Dr. Colden’s Medical Influences

As Cadwallader Colden understood the philosophy of science, there was a relationship between the various parts of nature, human life and medicine.  One couldn’t draw a new conclusion about any portion of nature, without producing a statement that also applied to human body and its animation.  This philosophy used to define Colden’s work as a Doctor was not so much a modification of previous interpretations made about physiognomy, astrology, and medicine made popular 50 to 100 years earlier.  Instead, it was a redefinition of these old beliefs, in which such traditional sciences as alchemy and iatrochemistry became chemistry, and the iatromechanics (mechanical philosophy) of the human body became the study of physiology and anatomy in relation to the laws of energy and the laws of motion. 

As early as during his first years of medical practice, Colden’s philosophical process had begun to intertwine the natural sciences with natural philosophy.  He practiced in this fashion to such an extent that, as the son of a Reverend for a Church in Dun, Scotland, Cadwallader was interpreted pretty much as a perfect example of the reformative movements then taking place in science and religion.  In his own way, the enabled Colden to merge his conceptions about deity with piety, physics with metaphysics, and nature with God.  Applying these concepts to medicine, there were several very basic rules in play when Colden began his training in the sciences and in medicine.  These rules would ultimately have a major impact on his work as a physician, and later a politician and botanist. 

Rule 1 

The first rule in botany, professed by Linnaeus himself, was that the past beliefs in phytogonomics taught extensively by Giambattista Porta the century before were still very much true, although now they were slightly modified and made more theological in nature to some extent, by the scientist Linnaeus himself.    

Linnaeus’s initial goal in life was to obtain a degree in religion.  With time, this goal changed, due in part to the need for work and in part to areas of interest and inherent skills.  Linnaean made his way into the university setting for education in botany only through circumstances, several that took place over a relatively long period of time.  Once he was finally awarded a major scholarship by the Royal Society of Sweden, due to the support of a local church leader, he was able to engage in and complete a number of trips and journeys across unexplored lands, providing his supporters with valuable descriptions of their geology and plants and animals.  During this time, Linnaean witnessed everything necessary for a pattern to emerge in his mind about the relationships between these different elements of nature.  In due time, this enabled him to reassess traditional beliefs preached about plants like the teachings of Aesculapius or those of the more recent scholar Giambattista de la Porta, whose major contributions to mineral, animal and plant science were a series of essays and books on the phygnomics (physical signs based on form) for each of these natural objects.  

Due to his own religious devotion, Linnaeus took a philosophical path then common to many natural theologians, and developed the intent, meaning, and use of what was later called the ‘dotctrine of signatures’ in plants.   The doctrine of signatures belief states that these signatures, hieroglyphs, or codes are provided in nature for us to be able to comprehend their meaning in life.  Abiding by this traditional Christian belief, Linneaus designed some of his self-administered and developed teachings about plants and then incorporated them into his classes performed during and after his sponsored university education.  By the time he had completed his university training, in areas such as medicine and botany, he was provided with a position as a lecturer at the local university, from which point on he documented in writing, and then taught his beliefs in the religious and natural philosophical parts of phytognomics.  This helped to form his teachings, and provided Linnaeus with yet more reasons to continue to learn about plants not only as medicines, but also as objects with detailed signs regarding their values, uses and needs.  In short time, Linnaeus focused on the details of plant parts, more than just their philosophical meanings, and so his method of classifying plants came to be. 

For this reason, we find a number of very Christian-based forms of signatures developing in the study of plant form and development.  Early examples of these religious “hieroglyphs”  appear in the initial writings about land discoveries in the New World.  These “messages from above” took on the form of biblical herbs found to exist on these foreign lands, far from Jerusalem, and in the form of signatures open to interpretation by scholars of all sorts.  A century later, Linnaeus’s way of deciphering plants for their philosophical meaning in the local environment, had became a way to interpret plants at the scientific level as well.  By about 1745/1750, the purpose of this science had become much clearer to Linnaeus and others in the sciences, and regardless of their agnostic or atheistic character, their natural philosophy versus natural theology character, these underlying reasons for plant use became more important with time, and came to be an important part of the official documentation of a new plant discovery practiced by Linnaeus and his followers, well into the 1800s. 

Rule 2 

The second rule pertaining to plants, according to Linnaeus, but also with a number of traditional religious teachings in mind,  was that the events that led to the development of these lifeforms was very much biblical in nature, but not quite an all at once event in history like the Bible taught it to be.   Since by now was entering into a ‘period of enlightenment’ as historians like to call it, a period when scientific documentation leads to conclusions that require a new belief to be established in order to be true. 

In traditional Bible teachings, there was every life form developed just before Adam and Eve first set foot on this planet, followed by an eviolution or growth of man as mankind, followed by recurring tests of faith and occasional disasters to deal with the unfaithful.  Natural events such as floods, serious storms or stormy seasons, meteor impacts, earthquakes, were often interpreted as religious messages, and to some extent could help to explain the fossil evidence being introduced into science at this time.  Yet this method of reasoning could not adequately explain everything being discovered and witnessed by scientists, and everything being deduced.  

In the case of plants and animals, it was realized that it was possible to explain their exist and varieties of forms, past and present, extinct and extant, by way of reasoning that went well beyond the Great Flood and Noah’s Ark teachings.  This argument gave scientists the ability to deviate from the stardard Great Flood theory for evolution and change, and begin to take more seriously a slowly changing temporal event that stated such changes occured at times in smaller, much shorter periods and events in history, ultimately resulting in what is being seen at present.  Scientists came to realize and believe that one organism could evolve into another, and so developed a fairly linear timeline of events detailing the evolution of one animal into a higher animal form and one plant into a higher plant form.  Such a belief complied with findings made by scientists exploring beneath the earth’s surface, and the discovery of fossil evidence.  This fossil evidence suggested plants and animals were apparently formed in some predefined sequence of events, one event leading to another, resulting in the formation of the new life form.  These observations led to the idea that small animals could have evolved into larger ones, and that some structures in the animal or plant could become absent or no longer developed due to lack of use, accompanied by the development of other forms or structures needed to meet the new ecological or environmental need. 

In medicine, one physician even applied this philosophy to the different forms of disease that impacted animals, and then people.   The various “worms” associated with disease were felt to evolve over time and place in association with the changes that happened in that place in relation to animal events and then man’s events.  In this way of thinking, the natural worm-caused for a local disease in wild animals, could in turn evolve into an organism that could infect livestock, which in turn evolved into another type of worm that infected man.  This theory about disease evolution, and disease form in terms of nature and its related ‘contagion’ or spreadable infectious feature, became fairly popular amongst those familiar with the new theories developing about living organisms, the environment and their development over time.

This philosophy ultimately evolved into the philosophy of Lamarck during Linnaeus’s and Colden’s lifespans.  Those who believed in Lamarckism or Lamarkian Theory believed that one organism evolved into the next, in some fairly linear fashion.  Religious or not, this argument allowed people to develop their own personal philosophy about the chain of events that ensued resulting in these changes in life.  This theory not only supported the traditionalists adhering to the Great Flood and Noah theory, but also those atheistic to these religious teachings or claims.  Those who believed in the Flood had little to argue or contest regarding the existence of fossils and evidence for other life forms in the past.  Those who didn’t believe in the flood instead gave credence to an equivalent to the flood, but mostly as a natural event, maybe even taking place in the form of a flood as numerous events.  For each, these major changes in the environment that ultimately led to the death of these creatures is what turned them into into fossils.  Those organisms which remained after these floods, according to both sides of this argument, stated that they had to evolve and develop new ways to survive in their new environments.   Their newer generations would have to express the changes needed to persist and continue to survive.

This philosophy was also used to explain how and why new medicines could be designed by God or Nature.  These new medicines would thereby serve to meet the new medical needs for a newly specified region.  In this way, Christians could argue that the locally grown Eupatorium perforatum or Boneset existed because God put it there to serve as a medicine for upcoming epidemic events–the yellow fever.  Evolutionists would argue that the plant developed its use as a medicine for fevers specific to the region due to an intervention of the local ecology and the passing of past generations of plants, i.e. the  local development of a disease or its foreign introduction, could both result in the evolution of a medicine to treat this particular problem.  Even though the last example of this ideology relis upon a post-Colden plant discovery, the underlying beliefs used to illustrate this example existed within Linnaean’s writings.  Linnaean was very much a religiously devoted scientist, who at least in writing was purely theological about his beliefs of science, nature, God and medicine.

Rule 3 

Accompanying the belief that plant medicines locally were evolved as a part of ‘God’s theme,’ was the belief that the human body itself underwent changes as well.  These changes took place due to exposures to the environment, daily living experiences, typical mind-related human behavioral, thought-related events, and finally temperament. 

This question about whether or not “God’s theme” was presented in nature we find little direct reference to in any of Colden’s writings, per se.  Nevertheless, it had to have played an important role in Colden’s understanding of health and the need for medicine.  Colden’s interpretation of health and disease in a religious way suggests that he would have paid little attention to nature, if he took the natural events causing disease to be an act of fate and circumstance. 

However, Colden did not view diseases in this way.   He interpreted the disease body as a consequence of natural events, and how the body is adaptted to, or not adapted to, these changes in natural events.  This philosophy is in turn what led Colden to produce a number of writings that relate the local environment and climate to the ability of a human being to remain healthy.  Even though Colden expressed these beliefs during the mid-1700s, the took some time to begin to influence the local people.  In fact, it wouldn’t be until the end of the Revolutionary War that people would have the time, mindset and patience needed to make ample use of these teachings. 

With time, Colden’s view of health and climate became popular to other physicians as well in the area.  This ultimately led to the evolution of medicine as it was practiced in the Hudson Valley from 1790 to 1820.  Throughout this period of Hudson Valley history, there was also a Lamarckian concept that people could often relate to the ideology that climate impacted people’s health.   A Hudsonian could argue that although one’s parents may not have been that well adapted to the current climate and life stresses following by their removal to the colony, their children who were born within this setting could adapt, or perhaps were even born better adapted to it, or as many would say–acclimated to the new environment.  This belief in acclimation was also related to other human disciplines as well, behaviorally and intellectually, more than just physically and biologically.   Many also related this concept to one’s ability to learn and practice new work related skills, such as the need to learn a new form of woodworking skills developed as a replacement for much older skills (the father couldn’t cut the timber to make barrels, but the son who grew up in the current setting can). 

Colden’s writings helped to bring to mind the popular Lamarckian views of life, development and acclimation at a time when all the natural elements needed for application to these teachings were noted within the Hudson Valley’s natural setting.  As a result of these teachings, people of the Hudson Valley became very much in tune with, and adapted to, this new way of thinking and living in order to encourage good health in the valley during the early post-Cadwallader Colden years.  

For this reason, we find practitioners like Dr. Bartow White and local politicians like the Livingstons engaged in practices and businesses that had everything to do with maintaining good health, taking advantage onf the natural environmental settings and features conducive to improving health, and providing whatever necessities are needed for those unable to acclimate to the new Hudson Valley environment they have migrated into.  The newly settled lands upstream from New York City had to be developed into what were considered to be much healthier community settings, such as those devoted to farming, animal husbandry and agriculture.   In a review of one of Colden’s earliest essays on New York, he details all of the elements required to understand its geography, includign descriptions of the topography and climate, seasons and weather, geology and soil, fauna and flora.  He recommends the development of farming communities, the filling in of swamps and marshes, the  tempering of the forests in such as way as to extend the agricultural settings, and the development of ways to alter the landscape in such as way as to make way for healthier seasons ahead.

Rule 4 

Be it of “true Divine form” or simply the result of some acts of Nature, “God’s theme” should nevertheless be considered accurate and correct by physicians and religious leaders.  This philosophy is assumed to be applicable to however physicians believed good health could be maintained in the body.  The ways in which medicine was practiced defined the steps they took to ensure this took place.  These actions they based on how they interpreted disease, defined the reason for its cause, and used this knowledge to define the treatment plan.  Finally, knowing how and when to engage in these tasks were important due to the ability of diseases to change or evolve into another disease form or malady.  During this time, the disease was conceptualized as something that was wrong with the body, and that could go from one part fo the body to the next, impacting one organ then another.  It this way the gout becomes rheumatism, the diabetes becomes ascites or edema, and pleurisy becomes penumonia.

It is helpful to note that as scientists both Colden and Newton often refer to God in their writings about the grand Newtonian theme.  This tendency for some scientists to believe in God, also had attached to it the self-claim that they perhaps were also familiar with God’s messages.  Many felt the ability to recognize and read the “hieroglyphs” put out there in nature for them to see was equivalent to being able to converse with God Himself or be able to intrerpret such things as “hieroglyphs” as for the public good.  To early 17th century writers, this was the primary duty and responsibility of individuals learned in science and religion to be present on broad the exploratory missions to the New World, and this the reason the inclusion of such information in their reports on the mission to Royalty. 

In his published essays on pharmacy and plant medicines, for example, Linnaeus refers to the importance of such Divine messages several times, telling his readers that these signs are obviously recognizable as being of Divine origin at times, and not simply the result of some inconspicuous natural cause.  To support this claim, he provides an example which of Judeo-Christian faith.  He cites to root of Polygonatum, commonly referred to as Solomon’s Seal, the rhizome of which bears scars across its surface bearing the Seal of Solomon.  Similar examples picked up by students adhering to a similar philosophy might include a plant with a three-part flower or leaf structure, such as the Iris flower with its Fleur-de-lis form or the Trillium with its trinity form.  To Christian culture, each of these may be considered a sign of Divine omniscience and omnipresence. 

Matching these obvious Christian images in plant form and structure to the much older “pagan” or deitous signs include the popular interpretations of plant forms out there by Aesculapius or Giambattista Porta.  In the New World, an addition to knowledge about ‘Porta’s’ signs were the Native American signs, which early North American colonial botanists were already familiar with due to the prior history of learning about this discovery by the Spanish exploring South America.  In Colden’s and Linnaeus’s life time, it rapidly became clear to scholars that this use of phytognomics to define plants as the means to treat snakebites was a practice of global distribution.   Practiced in India for the bite of the Asp or Cobra, by most Aesculepian physicians and those readily engaged in these  ‘Culpeperisms’ , this interpretation of plant form and structure having to deal with body parts and tissue in relation to animal wa the most intriguing belief system in Linnaeus’s mind, a method of interpreting plants discussed by everyone in medicine and philosophy from Thomas Sydenham to Ben Franklin, Thomas Browne to Dr. Cadwallader Colden. 

Accompanying these intriguing metaphysical beliefs in Colonial herbal medicine were the more traditional phytognomic signs described and interpreted by Cadwallader Colden.  The most important of which in local history would be his acknowledgement of the use of  New York’s Sanguinaria canadense (Bloodroot) for blood-related imbalances or diseases (it produces a red latex), or the use of a local plant bearing white latex, Aesclepius tuberosa (Butterflyweed or Pleurisy Root, one of many Hudson Valley Milkweeds),  to treat the phlegmatic disorder of the Lungs and its related condition Pleurisy.  Likewise, one could any local interpretations made about the use if the yellow latex producing Chelidonium (Celandine Poppy) for treating the liver (jaundiced conditions due to yellow bile), or the use of Anagallis (chamomile), with its white-petalled flowers, for the treatment of ‘the bloody Murrain’ or coryza (excess congestion of the head due to a cold).

Applications for these rules

When we read Colden’s essays about medicine and disease, it is important to keep in mind his philosophy about nature, evolution and the maintenance of health.  Colden’s writing is of two forms related to medicine and health. 

  1. His first topic of writing pertains to the plant remedies themselves, focusing mostly on their clinical effects, but with a personalized philosophy leading up to these conclusions that we are never fully informed of in some direct written manner. 
  2. Colden also wrote extensively about topics pertaining to his belief that disease was a consequence of natural events, especially those related to weather and climate, and at times the results of different forms of natural energy affecting and/or stimulating the different parts of the human body.   Although temperament of the body (something akin to genetics predisposition) played an important role in the health of the human body and mind, it was climate, weather and other environmental features that Colden felt could best controlled as the means to preventing sickness from setting in.  To accomplish this, one had to make smart decisions about where to reside, learn about his or her own ability to acclimate or manage the changes in the living environment, and/or show family signs that he/she would be able to make the necessary changes in lifestyle to reduce these stresses, with the hope that one’s children will be better adapted to these problems for Lamarckian reasons regarding changes in temperament.

Colden’s philosophy of botanical medicine is reviewed extensively throughout the sections on his work on Coldenhamia.  These reviews are covered elsewhere, primarily in the sections pertaining to Plantae Coldenghamiae.  This is followed by coverage of Linnaeus’s personal review and presentation of Colden’s accomplishments, and several post-humous applications of Colden’s work.  The final example of Colden’s influences directly upon a published plant medicine document is the 1787 presentation Materia Medica Americana by Schoepf.  This section is also meant to provide notes pertaining to Colden’s other writings on plant medicines, including his letters to fellow botanists and his medical botany writings published by several professional journals.

The second topic of Colden’s writings covered in this section includes copies (in pdf or text form) of the original writings on weather and disease in the Hudson valley.   A separate page is provided for this topic as well.   Important to note is that Colden’s work on climate and health was written approximately 50 years before meteorology and climate became the main topic associated with illness and good and bad health.  Even though this philosophy on well being was fairly common during the late 1600s and early 1700s, it was never as important as it became between approximately 1795 and 1825, with a few tears added on  to each ench for more loosely constructed arguments about this cause for disease pertaining mostly to “air” and the notion of miasma.

These two sets of examples of how Colden’s work influenced local  medicine in the Hudson Valley also demonstrate the two routes Colden’s work took within the medical profession.  His work as a botanist made only a brief stay in the professional field of botany, but managed to provide just enough information and influence so as to be perpetuated for a while longer by way of Schoepf’s work on American plant medicines.  Schoepf’s writings exemplify the impact made by Colden (and his daughter Jane) upon the plant medicine field.  These influences appear in Spoerke’s and subsequent writings in two forms:

  • the addition of knowledge to a field such that other botanists’ writings, taxonomic or medical, could become better understood, and help form the practice of plant medicine for years or decades to come.
  • the addition of ethnobotanical information pertaining to the use of plants as medicine, food and other natural products (esp. dyes), written down to to direct observation and experience on behalf of the Coldens as residents of the Hudson valley.

To summarize these findings regarding Colden’s influences, the following finding are worth noting.

  1. Linnaeus included Cadwallader Colden’s work in his writings, as much as possible, with some indirect inferences found elsewhere suggesting that Jenny’s work also influenced him to some extent. 
  2. The most important influences Linnaeus experienced from Cadwallader Colden pertained to the identification of several plants, including primarily Xanthoxylum.
  3. The most important influences Linnaeus experienced due to Jenny Colden are related to her gender as a botanist, two near-discoveries Jenny made regarding two new plant identifications, and the addition of several well-described ethnobotany notes in her manuscript.
  4. Cadwallader Colden’s work resulted in the introduction of several species separate from his Plantae Coldenghamiae work.
  5. With Plantae Coldenghamiae, Cadwallader Colden introduced approximately 15 species of plants medicines as part of Part II of this work.  Part I has yet to be evaluated.
  6. Schoepf’s treatise on American Materia Medica demonstrated the introduction of approximately a half dozen new plants with notes taken directly from Colden’s Plantae Coldenghamiae.
  7. Schoepf’s treatise also demonstrated that Colden’s work had some major influences on the identifications and medical uses for nearly 50 other medical plants contained in his materia medica.
  8. Schoepf’s treatise also demonstrated the introduction of one medicinal plant use by Jenny or Jane Colden’s manuscript.
  9. Schoepf’s treatise demonstrated the introduction of one other species of plant medicine, by way of Jane’s unpublished manuscript; for some reason this citation appears in a slightly fashion than Jenny’s more famous notation about Gardenia.
  10. Important materia medica works by Cutler, Barton and William Batram did not cite any of Colden’s work, althiough several plants demonstrated uses that related to Colden’s Plantae Coldenghamiae and other botanical writings.

Johannes David Schoepf’s work follows the sections on Colden’s medical writings.  Due to its length and complexity, it is reviewed on its own first as a part of Colden’s biography, and much later in relation to post-Revolutionary War plant medicine in the Hudson Valley.  One important aspect of Schoepf’s professional history to keep in mind, is that he was a physician who migrated to the fighting colonies during the Revolution where he served in the hospital setting.  His knowledge and experiences after the war were very much similar to those of Cadwallader Colden.  Following his service during the war, after Dr. Schoepf went back to Europe, he wrote a book on Climate and Disease based on his experiences in the colonies/states.

This section on Cadwallader Colden ends with a final review of Colden’s influences on other botanists, by comparing the listing of plants that are reviewed.  Botanists reviewed in this section are those published immediately before and after Colden’s Plantae Coldenghamia.  Roughly speaking, this comparison of the plant and materia medica lists covers approximately a 75 year period, or several generations of post-Revolutionary War botanists and medical botanists.