The Years and Events leading up To Thomsonianism

There is a distinct set of historical events that can be closely tied to the establishment of Thomsonianism.  Like the other forms of alternative medicine that would form in the years to come, there are a number of social, cultural and scientific causes for how and why a particular form of  non-allopathic medicine became so popular at a given place, at a given point in time.  No single reason for change can be proven.  But a number of changes can be related, the common thread for each is social dissatisfaction with the ways in which regular medicine was practicing at the time, a dissatisfaction turned popular lack of faith whenever a true test of the field evolved.  The major causes for these felling of dissatisfaction and distrust pertained mostly to the failure of regular doctors to appease the masses whenever a highly fatal epidemic made its way throughout much of the United States population.

Leaving this primary reason for change aside for the moment, it is important to note that there are different types of distrust and dissatisfaction that develop over time, each of these series of distrusts evolved socially due mostly to the level of achievement the medical system was in as a whole, and how the general public felt philosophically about health, disease and fate at the time.  In the earliest years of United States history, public dissatisfaction with the doctors’ skills coupled with the preachings in masses by those with a highly developed religious faith help to kindle the fire now about to produce a major political and economic threat to the medical professions as a whole.  This fire was fueld more by the symbolic overtones of a disease or epidemic as it struck the masses of people making up the various urban settings.   What these epidemics symbolized to the more politically stable religious leaders is that regular medicine was not working.  When such a questions failure by the people recurred just a couple of years later, this second series of epidemics reminded the people of their options, leading many to even conclude that the most popular alternative forms of medicine for the time worked equally as well as regular medicine, if not better, as a sign of God’s intervention.  In simple terms, this reasoning was due merely to the amounts of bloodletting that seemed to be required and practiced by all regular physicians and promted heavily by most medical institutions.   This second period of test and change even has evidence for the tremendous amount of influences politics ultimately had on the medical professions as a whole.  In some cases, the political disputes at a hospital level between one ward focused on Eclectic Medicine, another focused on Homeopathy, and the third focused on regular medicine, demonstated just how much government-based power played a role in deciding who was finally able to practice in, of all places, the church and nunnery-run hospital settings.

The primary epidemic event that led to the popularization of Samuel Thomson’s teachings during the early 1800s was very much like that which gave the Electric Calipers its success just a few years earlier.  Regular medicine could not heal the yellow fever.  This gave the inventor of a new curing faith a golden opportunity to increase public curiosity about his or her claims to success followed by public acceptance of the new cure as the better and safer means to achieve the cure, at least on a personal basis.  

Samuel Thomson’s success was greater than that of the electric calipers due to the ability of Thomson to produce a simple series of practice protocols, strengthened by their appearances in the public eye with regard to the local religious practices.  There is one major historical precedent to Thomson’s publication that helped him achieve this success.  According to Eclectic Medicine physician, author, and cheif editor for the sect’s most important national trade magazine, Samuel Thomson had his precedent, a physician with practices that either prepared the masses for Thomson’s philosophy and ideology, or tempted the social system just enough to make a repeat of religious healing traditions finally begin to develop its sizeable following.

 Although Thomson’s protocols and formulas are as a group quite unique and well-defined, no single part of these teachings was an invention on behalf of Thomson.  The most Thomsonian of his healing practices–the use of Lobelia to serve as an emetic and to induce vomiting–was something already engaged in by regular physicians, only, they preferred to use previously discovered emetics like True Ipecac (Cephaelis ipecacuanha) from South America and the False Ipecac (Euphorbia ipecacuanha) and its relatives from the southern parts of North America.  Two other procedures engaged in as part of the Thomsonian experience–the use of a purgative to cleanse the bowels and the use of a sweat bath–were also practices already tried and true and therefore put to good use since the mid to late colonial times by regular physicians.   It was Thomson’s combination of these healing rituals that had gave his practice the medical history it soon developed in just a few years.   Thomson’s fortune may heve been the result of making the right connections between what was being practiced and what was needed.  There is a domestic medical guide published in the late 1790s that had some of the elementas to become quite popular.  It is possible that Thomson was familiar with this book due to its local pulbication and so incorporated some of its teachings into his own method practice.  One of the newest of many popular Domestic Medicine style guides then available to the masses at the time, this book also had the advantage of being written by a European Missionary, physician and religious-political leader.  According to at least one member of a major alternative post-Thomsonian medical sect active during the second half on the nineteenth century, Thomson used these teachings to compose his own and write his famous book.  Thomson’s book, it ends up is possibly, a simple rehash of these recently popular beliefs, redefined by Thomson based on the specific types of remedies he wished to recommend–emphasizing the use of local herbs as substitutes for foreign herbs.

Pre-thomsonianism in Boston

In September 1875, the editor of the Eclectic Medical Journal (vol. 35, no. 9, pp. 433-435, author “H.”) wrote an article entitled “Did Samuel Thomson Originate a Distinct System fo Practice?” 

Thomson’s practice of expelling the phlegm (an action just prior to the vomit from taking Lobelia) and expelling the phlegm in the “canker” (infected, purulent sore) of the body were orginated from some of Thomson’s understanding of Galenical medicine.   According to “H.”, Thomson encouraged his patients to produce a sweat, in order to remove whatever surplus resided in the body and therefore bring it back to its state of equilibrium.  For the most part, this element in surplus in the body is its heat, which is expelled by the vessels as they pass beneath the skin and induce the diaphoresis.   To remove any internal causes for a malady, a strong laxative such as rhubarb is employed, along with a clyster of soap and water.   This process is engaged in with the goal of removing any remaining morbific matter residing in the intestines and the body, the purpose being to reduce whatever irritability of the body this material is causing thereby leading to illness. 

Some of the underlying philosophy for this type of non-allopathic protocol was already well-rooted in many of the different healing sects over the years.  The overall purpose of these therapies was to preserve the  “powers of life,” as Joseph Townsend put it in his book Elements of Therapeutics.   Townsend’s philosophy “Vires Naturae Medicatrix”, relies upon Nature to rid the body of whatever is responsible for its illness.  By irritating the body, according to Townsend, “Nature, distressed, goes instantly to work.”   Using the imbedded thorn as an example, he writes “Nature sets up inflammation, the sequence of which is suppuration, which loosens and removes the thorn.”    To eliminate the bloody diarrhea or dysentery, Townsend states one has to first relieve the intestinal spasm, followed by a cleansing of the alimentary canal of “Putrid sores, of scybala, and from every species of colluvies,”  and ending with a sheathing of “the irritated portions of the colon with mucilaginous substances.”    By easing the elimination process for the colon, you help the body “bring away loose stools, with hardened scybala and phlegm.” 

According to “H.”, the opinion of the alternative physician as to what was causing dysentery was very different from the allopathic interpretation.  Whereas allopaths interpreted the bloody flux of dysentery as “a species of diarrhea” in need of opium and astringents (opium slows and then stops the motility of the stools, astringents fight any bleeding that occurs, in theory), the alternatives–Thomsonians and “Reformed” physicians (Eclectic medicine, the practice engaged in by “H.”)– felt dysentery was a disease of constipation and t5reated it accordingly.  Both types of physicians were wrong about the etiology (it was in fact caused by a microorganism yet to be discovered) , and neither was any closer than the other to officiating the appropriate treatment modality.   Townsend’s remedy for the dysentery was a decoction of slippery elm bark, meant to coat the irritated mucous membrane of the colon, a remedy “H.” took to be much like the non-Thomsonian Eclectic form of treating dysentery, as well as the starch injections for this problem often recommended by allopaths. 

What made Townsend’s therapeutics a bit more Thomsonian however was his strong recommendation for “hot vapor and aromatic herbs, to raise a sweat, open the pores, and equalized the circulation.”  Although some parts of allopathic thinking do contain these essential components for producing a treatment, Thomsonianism was defined by the particular methodology.   According to Townsend, “Warming medicines and especially nauseants are valuable adjuvants in the cure of most diseases.”

Now “H.” admits that he lacks any strong evidence for claiming with any certainty that Samuel Thomson was familar with Townsend’s writings.  Nor can he be certain that Samuel Thomson was the actual originator of his distnct methods of practicing medicine.   “H.” writes: “From what has been quoted it would seem that he is not, but simply a modifier of what was already known and published.”  The philosophy of how to treat disease was already there, thomson only succeeded in modifying it and then simplifying it,  to make it better match the growing needs for  a form of American medicine ditinct from the teachings of the very popular European physicians publishing their own domestic medical guides.

A review of even earlier writings by American physicians also provide some evidence for the practice of many of the Thomsonian-like traditions during earlier periods in American history.  Even though Lobelia was Thomson’s distinct signature, replacing such remedies as the  various forms of Ipecac used by regular physicians and even the mucous-/phlegm-producing gum guaiac so popular at the time, the most important components of Thomson’s practices  were the lack of blood-letting and the heavier reliance upon the use of sweat baths, a method of treatment and cure already made popular by some fothe more highly respected physicians.  The third major defining factor of Thomsonianism was the avoidance of opium, in particular for treating dysentery, a use it was best known for.  In part this use of opium gum was becoming an issue due to the known effects it had on the human psyche.  But even more important was the fact that the addicting features of opium and their effects on life itself seemed in direct conflict with many parts of the religious philosophy and even parts of the philosophy preached by natural philosophers. 

The elimination of opium from the materia medica was perhaps the best action taken by someone who converted from allopathic to non-allopathic forms of treatment.  And the future alternative healers, in particular the eclectics, would work hard to find an adequate replacement for it.   For this reason, some important American herbs became highly demanded substitutes for opium gum, and for the next several decades, due to the lack of udnerstanding the exact chemistry of opium and its alkaloids, some plants that were latex-producers did indeed become opium substitutes strongly promoted by Reformed medical doctors.  The two opium (Papaver officinalis) relatives that had this history were Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadense) with its red latex, and Celandine Poppy (Chelidonium majus) with its orange to yellow latex.  A white latex producer felt to be a substitute for opium, well into the late 1800s, and by some, even into the 1900s, were the Wild lettuce plants Lactuca,  due mainly to their white latex exuded from the leaf base and root cap.  A more active latex producer also quite popular, any of the several Euphorbia species, were never mistaken and/or tried for use like true opium–they were too irritable and capable of forming blisters, and this had alternative uses  such as forcing the exudation of phlegm from the skin, the forming of a blister, or the opening of an abcess.