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“Did Samuel Thomson Originate a Distinct System of Medical Practice?”

 In 1875, one of the Editors of the Eclectic Medical Journal wrote an article addressing the birth of Thomsonianism.  By the Thomsonianism was no longer a substantive medical practice, although a number of followers of Thomson re-published his recipes with hopes of perpetuating Thomson’s name and his historically valuable alternative medical practice.   Thomson had also been re-written in 1836 by Alva Curtis, who first coined his rendering of this practice ‘Botanic Medicine’, which later changed to Physo-Medicine and Physio-Medicine. 

The Thomsonian healing faith lived about forty years in the midwest and parts of New England and the Far South. (A brief late 19th century revival is in the books, but not in the social documentation; the 1930s and 1970s/1990s revivals of this practice are superficial at best, mostly theoretical based on personal discussions with Naturopaths laying such a claim.) 

During this time it managed to capture the attention of most households in the United States.  Finally years later, when the history of his sect was retold, Thomson claimed he invented his methods through because of his learnings and experiencs as a child and early adult years.  To date, this claim made by Thomson has undergone little argument by historians and post-Thomsonian practitioners. 

Still, much of Thomson’s healing faith is based on simple healing concepts, many of which already had already been taught to the general public.  With this underlying and recent history in Thomson’s concepts, portions of which were shared by both religious and Masonic communities, most households were able to develop a reason to accept Thomsonianism, be it due to Andrew Jackson’s “be your own doctor” notion, a family’s desires to reside in the borderlands and backwoods, a religious-based Sanative healer, or an individual’s desires to be non-conformative, or perhaps a non-Federalist, non-Republican’s desires to be Democratic.   To each of these potential medics, Thomson’s writings and formulas were easy to understand, in large part due to their simplicity and numerology. 

Unlike Peter Smith’s book on self-healing, which consisted of over 50 formulas, Thomson’s basic medicines were only six in number, of which just three were essential.  Thomson’s medicine were in fact rich in trinity ideology.  Many of the formulas he wrote instructions for are told in three sentences, each sentence with three parts.  Thomson’s Family Medical Kit consisted of six ingredients, of which three were dried plant material, three were tinctures of extracts, three were for external use, etc.  Most important to understanding Thomson’s immediate fame is the reason why many dedicated to Thomsonianism were so willing to leave allopathy behind. 

For starters, a major epidemic had made its way through much of New England during the years just prior to the burth of Thomsonianism.  That epidemic, the yellow fever in fact was the major reason Thomson felt let down by regular doctors.  When the Yellow Fever later returned, Thomson’s claims to have healed these people unlike the allopaths, furthered his cause as whom he called the inventor of this sect, the one most convinced of its virtues, and the one most likely to success financially should this new healing faith rise quickly in popularity.

Thomson developed his faith due to beliefs he was strongly in support of, and which he knew that locals equally supported.  These healing beliefs and the resulting attitudes towards the role of the doctor managed to reduce the public support then existing for regular doctors.  Unlike previous years, the doctor was now supporting the use of much stronger plant extracts and mineral remedies to perform their cures.  In addition, the doctor was relying too much upon blood-letting, a practice many came to question the advocacy of. 

Perkin’s Metallic Tractors

About that same time, another alternative healing faith had already been through the Yellow Fever epidemic test, and to some it appeared to fail miserably.   Elisha and Benjamin Perkins’ Metallic Tractors managed to raise quite a following between 1796 and 1805, during which time at least four years’ worth of yellow fever epidemics had struck Boston, New York and Philadelphia.  When the Yellow Fever returned to New York about 1810, Elisha was so convinced of his Tractors that he removed to New York City to try to heal its victims, only to succumb to this Yellow Fever after a bout of three days of suffering with it.

This three day vigil which patients had to endure when struck with Yellow Fever was very important for them to understand when reasoning out the best therapeutic methods to employ to get rid of it.  Since the early 1790s, a Spiritual Revival was taking place in New England and New York.  A significant part of this Revivalism was the philosophy of its Preachers as to the cause of the Yellow Fever epidemic.  The public was already well of the regular doctor’s view of it as a climatic disease, perhaps due to the contagion brought in by ships from the Carribean, Central America or Spice Islands.   By 1804, Thomas Paine would even pereptuate the notion that Yellow Fever came due to the poor stenchy waters and air which percolated from the bottoms of overused harbors.   

Still, this physical desciption wasn’t enough for those dedicated to the Spiritual Revival.  Their needs in turn were met by the writings of Dr. John Thomson, a Missionary and Physician, with experience stemming from his proximity to the war in Austria a few years earlier.  Andrew Wisenthal’s Worm-based theory for the origin of disease has just been published as well, and numerous other writers were beginning to note the presence of these microscopic, once invisible “animalcules” in the same water which bore the stench of misama or contagion, in the proximity of many of these Yellow Fever cases.            

In 1802, and again in 1807, Dr.-Rev. Joseph Townsend’s book entitled Elements of Therapeutics was published by a printing company in Boston.  Soonafter, as this book and the knowledge it bore circulated about the New England area, Sameul Thomson heard of it, and perhaps within just a few years dreamed up much of his tale to follow through on the social craze then taking place dedicated to religious healing concepts and the ongoing Spiritual Revival then taking place.  In addition, like many previous writers, Townsend had conceptualized in writing important parts of Native America beliefs.  This form of spirituality thus further added to the credibility of Townsend’s preachings in medicine.

Thus, by 1812, Thomsonianism materialized and then became popular due to the influences of previous Theological writers like Joseph Townsend.  The blending of Native American and European religious concepts gives birth to recipes and instructions which merge recipes and instructions based on the numerology of four (four Galenic Humours/Four Season and directions) with those beliefs borne by the trinity faith (body, mind, and soul concept).  Townsend’s, and later Thomsonian’s protocols thus served as sanative healing practices, each their own methods based the Trinity.  

In his book Elements of Therapeutics, Reverend Townsend supported both Christian and Native American healing practices and discusses their use by the French during the Austrian War.  In Europe, the French, due to nearly two-hundred years of history in French Canada, were now well versed in Native American traditions including medicine.   They were thus quick came to recognize the value of certain parts of this healing philosophy then missing from their own protocols.  The chief reason for their Canadian and Missionary’s support for Native medicine was its lack of blood-letting practices, namely by the Algonkin cultures which the French were by then quite close to.  

While at war with Austria, the French realized the value of copying these Native American sanative healing faiths in the battlefields, and so their soldiers went into battle in the 1700s, a number of them used Native healing philosophy rather than rely on the blood-lettings which was causing many of them to die during stay in Prague, Austria as prisoners.  Since the Prague physicians bled the French prisoners freely during an epidemic of putrid fever, only to watch more than eighty percent of these patients die, this became the incentive which led the French to favor much simpler treatments such as diet therapy, and the use of stimulating and tonifying bark-based formulas. 

Due to his blending of these two popular alternative healing faiths in his Elements of Therapeutics, Townsend’s book became popular in early post-colonial America, and was republished twice in Boston in the years 1802 and 1807.  Then, it was advertised as a a standard domestic remedy guide for the region by the local publisher, and therefore was probably sold in the local area book and grocery stores, as well as by street-hawkers and sales agents who toured the region and travelled from door to door.  

As a religious healer, Townsend believed strongly in the Sanative medicine which he based his motto and its matching explanation on as he began his writing in this book:


“Nature makes efforts to relieve herself of morbid evils, consequently she is to be followed as a guide.  She can ward off approaching evil; she can remove whatever disturbs her economy or functions; and she can repair any injury the system has received.”

Townsend, like Samuel Thomson in later years, based his formulas on natural cures.  Townsend told his patients to rely upon the value of the fever as a natural course of events during illness.  The role of heat, he claimed, was to invigorate the body and help it in the overall recovery from illness.  Whereas Townsend the described of the role of Cantharides in performing this healing practice of heating the body, Thomson believed the application of heat externally should happen through the use of Cayenne.  Of this sort of sanative healing tradition posed by Townsend, we can easily read his formula in which Cantharides is used, and replace it with cayenne to get a description much like that of Thomson’s Recipe No. 2 (Cayenne):

“When cantharides is applied to the surface of the body, it first excites a genial warmth with inflammation of the skin.  A sense of burning follows, and Nature, distressed, goes instantly to work, separates the cuticle to form a bag, interposes serum between the nerves and offensive matter, then prepared another cuticle, that when the former with the adhering substance shall fall off, the nervous papulae may again be provided with a covering.”

Townsend then goes on to discuss the activity of the inflamed eye, which presents itself as copious tears to rid the eye of any foreign objects residing on its surface.   This is again followed by a nature-based curing technique practiced by Native Americans, such as for the removal of a foreign object like a thorn:

“When a thorn is lodged in some irritable part, the first suggestion is to extract the thorn by the fingers or the assistance of the nails, but if these fail, Nature sets up inflammation, the sequence of which is suppuration, which loosens and removes the thorn.”

In Thomson’s protocols, we find the transformation of the thorn into the canker, which Thomson claims to be residing in the ailing human body.  Thomson believed that to remove the canker on had to help by setting up an internal heat or inflammation, the result of which is removal of the canker.  The removal of the Thorn concept was learned earlier by the French during their explorations of the Midwest.  

Of the Sanative healing plaster, Townsend’s Native American influence is found in his discussion of one of the uses for Slippery Elm.  Used by Natives as part of the recipe for a sanative plaster, Townsend turned it into a treatment for dysentery:

“a decoction of the inner bark of the elm, which being extremely glutinous lubricates the mucous membranes.”

This matches the parallel allopathic use of starch injections and non-allopathic use of slippery elm mucilage in performing much the same treatments. 

To begin his debate over the discovery of Thomsonianism, according to Eclectic Medical Journal editor “H.”, one need only compare one of Thomson’s writings with a quote from he Townsend’s text to see the parallels that existed between Townsend’s and Thomson’s thinking regarding the sanative nature of fevers:

“A sick patient is cold and shivers though he have a fever; and heat drives the blood to the surface, increasing the cutaneous discharges,–a sweat, proportionate to the heat employed, breaks out; evaporation carried off the surplus and equilibrium is restored.”

Townsend next describes his heavy reliance on the injection of the bowels over the use of drastic cathartics, which in turn is quite similar to Thomson’s views on the same:

“The bowels should not be moved with drastic cathartics, but generally with clysters; rhubarb is mostly active enough, and if it don’t work, a clyster of soap and water and some emollient may be used.  In the treatment of disease the design is to remove morbific matter and all materials that increase the irritability of the system.”

Finally, Thomson’s invention of the term “canker” for the disease according to his own healing philosophy matches Townsend’s comments on the same.  Instead of pertaining to stools, altered by such things as “scybala” (scab, scratch or irritation), “colluvies” (snakes? worms? satan? clypeus?), and putrid sores (filth), Thomson focuses on the effects of the canker, and perhaps the worm. 

Townsend’s emphasis on the bowels came due to the numerous deaths then being experienced due to dysentery.   Townsend made special note of the following treatments for dysentery, which he called “a disease of constipation in the colon”:

“1. To relieve the intestinal spasms.

“2. To cleanse the alimentary canal…

“3. To sheath the irritated portions of the colon with mucilaginous substances.

Townsend’s belief was that “The first operation of cathartic medicines is to bring away loose stools, with hardened scybala, and phlegm.”  Thomson’s belief was that the healer should rid the body of the “canker.”  Both make use of Clysters and Rhubarb, and both use irritating plasters and internal and external heating formulas.

In later years, Townsend wrote of the use of herbs they were to be used as a significant part of Thomsonianism.  He recommended “hot and aromatic herbs, to raise a sweat, open the pores, and equalize the circulation…Warming medicines, and especially nauseants, are valuable adjuvants in the cure of most diseases.”   The commentator of these similarities between Thomson and Townsend’s early American medical books suggest that plagiarism may have taken.  In September 1875 he wrote “I need not call attention to the Thomsonian use of the above arguments.  They are familiar to those who have listened to the teachings of the “Reformed Practice” of medicine.” 

The Trinity Healing Faith and Sanative Medicine

The writings of both Thomson and Townsend were most likely bred from a combination of Sanative healing traditions and the parallels between Christian and Native American medical practices.  H. concludes: 

“I find that before the year 1800, a variety of ideas were afloat which afterwards got embodied in a system of practice presumed to have been founded by Samuel Thomson….It has been said by a distinguished writer that “history repeats itself with damnable itineration,” consequently those who live in the twentieth century may expect to encounter “originators” of new systems of medical practice, and Thomsonianism under some name “will live again.”

By this time in American Medical history, many had come to despise regular medicine, most of whom were open to alternatives.  Whether these alternatives be published by religious or physical healers, such as Quaker Shadrach Ricketson in New York and Connecticut, or Reverend Townsend of Massachusetts, in just a few years, Thomson’s writings outshined the writings of both.  This belief in Thomsonianism would continue for decades to come.  As it was converting from a trinity-born healing faith to one more typical of herbal professions during the 1820s, Thomson in turn developed competitors, the Neo-Thomsonians and third generation of Indian Root Doctors.  Thus by 1835, most of Thomsonianism was replaced by the teachings Botanic Medicine and Eclectics.   

“I find that before the year 1800, a variety of ideas were afloat which afterwards got embodied in a system of practice presumed to have been founded by Samuel Thomson.

“It is pretty well known that Thomsonism consists in expelling phlegm or “canker” from the body, emetics being preferred in executing the process; it embraces sweating and stimulation, and tonics after courses of ordinary medication; it favors soothing and shielding agencies, as slippery elm; it regards dysentery as a constipated state of the intestinal canal, which should be cured with mild evacuants.”

This Trinity basis of Thomsonianism was totally misunderstood by later writers and complainants about it.  As non-participants in Thomsonianism, and perhaps as doctors not attached to the religious revival taking place,  allopaths missed out on these essential elements of Thomsonian tradition. For example, in 1835, Dr. Williams of Boston gave a description of Thomsonianism and the Thomsonian National Infirmary in a speech to the Maryland House of Delegates, during which he noted the following interpretation of Thomson’s healing faith by use of tetrads instead of trines: 

“It professes to be founded on these assumed facts.  First, that the human body is composed of four elements, earth, water, fire and air; that earth and water form the solids, and fire and air give life and motion.  Second, that heat is life and cold is death.  Third, that all constitutions are the same and all diseases are the same.  Fourth, that cold produces all diseases.  Fifth, that obstruction produces all diseases.  Sixth, that all diseases are to be cured by the same remedy.  Seventh, that fever is a friend of the human system and not an enemy.” [p. 201]

Although they matched some of Thomson’s initial descriptions of his beliefs, William’s comments failed to mention much of the underlying philosophy of Thomsonianism, for it was that philosophy which generated such as welcome response from the gernal public.  In a courtroom in Albany, New York, in 1830, Thomson’s had to answer to a query by posed the State Attorney in order to decide if Thomsonianism were to be allowed to receive licenses for practicing medicine. 

Dr. John Thomson was present to dispute the state law established in 1830 by New York which outlawed the  practice medicine without a license:

“. . . on every person who should, without being authorized, practice physic or surgery; and no person was authorized by law to practice physic and surgery, till he arrived at the age of twenty-one year; and until he should have pursued the study of physic and surgery four years with some physician and surgeon authorized by law to practice as such, and has been duly examined by and received a diploma from the censors appointed by law to take such examinations.”

Thomsonians had signed petitions which they had handed over to the Speaker of the House by Dr. John Thomson, President of the New York State Medical Thomsonian Botanical Society. John Thomson was then asked a series of questions begging for an explanation for the underlying discipline of his healing faith.  Some of Thomson’s answers included his sect’s belief and illustrate its underlying Christian-based respect for trinity and numerological writing. 

Thomson first explained the Thomsonian belief that “All diseases consist in obstruction; that obstruction produces irritation–irritation produces suppuration, and suppuration, death.”  

Regarding the chosen remedies: “The first object is to remove obstruction,–the second to allay irritation,–the third to prevent suppuration.” 

The Thomsonians were dedicated to natural cures which Thomson explained by stating: “We believe in nature, and look to nature for our guide;–men educated in book knowledge are apt to know little of nature,–they follow the opinions of those who write the books, and neglect nature, the source of all knowledge and science that is worth knowing.” 

 Two of the questions he was asked were regarding the selection of Thomsonian remedies, to which he replied: “Our chief stimulants are cayenne pepper, lobelia, and aromatic herbs.” and “We never use opium, quinine, nor any other mineral medicine.” 

But the simplest trinity-based Thomsonian concepts came when John Thomson acknowledged: “We believe there is a trinity in everything; it takes three angles to make a triangle, three sticks to make a straight row,–steam, lobelia, and cayenne to establish a complete system of medicine.” 

The belief in Trinity and the related trinity-based style of writing was in fact the most important reasons for Thomson’s success during his sect’s earliest years.  As with the form taken by his replies to the New York interrogator, most of early Thomsonianism bore dominant signs of their belief in the trinity healing faith.   Thomson’s home remedy kits consisted of just three, six or twelve basic ingredients. His “Stock of Medicine for a Family” for example consists of six ingredients: 

  • 1 oz. of the Emetic Herb (Lobelia),
  • 2 ozs. of Cayenne
  • 1-2 lb. Bayberry root bark, in powder,
  • 1 lb. of Poplar bark
  • 1 lb. of Ginger,
  • 1 pint of the Rheumatic Drops

“This stock will be sufficient for a family for one year, and with such articles as they can easily procure themselves when wanted, will enable them to cure any disease, which a family of common size may be afflicted with during that time.  The expense will be small, and much better than to emply a doctor and have his extravagant bill to pay.”

In his text on medicines, the most important remedies always had three options for how to prepare and use them.  When recipes consisted of combined herbs, the formula made use of three herbs.  For making No. 1, Emetic Herb or Lobelia preparations, for example, Thomson gives three recipes for making his No. 1, each of which has a secondary trine as part of their descriptions:,

“1.  The powdered leaves and pods…from half to a tea-spoonful…in warm water sweetened…to cleanse the stomach, overpower the cold and promote a free perspiration.”

“2.  A tincture made from the green herb in spirit.  This is used to counteract the effects of poison; to be either internally or externally used; and for asthma, and other complaints of the lungs…”

“3.  The seeds reduced to a fine powder and mixed with Nos. 2 and 6…for the most violent attacks of spasms and other complaints, such as lock-jaw, bite of mad dog, fits, drowned persons, and all cases of suspended animation, where the vital spark is nearly extinct…”

Other recipes that follow this writing syle include: “No. 3.–For Canker,” “No. 4.–Bitters,” “No. 5.–Syrup,” and “No. 6.–Rheumatic Drops” are all given in trinity form, by making use of three paragraph arrangements for their instructions.  The formula for “No. 2.–Cayenne” is given as a single paragraph.

This accentuation of trinity not only made Thomson’s earliest writings an enormous attraction to Christian healers, they also implied the belief in a healing process supported by such alternative healers as the Masons and other natural philosophy based followings.  

This underlying philosophy differed greatly from the thinking possessed by regular doctors, and so there was a lack of understanding of the total Thomsonian belief by such critics.  regarding the four elements theory Thomson talks about in his writings, Dr. Williams even misinterprets the relevance of this numerology and the definiton of “element” and so stated:

“…as to the first fact or assumption, every intelligent or scientific individual knows that instead of the body being composed of four elements, the analyzing hand of science has proved to the world that it is composed of almost four times four elements; that some of those which were once believed elementary principles are compounds, and that others are only the phenomenon of matter, or the mere results of life and organization.”

In William’s eyes, as well as those by other regular physicians, Thomson’s favorite treatment for the lodged “canker” in the gut was to treat this problem as follows: “you are stuffed with cayenne pepper, steamed and puked to dislodge imaginary canker and cold.”  Since this and Thomson’s treatments for fever were based on Sanative curing techniques, Williams felt it to based on “erroneous theory.”

Thus by the mid-1830s, the alternative healing faiths were strongly emphasizing Sanative healing, a practiced most supported by religious groups.  Since during this time, the doctor and church were detached from each other, religious healers could no longer effectively work alongside regular medics, such as by the Cures and the Bone-setters in New France.  Several decades earlier, by about 1800, the first generation of Americans had reached adulthood.  As they took on a different attitude towards the English practices which regular doctors were still emphasizing, they came to support the alternatives, such as the use of electricity and local medicines. 

Both medicine and the role of religion in healing were due for a change by 1800.  In the eyes of historians, that change came about due to Thomsonianism.  Metaphysical historians would blame these changes on the new role about to be played by spirituality.  Religious historians might blame it on the changing role of Church in society, and the related development of new religious healers such as Mormons, who were again of a sanative healing nature.

The Thomsonian Recorder

On September 15, 1832, Dr. Thomas Hersey began publishing the Thomsonian Recorder.  Two months later, a meeting of the first United States Thomsonian Convention was held in Columbus, Ohio.  In October of the following year, another such meeting was held in Pittsburgh.  By then early factions had developed within this sect.  With talk of need for medical reform, it was thereby agreed that infirmaries were needed for the betterment of medical schooling. 

Dr. Samuel Thomson tried following through with this suggestion by attempting to establish an infirmary in Boston that next year.  But by then, the professional perspective of the need for reform in alternative healing had intensified.  A conversation then held between Dr. Beach and Dr. I.J. Sperry about the need to reform Thomsonianism, gave birth to the term “eclectic” to describe Beach’s behaviors and opinions regarding the healing process.  Soonafter, this led to Wooster Beach’s selection of the term “Eclectic” to define his healing faith.     

As similar clinics were set up in and around the Northeastern United States by Dr. Gregory of Montreal, Canada, the following doctors began operating infirmaries in the New York State area: Dr. Hiram Platt of Hartford, CT, Dr. John Thomson of Albany, Dr. E.J. Mattocks of Troy, Dr. Abiel Gardner of Hudson, Dr. Samuel Tuthill of Kingston, Dr. Thomas Lapham of Poughkeepsie and Dr. William Jones of Haverstraw.  In Ohio, Dr. Alva Curtis of Columbus had set up a clinic, as did Dr. Tatem of Norfolk, Virginia.  By 1820, the Hudson Valley became the heart of both New York Thomsonianism and Trinity Revivalism.

”Did Samuel Thomson Originate a Distinct System of Medical Practice?”  Eclectic Medical Journal, vol. 35, no. 9 (Sep. 1875), p. 433-435.

H. “Did Samuel Thomson Originate a Distinct System of Medical Practice?”  Eclectic Medical Journal, vol. 35, no. 12 (Sep. 1875), pp. 433-435.  See p. 434.

Quoted from H.’s article, p. 434.

Ibid. p. 434.

H. “Did Samuel Thomson Originate a Distinct System of Medical Practice?”  Eclectic Medical Journal, vol. 35, no. 12 (Sep. 1875), pp. 433-435.

Ricketson and Townsend wrote therapies which opposed one another.  Whereas Ricketson used Climatic-based thinking to argue against the use of artificial heat such as from bathing and sweat lodges, Townsend was more receptive to the Native American traditions. 

J.W. Comfort, M.D.  The Practice of Medicine on Thomsonian Principles, adapted as well to the use of families as to that of the practitioner….4ed.  (Philadelphia: Lindsay * Blakiston, 1853).

”The Thomsonian National Infirmary.  Extracts from Dr. Williams’ Speech in the Maryland House of Delegates.”  Boston Medical and Surgical Journal. Vol. 12, no. 13 (May 6, 1835), p. 200-206.

Another sign of Trinity? “Emetic” is a trinity name, unlike Lobelia.

pp. 70-71

Alexander Wilder. p. 488.

A second origin of this term is said to have happened through the thinking of Professor Benjamin Waterhouse of Harvard, who used it to refer to these alterantive healing faiths as being “Empiric or Eclectic.” Wilder. p. 28.

Joseph Townsend, Biographical Information

Reverend Townsend received his initial education at Cambridge, afterwhich he was ordained in the Church of England in 1763.  He next went on to study medicine at Edinburgh, by which time Edinburgh had developed a numbers of new departments other than theological that were responsible for providing a more diverse option of programs devoted to science, philosophy and natural law.  Townsend remained devoted to the Anglical church teaching for the rest of his life, but like many scholars, he oursued more of his own inquiries into the natural laws and their references to his religious teachings and beliefs. 

Rev. Joseph Townsend was far from being an ordinary Reverend and physician.  There is a tradition in some parts of religious history for certain leaders to become almost rebellious of the contemporary teachings, but not deviating so far from the norm as to be excommunicated or be made a victim of dissent by church leaders.    Dr. Townsend had to take the approach of  some sort of rationalist, viewing the evidence for himself before making a final decision.  This character train of Townsend was obvious to his fellow religious leaders.  Thus the mounting of a cherub on a church well before Townsend began the stage in his education process, returning to college for education in medicine and the natural sciences. 

During the years of sevice as Rector of Pewsey from 1764 until death, Townsend wrote his most import work Dissertation on the Poor Laws (1786), in which he defined the social issues by then being faced with population growth, poverty and inadequate food supplies.  Townsend’s writings suggest there may be a reason for why disease often becomes so rampant amongst the poor, a result of “God’s Plans”.   Much of this argument was recommenced by Thomas Robert Malthus when he published Essay on the Principle of Population (1798).

Townsend’s most influential essay, Dissertation on the Poor Laws , was devoted to how we might best treat the problem of poverty and the increasingly larger populations of the poor found in urban centers.  This work set the stage for the Malthusian based theories related to population growth that would be published in the 1798 book An Essay on the Principle of Population. 

 Townsend claimed there to be a naturalistic reason for how and why the poor exist in society.  He attributed this to the evolution of the economic system.  For this reason he opposed plans by British  Government to establish the means to provide for the poor in some sort of ‘outdoor’ relief program.  Townsend recommended a society’s poor people be treated by society itself, by producing a number of social support systems within a given setting in order to better meet the needs of the poor, such as covering health and burial costs and providing them whatever needs they required to survive.   These service groups or programs that developed had to be mandatory for the social network to develop, a means of social insurance by which the people invest in themselves in order preventing their own extinction or reduction in lifestyle to some dissociated form of socioeconomic state. 

As noted by The encyclopædia britannica: a dictionary of arts, sciences …,  (Hugh Chisholm (ed.), Cambridge, 1911.  Volume 17, pp. 515-6):

“Nor could it ever have been doubted that war, disease, poverty– the last two often the consequences of vice — are causes which keep population down. In fact the way in which abundance increase of numbers want increase of deaths succeed each other in the natural economy when reason does not intervene had been fully explained by Joseph Townsend in his Dissertation on the Poor Laws 1786 which was known to Malthus. “

At another point of time in Townsend’s intellectual pursuit of knowledge, he took a trip to Spain to view the social life in a country felt by many to be deprived of much economic and scientific success.  These trips were a typical behavior as part of the age of enlightenment most intellectuals and bourgoisie were trying to be encompassed within.    What was learned by watching the Spaniards could only be passed on to others by Townsend as a result of his travels and later his publication of this experience.  The author above, “H.”, confirms this latter outcome of Townsend’s work.  Townsend’s work became the primary influence initiating Samuel Thomson’s line of reasoning, adn the social reactions to this, either directly or indirectly.

Continuing along this intellectual journey, Townsend like other researched the newly develop theory of evolution and reviewed the findings in nature felt by many that be in conflict with the theory of Genesis.  With Noah and the Flood as important religious teachings, along with the belief in God and the Creation of the Universe and Earth in just a few days, temptations to pursue this level of understanding of the world led Townsend to read even further into the fields of science, in particular geology.  His most successful achievement during these studies was the development of a theory in 1799 in which he proposed the earth consisted of layers formed on its surface–that which we would later call the science of stratigraphy.  But this theory is probably as far as Townsend would go during a time when Lamarckianism and Darwinism were together fighting each other’s claims about natural evolution mechanisms, whilst members of the church stayed strong with their opinion that even these observations being made of layers, could also be defined as layers of sediment forms during the 40 days 40 nights course of a severe flood.  Townsend took several other routes in life aside from serving just the church.  He took a lengthy trip to Spain and published a 3 volume discourse on this adventure.  

Townsend’s sociological perspective on life and the poor was considerably advanced for its time.  His impact on medicine in general as well as early American medicine came from his two books:

  • The Physicians’ Vade Mecum; Being a Compendium of Nosology and Therapeutics, for the Use of Students.  1794, with later editions.
  • A Guide To Health; Being Cautions And Directions In The Treatment Of Diseases. Designed Chiefly For The Use Of Students.  1795-6, with later editions.

Both of these were published out of Boston at about the turn of the 18 to 19th century.


When Townsend was just 30 years of age, 1763, a Rococo-like tablet of a cherub was made of him.  Unknown to many visitors and viewers of this cherub to this day, its unlikable form, posture and face were fairly realistic.  [See Honington, Warwickshire, at]  The skull and oak branches typical symbols for the time.


“Cameron posted a photo of this one recently, it is a truly strange piece of work (see detail). Monument to Joseph Townsend described by Arthur Mee as “perhaps the most unpleasant cherub in England, a nightmare sculpture.” This Rococo work of 1763, looks like some character from Star Trek, hardly human. The monument is of fine marble and is situated on the south wall, I’ll post more photos to show its context at a later date”

Cherub (def.):  ‘one of the winged heavenly beings that support the throne of God or act as guardian spirits’.