Wednesday, May 11, 2016

1800-1900: Thomsonian remedies for asthma

Samuel Thompson (1769-1843)
Samuel Thompson did not fashion himself as an Indian Physician, nor did he claim to get his inspiration from the Indians. He did, however, fashion himself as a botanic physician, an expert on herbal remedies. (1, page 131)

Despite his lack of formal education, and lack of knowledge regarding anything medical, he was able to convince many people that his medicine worked, and he earned himself quite a following.

This was contrary to licensed physicians, who endured several years of formal education to learn about the anatomy of the body, the diseases that plague it, and the remedies proven to work.

In fact, it was highly unlikely Thomson, nor any of his followers, knew any more about anatomy and diseases than the people he sold his products to.

Michael Flannery, in an article he wrote for Journal of the Medical Library, said:
In 1834, Thomsonians claimed one and a half million adherents; by the 1840s, optimistic estimates placed their number at between four and six million. (2) 
So Thomson became a very successful botanic physician.  Yet as he earned his success, he also earned the ire of the the medical profession.

In his 1970 book "American Indian Medicine," Virgil Vogel said Thomson...
...managed to become a bete noire to much of the medical profession of his time. (1, page 131)
But there was nothing any licensed physician could do to stop him, at least in most instances.  Not only did Thomson have many followers, there were also many copycats who pretended to be his followers.  Perhaps some had noble intentions, but many simply intended to make some money.

Vogel said:
In those days, no licensing laws or other legal impediments hindered them from plying their trade.  Some of them were fakers and charlatans, while some others were doubtless honest men who imagined themselves to be human benefactors."  (1, page 131)
In this way, Thomson helped create a profession of uneducated people who called themselves doctors and physicians, although licensed physicians called them nothing more than quacks or quack doctors.

The truth is, however, that while many of them were indeed quacks, some of their remedies worked just as well, if not better, than the remedies offered by licensed physicians.

While many botanic physicians, often claiming to be root and herb doctors, claimed to have obtained their remedies from the Indians, Thomson never made such claims.

Instead, Vogel said Thomson claimed to have spent time with... elderly female 'root and herb' healer in his father's neighborhood.  When, to avoid the hard labor of scratching a living from a Vermont homestead, he took to doctoring, he promoted the idea that herbs and natural remedies were superior to mineral and exotic drugs, and was much devoted to 'steaming' or sweating patients in all kinds of ills" (1, page 131)
Thomson said he learned about his favorite remedy, lobelia, which many refer to as Indian tobacco, while "looking for the cows at the age of four."  (1, page 131)

These were obviously good stories, although no one will ever prove whether he was telling the truth, or just fibbing to increase the credibility of his products.

A 2002 article in  Journal of the Medical Library Association, Michael Flannery suggests Thomson was simply playing on the theme set forth amid the nation by the then President of the United States, Andrew Jackson. (2)

Flannery said that while Jackson preached that an uneducated man can run government, Thomson preached that an uneducated man could administer medicine. (2)

Thomson ultimately obtained a patent for his product "that Dr. William Thornton of the U.S. Patent Office termed a 'Fever Medicine,' said Flannery.  He continued:
The duly authorized patent was both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it gave Thomson some legal protection and remedy against those who deigned to usurp his system for their own, on the other hand, it became so jealously guarded by Thomson that it more often than not served merely as a source of contention and division within his growing circle of followers, divisions that turned friends into foes. Thomson quickly came to regard many agents not as allies but as enemies. He became convinced that duplicitous agents sailing under the Thomsonian banner were making unnecessary “improvements” to his system, were out to steal the profits for themselves, or were selling inferior, bootlegged products for quick profit. Thomson's fears were both real and imagined, but he tried to give added protection to his patent as well as create a vehicle for its expansion with the publication of his New Guide to Health, or Botanic Family Physician in 1822.  But even this became a source of difficulty as pirated editions began to dot the countryside." (1)
This provides me a segue into Thomson's asthma remedy.  It is listed on page 77 of volume II of the Botanic Family Physician . He notes in his book to have various correspondents around the United States who are always on the lookout for ideal Botanic Remedies.  Thus, his prescription for asthma is as follows:
THE ASTHMA. A correspondent remarks that, always wishing to do good and to be communicative to the great botanic community, and having been conversant with asthmatic affections, that he has found the following prescription uncommonly successful:
  1. A thorough course of medicine several times repeated.
  2. An emetic, either by the mouth or by injection, or both, daily, and always during a paroxysm.
  3. Use a drink made of the white or silver-colored moss that grows on the limbs of sugar trees—The bark off of or near the roots of the beech tree, cleared of the outward surface—sarsafarilla roofs, spignard roots, wild valerian, of each equal parts—pour on boiling water and make a strong decoction— strain oft' the decoction and sweeten pleasantly with honey—scald and scum. Dose a tea-spoonful at a time every two hours, using a little occasionally if dry, at other times.— This method will seldom if ever fail of effecting a cure in asthma, which appears to be always attended with some obstructions of the bronchia and with some "spasmodic condition of the lungs and diaphragm.
We have no doubt of the efficacy of the prescription, having undo trials of a course very similar with remarkable success. It is a mode of treatment truely Thomsonian in principle, and with pleasure we give it a place in the Recorder.
The Paris Academy of Medicine lately reported the case of a man who died in July last, in that city, delirious, and in the right ventiele of whoso heart was found imbedded a needle, which extended into the cavity. No trace of a cicat rix, by which the needle might have entered, could be discovered on the exterior of the body. He had been sutfering for fomc months from pain in the side. (1, page 77-78)
There you go, there's your Botanic Remedy for asthma. If you want to believe it came from natives, so be it. Chances are, if you were desperate for something to remedy your asth ma, you'd give Mr. Thomson's asthma remedy a whirl.   

  1. Vogel, Virgil, "American Indian Medicine," 1970, London, Oklahoma University Press
  2. Flannery, Michael A., "The early botanical medical movement as a reflection of life, and literacy in Jacksonian America,"  Journal of the Medical Library Association, October, 2002, 90 (4), pages 442-454
  3. Thomson, Samuel, "The Thomsonian Recorder or Impartial Advocate of Botonic Medicine: and the principles which govern the Thomsonian Practice," 1834, Volume II, Columbus (Ohio), Printed at the Thomsonian Botonic Office by Jonathon Phillips, page 77-78

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