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… But The Patient Died

July 2024
1min read

Samuel Thomson’s course of treatment was benign compared to the calomel-and-bleeding methods prescribed by regular physicians. But it, too, could be overdone, as it clearly was in the case of one Jona Sherburn of East Randolph, Vermont, a sufferer from rheumatism.

In the summer of 1841 Sherburn took his pains to Dr. Jehiel Smith, founder and proprietor of the Thomsonian Infirmary and Insane Asylum. Dr. Smith claimed he could cure apoplexy, epilepsy, vertigo, cholera, smallpox and chicken pox, rabies, gout, leprosy, venereal diseases, diabetes, cancer, and rheumatism—to name just a few ailments.

Apparently patient Sherburn did not know of the dubious reputation Dr. Smith had already earned in Strafford, Vermont, twenty miles away. Dr. Smith had left there in 1836—precisely why, no one knows. But before he departed, friends had found it necessary to write testimonials to his character and to attest that they believed “all the evil reports in circulation about him to be entirely false.”

Sherburn was admitted to Dr. Smith’s hospital on July 19, 1841. Five days later—after prescribed doses of vegetable powder and a ritual of steam baths—he was dead. As a result, the hospital closed abruptly and Dr. Smith disappeared. Sherburn’s treatment must have been unusually severe, for the following autopsy was filed by William Nutting, state’s attorney for Orange County:

“Head Swelled to Double size. … Blistered in various places. One hand a complete blister, large Blister on one Side. The thighs Blistered, one leg seems parboiled, no feature of the face or body that would be recognised. … Black spots on the Thighs, the inward coats of the Stomach & intestines very much inflamed & some black Spots some parts of the intestines more inflamed than others, a number of Blisters on the inside of the Stomach & intestines. … Stomach & intestines have not any thing in them except the vegetable powder & perhaps a quart ofthat kind of stuff in the body in all. The inside of the Stomach appears to be seared over as with a hot iron as likewise is the lower parts of the intestines, probably scorched with hot drops or Cayenne pepper. …”


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