Thursday, August 13, 2015

1400-1900: Botanic Physicians will cure your asthma

Samuel Thompson (1769-1863)
was the most famous root and herb doctor
As settlers from the Old World pushed their way through the New World, they were introduced to many indigenous tribes across the nation. Perhaps by force at times, the learned, among other things, about native healing rituals and remedies. Many settlers who encountered Indian medicine must have been very impressed, as they wrote about it in their journals. Some settlers intended to profit from this.

Virgil Vogel, in his book "American Indian Medicine," said:
"(The) foregoing claims of Indian cures are scattered episodes, most frequently found in situations where no other medical help was available, and they do not indicate any marked preference on the part of white people for the services of Indian medical men. The relative isolation of Indians from settled white communities by itself was enough to keep to a minimum their opportunities to attempt cures among white people." (1, page 123)
For instance, Vogel tells of a report in The Lancet about a boy who drove a nail through his hand, and it did not heal. Instead it became "very painful and began to swell." The nearest doctor was 70 miles away, and so he set off on horseback. The pain became "unendurable," and so he ended up at an Indian camp. Women at the camp performed a healing ritual, and the boy's hand eventually healed.  (1, page 120)

Experiences such as this were basically the result of few licensed physicians in the new world, and the ones available were "poorly trained and equipped, said Vogil. Settlers therefore had no choice but to resort to Indian healers. In this way, the settlers were introduced to a whole new world (the primitive world) of medicine. (1, page 111-112, 125)

For hundreds, if not thousands, of years native medicine men experimented with the various elements of nature, and in this way they became experts, not only in the few ailments that plagued their tribes, but in the botanic (made from plants) remedies indigenous to their tribal boundaries.  Over time they learned what remedies worked for what ailments, and in this way they became botanic physicians long before Columbus walked on American soil.

As Europeans made their settlements, separating themselves from the licensed physicians of Europe, they had to rely more and more on the botanic medicine they learned from the natives.  They saw the steam houses, and they saw the healing rituals, and after a while some of them became proficient in Indian medicine, thus becoming the first "White Indian Doctors." (1, page 125,130)

While such "White Indian Doctors" existed from the early days of European settlement, the profession boomed in the 18th and 19th centuries as "whites" lived amid native tribes for the implicit purpose of photographing and studying them as George Catlin did, or were kidnapped and forced to live amid the natives, as what happened to John D. Hunter.

As men like Catlin and Hunter reported what they learned of Indian medicine, the practice of botanic medicine further spread to the "white folks".

Men like John D. Hunter and George Catlin made one other stunning observation of the Indians: that they seemed to be healthier than white men and women.  Those who were not killed in battle seemed to live to old age, having few ailments that plagued them. They had smooth, young looking skin, and they had black hair even into old age.  It was thus assumed that they had access to some form of botanic remedy that acted as a panacea.

At the same time there were many people who claimed that the remedies of licensed physicians did no good, made a sick person feel worse, or even killed patients.

It was the idea that the Indians had a panacea, and that the licensed medical profession was flawed, that created a market for the "White Indian Doctor."

There were various names for these physicians (1, page 47)(2, page 20):
  1. Indian Doctors:  Their remedies were learned from the Indians (or copied, or they simply lied)
  2. Herb Doctors:  Their medicine was herbal, and learned from Indians
  3. Root Doctors:  Their medicine was made of roots, and learned from the Indians
  4. Bonanic Doctors:  They claimed their medicine was made from native plants
  5. Steam Doctors:  They copied Indian steam practices
  6. Patent Doctors: They patented medicine in bottles and claimed it was an Indian remedy
  7. Stick Doctors:  Same thing 
  8. Empirics:  They claimed to have come with their medicine by their own experimentation.
  9. Ecclectics: They copied all sorts of natural remedies.
  10. Quacks:  A logical term used by educated men to describe primitive medical practice
  11. Thomsonians:  A group of men who worked for, or claimed to work for, Samuel Thomson, who called himself a herbalist, or root and herb doctor.
Most of these "Indian Doctors", or what we'll call "botanic doctors," claimed outright to have obtained their wisdom and remedies from the Indians, regardless of whether it was true or not.

As noted above, some must have legitimately been trying to help people, while others were simply out to scam people of their hard earned money.  Some were quite successful at it, while others were not so successful.

Virgil Vogel said these botanic physicians were basically just trying "in their untrained way to fill the gap caused by the absence of physicians possessed of medical degrees.  In those days no licensing laws or other legal impediments hindered them from plying their trade."  (1, pages 130-131)

One of the first to find success in botanic medicine was Samuel Thomson (1769-1843), and he sort of proved that a lot of money could be made by producing, marketing, and selling botanic medicine.  In this way, Thomson became a "beta noire," wrote Vogil, to the licensed medical profession.  As noted above, many sold his products, or copied his ideas.  (1, page 131).

There were many attempts to stop Thomson and his many followers, and there were many attempts to stop the botanic physicians in general.  One early attempt by the New York State Legislature did succeed, as it managed to pass a bill in 1834 "imposing a fine of $25, on any botanic practitioner of medicine, if he received any compensation for services rendered in the capacity of a physician." (2, page 1)

It's understandable why the medical profession would hate the botanic physician. Those interested in becoming a licensed physician sacrifice many years, and lots of money, to study the human body, its diseases, and remedies to hasten suffering and induce healing. They also spent years following a licensed physician honing in their trade, before being honored with a medical license.

There were no such requirements to be a botanic physician.  He could simply be a person, such as Thomson, who had little formal education, knowing little more about anatomy and disease than the person purchasing his remedies.

While such a market was wide open through much of the United States, it was stopped in New York.  Various persons wanting to be Botanic Physicians in the state of New York offered formal complaints to the New York State Legislature, such as the following:
One of the dearest privileges of community is sacrificed, viz. a free and unmolested choice of their physician:" that "they believe said law is a direct infringement of their constitutional privileges," &c: and they close with a respectful prayer to the Legislature, "that all law proscribing botanic physicians from a just fee and reward for services rendered may be repealed; and that they be permitted to collect their dues, in the same manner as other free citizens."  (2, pages 1,2)
Despite such fights, the practice of Botanic Medicine boomed for much of the 19th century, before the market faded around the turn of the 20th century to the scant profession it is today, replete with a few marketers who attempt to sell what they call "Natural Remedies," or books about the powers of natural healing.

Vogel provides us with his theories why Botanic Medicine faded: (1, page 145)
  • Advances in scientific medicine
  • The ability to make synthetic medicine (medicine made in a factory)
  • The difficulty of standardizing vegetable drugs due to unequal strength of different samples
  • Natural obstacles to cultivation of some wild drug plants
  • The collection of wrong species by careless collectors
  • The fact that some drugs are only at maximum strength when collected in a certain brief season
  • That they often lose their strength in storage
  • That some wild plants become virtually unavailable due to over collecting,
  • That some have undesirable side effects  (1, page 145)
Surely we can still find a few botanic physicians, although they are usually considered along less respectable lines as "quacks" more so than as physicians. For the most part, we believe that most botanic remedies that actually work have already been adapted into the accepted pharmacopoeia, and if a natural remedy was as ideal as suggested (such as using salt inhalers for asthma), the medical profession would have adapted such a remedy long ago.

Natural remedies may continue to be valid options, although whether or not they work as suggested is open to the opinions of the random people who are willing to try them.  However, it is also possible there were other botanic remedies the Indians new about, so the quest to learn more will (must) continue.

  1. Vogel, Virgil, "American Indian Medicine," 1970, London, Oklahoma University Press
  2. "Documents of the Assembly of the State of New York Fifty-Eighth Session," 1835, Volume III, from no. 161 to no. 263, Albany, Croswell, Printer to the State, "State of New York: NO. 182, In Assembly Feb. 19, 1835, "Report," page 1-14, and  "Report of the Minority," pages 15-27
  3. 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
  4. Vogel, ibid, page 120; "An experience Among the Red Indians," from a correspondent, The Lancet, February 27, 1904, 611-612
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