thomsonian remedies were relatively easy on the patient. There were practitioners, it is true, who tended to pour on the lobelia. Thomson sternly chided one such enthusiast who gave a patient nineteen treatments of Thomsonian medicine in a six-week period “and then left her in a very weak and low condition (no wonder).” But in the dosages recommended by Thomson, lobelia was not nearly as hard on the system as calomel.
Thomson’s do-it-yourself treatise was not the first book of its kind to come on the market. But it differed from earlier guides to botanic healing in that it included a lengthy autobiographical sketch, titled “Narrative of the Life and Medical Discoveries of the Author.” And the book’s popularity no doubt stemmed in part from the pleasure many Americans got from Thomson’s account of how a poor and uneducated farm boy, forced to rely on his native wit and powers of observation, nevertheless grew up to expose the greed and wrongheadedness of the medical profession.
Thomson was born in Alstead, New Hampshire, in February, 1769. As he tells it in the “Narrative,” he attached himself in very early childhood to a local herb doctor, an old woman named Benton. When she went out to collect roots and herbs, Thomson writes, “she would take me with her, and learn me their names, with what they were good for; and I used to be very curious in my inquiries, and in tasting every thing that I found.”
One plant that he soon tasted was lobelia. He was four years old at the time, he recalls, and had gone to look for his father’s cows. While on this errand “I discovered a plant which had a singular branch and pods … and I had the curiosity to pick some of the pods and chew them ; the taste and operation produced, was so remarkable, that I never forgot it.” Later, Thomson adds, he “used to induce other boys to chew it, merely byway of sport, to see them vomit.”
But it was not until some twenty years had passed that Thomson was persuaded that lobelia, a smallish plant with pale blue blossoms, could do more than just make people sick to their stomachs. There was, and is, disagreement as to whether Thomson was the first to use lobelia as a medicine. Lobelia is also called Indian tobacco, and it was well known to the Penobscot Indians before Thomson was born, although it is not clear whether they took it as a medicine or dried its leaves and smoked them.
However that may be, Thomson’s discovery of its curative powers was made on a summer day while he was cutting hay. As he recalls the incident in the “Narrative,” he cut a sprig of lobelia and offered it to one of his fellow mowers with the suggestion that he eat it. “When we had got to the end of the piece, which was about six rods,” Thomson writes, “he said that he believed what I had given him would kill him, for he never felt so in his life. I looked at him and saw that he was in a most profuse perspiration … he trembled very much, and there was no more color in him than a corpse. I told him to go to the spring and drink some water; he attempted to go, and got as far as the wall, but was unable to get over it, and laid down on the ground and vomited several times.”
Fortunately this medical experiment ended happily. Thomson helped his companion into the house, “and in about two hours he ate a very hearty dinner, and in the afternoon was able to do a good half day’s labor. He afterwards told me that he never had any thing do him so much good in his life; his appetite was remarkably good, and he felt better than he had for a long time.”
Soon afterward Thomson discovered the virtues of steam when he was able to cure his two-year-old daughter of a disease he diagnosed as cankerrash by steaming her every two hours for a week. As word of his prowess as a healer got around, more and more people began coming to him for help, and in 1805 he gave up farming altogether and became a full-time herb doctor, treating patients in Vermont, Massachusetts, and Maine, as well as in New Hampshire. Wherever he went he ran into fierce opposition from regular physicians, one of whom, according to Thomson, tried to kill him with a scythe as he was passing by the physician’s door in Eastport, Maine. In Salisbury, Massachusetts, on the complaint of a Dr. French, Thomson was arrested for the murder of a young man named Ezra Lovett, whom he was alleged to have killed with an overdose of lobelia. For more than a month in the cold fall of 1809 he was confined to a filthy and verminous cell in the Newburyport, Massachusetts, jail, where he had no chair, no table, no fire, no candle, no bed, and only a thin and dirty blanket.
Thomson was eventually acquitted after a character witness took from the hand of the prosecutor a sample of the drug with which Thomson was said to have done the deed and ate it in open court. When Thomson had recovered from the effects of his confinement he resumed his work as a peripatetic healer, and the closing pages of the “Narrative” are richly freighted with stories of his therapeutic triumphs. To give just one example, Thomson tells of a young man who was being treated by Thomson’s enemy, Dr. French, following an accident in which three of his fingers had been cut to the bone. After three weeks, upon being advised by Dr. French that he should have the fingers amputated, the patient consulted Thomson; ten days later, with all fingers intact, he was back on his job in a nail factory. Soon afterward, when Thomson asked how his fingers were, “he said they were perfectly cured ; he wished to know what my bill was for attending him. I asked him what Dr. French had charged, and he said he had sent his bill to his mother, amounting to seventeen dollars; I told him I thought that was enough for us both, and that I should charge him nothing. His mother was a poor widow depending on her labor and that of her son for a living.”
Thomson’s robust egalitarianism was coupled with a shrewd business sense. In 1813, nine years before the publication of his New Guide to Health , he had hit on an ingenious scheme for propagating, and profiting from, his ideas. He patented his therapeutic discoveries, and began selling certificates that conferred on the purchaser “the right of preparing and using, for himself and family, the medicine and System of Practice secured to Samuel Thomson by Letters Patent from the President of the United States. …”
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.”
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.
But it was to take the country’s regular physicians more than fifty years to recover completely from the drubbing Thomson had given them. Millions of Americans went on dosing themselves with herbal remedies and consulting herbal practitioners. Some of these practitioners had picked up their trade on their own, but many were graduates of one of the twenty-odd schools of botanic medicine that were founded in the United States in the nineteenth century. In 1901 a medical historian named Alexander Wilder estimated that several thousand botanic, reformed, physiopathic, and physio-medical doctors were still practicing in the United States. Most of them, according to Wilder, were treating patients pretty much along the lines laid down by Samuel Thomson nearly eighty years before.
Thomson’s ideas also unquestionably influenced the founders of the eclectic school of medicine, which flourished in the middle and late years of the century. Most eclectics were graduates of orthodox medical schools, and while they did on occasion prescribe “mineral” medicines, they stuck mainly to vegetable remedies, and eschewed both calomel and the lancet. The first eclectics often went in for heroic botanic medicine, attempting to blast out disease with potent vegetable cathartics. Alexander Wilder, who was himself an eclectic physician, conceded that in the early years of the movement the medicines prescribed by eclectics were “often distasteful and repulsive beyond the power of sensitive patients to endure.” But as time went by the eclectics came to rely on inoffensive drugs, and to prescribe them in small quantities, on the sensible theory that often the best thing to do for a sick person was to help him to rest comfortably and, as a leading eclectic physician put it, to keep “the bowels in such restful condition that they would not disturb the patient.”
After 1900, herbal medicines lost much of their appeal. Although able to hold their own in competition with calomel, they were completely outclassed by new and rational forms of therapy based on recent discoveries about human physiology and the nature of disease. As L. J. Henderson, a widely respected physiologist and medical sociologist, pointed out some forty years ago, doctors could at long last actually cure people, at least some of the time. “I think it was about 1910 or 1912,” Henderson observed, “when it became possible to say of the United States that a random patient with a random disease consulting a doctor chosen at random stood better than a fifty-fifty chance of benefiting from the encounter.”
But while most botanic doctors were put out of business by the coming of scientific medicine, the voice of Thomson and his disciples can still be heard, at least faintly, in the land. The notion that simple herbal remedies are inherently superior to the dangerous chemicals prescribed by doctors continues to be given currency by books such as Back to Eden , a work described by its publisher as a “million-copy best seller” that came out in 1939 and is still selling briskly in health-food stores. Its subtitle is “The Classic Guide to Herbal Medicine, Natural Foods, and Home Remedies,” and its author, Jethro Kloss, devotes a good deal of space to lobelia. Describing Thomson’s favorite remedy as “a most efficient relaxant, influencing mucous, serous, nervous, and muscular structures,” Kloss recommends its use for the treatment of “coughs, bronchitis, asthma, whooping cough, pneumonia, hysteria, convulsions, suspended animation, tetanus, febrile troubles, etc.”
“Lobelia possesses most wonderful properties,” Kloss goes on to say. “It is a perfectly harmless relaxant. It loosens disease and opens the way for its elimination from the body. Its action is quick and more effective than radium.” Nonpoisonous herbs like lobelia, Kloss concludes, will do everything that conventional doctors try to do with “mercury, antitoxin, serums, vaccines, insulin, strychnine, digitalis, and all [their] poisonous drug preparations. …” Samuel Thomson could not have put it better himself.