Samuel Mitchell’s Septon Theory

Dr. Samuel Mitchell had quite an “exploratory mind.”  He was more a naturalist than a doctor, an observer who was a philosopher as much as he was a scientist.  The one argument Dr. Mitchell might have that made his hypotheses and theories about disease more credible than most other theories out there was the interdisciplinary nature of his “discoveries” and claims.   He could study and write about anything in nature and draw associations between the topic and other previously unrelated fields.  To Mitchell, the fossil beds rich in coal could have just as much of a relationship to the local health as the natural swamp gas emitted by local marshes, the different forms of clouds that form with and without lightning in the immediate vicinity, the presence of calcareous soil and naturally carved caves in the cliffs adjacent to an area where the cholera could never strike.  The local plants of a stream edge, due to their emission of sweet smells with a harboring of poisons, were the reasons for local animal deaths and the absence of typhus.  The presence of a unique remedy for “cancer” in a specific forest was due to the relationship of the sun and wind to the effluvium of a nearby pine and spruce forest. Even the psychology of people could be related to the local terrain and natural features.  Mitchell’s claims about the values of local gems, minerals and metallic ores could be related to the mineral waters produced by local springs.  His interpretation of nature’s electricity produced and disseminated by way of thunder and lightning storms, metallic rock outcroppings, and even the arrival of “meteors”, as rock forms or as hail, could have an impact on someone’s physical and mental health.  In this way, those susceptible to mania could lose their sanity, those with a mind set on making them insomniac could become somnambulatory, those with a normal living habits adopted in response to crowded living conditions could suddenly become disease ridden due to dyspnea leading to the onset of nausea, vomiting and emesis as a “psychic” response.

Dr. Samuel Mitchell’s counterpart in the field of medicine was Benjamin Rush, the hero of Philadelphia and the most “heroic doctor” of his times  with plenty of theories and hypotheses as to how diseases occur and how to best document their epidemiological history.   Rush was less a naturalist and more an epidemiological physician than Mitchell. But like all doctors for this time, he had his philosophies and theories to propose to others, some of which were as much in error as any other theory out there for certain diseases and their behaviors.  Mitchell conceived on the new element, substance of chemical of septon as the cause for disease, which was actually a nitrogenous substance much like ammonia and formed through natural decay processes.  Rush’s interpretation of the cause for disease, that he argued was spread by contagion, from person to person instead of through the air as a miasm, stated simply that a poison was involved, a claim hard to prove, but much easier for him to assign an argument to than the theory of miasma, effluvium and natural gases moving about.

A certain amount of charisma and remnants of the earlier attempts at empiricism and heroism in the field of medicine underlie the basis for many of the writings of Mitchell and Rush.  Their knowledge base and intellectualism made each of them important medico-political leaders in separate cities, each in a state of competition with the other.   The argument of septon and hail written and proposed by Mitchell in 1796 follows a line of reasoning we wouldn’t expect Rush to take.  Mitchell liked to related human health and disease to the environment and then to the people.  Rush liked to link human health and disease to the population and each person’s behaviors.

The following is Mitchell’s theory of Septon as it relates to the production of hail.  It was typical for writers to send their articles for review by peers as a “letter” to a colleague.  Typically it was an “approval” of this letter by the colleague that was necessary to result in publication.

From Medical Repository, volume 3.

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