The Reformative Period of Thomsonianism is defined by the formation of several splinter groups bearing much the same philosophy, but with a totally different set of life goals and life styles. The most important feature to keep in mind when reviewing this period of Thomsonian history is the place and philosophy the Thomsonian healer lives by. During this period , different regions were established based on the local cultural upbringing. For this reason, neighboring regions can often bear completely different sets of philosophies.
Demonstrating these differences between regions are the locations certain types of medicine were developing and the routes their followers often travelled as they spread the knowledge of these faiths. It was typical for physicians and “Friends” of these groups to use the traditional commercial and migration routes. When this dissemination of knowledge is reviewed spatially, we find that this diffusion process obeys one of the basic laws of spatial diffusion used to describe the dissemination of new discoveries or inventions. New discoveries tend to take certain types of paths, and the manners in which they are spread one large region to the next can sometimes help us to better understand how and why these types of transitions took place, and why some paths were taken and others ignored.
The Dissemination of Information, or the Diffusion Process
Hierarchical diffusion forms the standard for how new beliefs and practices in medicine travel over time. Each newly discovered healing faith tends to undergo two types of dissemination as the information is spread from one region to the next. Immediately following the discovery or publication of the new philosophy, it is spread locally into and throughout the immediate social environment. But in fairly short time, this knowledge migrates along with other people tending to migrate into new communities. Due to this diffusion process, new knowledge often tend to diffuse towards urban centers, where is then resurfaces, and at times, in communities located a considerable distance from the place of origin. The general rule for a typical hierarchical diffusion process is that an idea or theory tends to go first to various largely populated regions within a given distance from the original source, and from each of these regions to smaller urban settings, and from the small urban settings to large towns and heavily populated villages, and then finally into the rural setting. This is what defines the hierarchical nature of the diffusion process.
In the non-hierarchical diffusion process, at least in theory, one might expect an idea or theory to travel in some seemingly random way across space in time, like vapor dissipating from the local swamp or some sort of dust cloud spreading away from the dirt road. In social settings, the diffusion of things that directly and actively involve humans tend to not follow the random pattern of spread. When such things diffusion into and through a population, one other common option these things have to take is what may be termed a reversed hierarchical diffusion process (a term I assigned for this process with my MS Geography thesis). The reversed hierarchical process takes place when object travel through a population, focusing more on the less-populated, and seemingly less important community settings or people. A reversed hierarchical pattern of diffusion requires that the “outsiders” take on the information or intellectual discovery, make it a part of their daily lives and cultural practice, after which, it can then be discovered by the others in a particular population setting, enabling this “discovery” to now become commonplace in the more traditional elite population and community settings.
Although seemingly very ethnocentric in nature, this diffusion process does enable us to better understand why a given event can occur in one type of social setting, and not at all take place in another such setting that appears to be of similar style and nature. The diffusion of two alternative medical practices–Thomsonianism and Indian Root Doctoring–tended to behave in different fashions due to these types of demographic differences. Thomsonianism tended to abide more by a traditional hierarchical diffusion pattern, with the exception of the most elite and richest of social urban settings, Indian Root Doctoring tended to form from the lower level of the social hierarchy setting, and required a special series of events to finally integrate itself into some parts of the more traditional elite urban culture. These differences between the two healing faiths help to explain why Thomsoniaism became so popular between New York and New England, followed by Ohio and then the Indiana-Illinois, Tennessee and Alabama parts of the states, whereas Indian Root doctoring as a popular culture-based medical profession, made its way into local economies in a reversed hierarchical diffusion fashion, first healing the poorest of the poor, the middle class, and finally the rich.
In the case of Thomsonianism, the development of this medical theory took place in a fairly rural to suburban far setting, and from there was introduced to local cities and towns. In the case of the counterpart to Thomsonianism for the time, Indian Root doctoring, this diffusion process took a much different route, often remaining more a rurally-established profession at first, only becoming more popular in heavily populated regions once the news of this new philosophy managed to spread to enough communities with enough different types of cultural backgrounds. Whereas at times, the other medical philosophies seemed to intermingle with the teachings of Samuel Thomson or his book, in certain kinds of cultural and demographic settings, the more rural form of healing which involved the use of local herbs and such, seemed to take second seat to the primary philosophy favored by the more heavily populated regions. This is apparently why certain aspects of Thomsonian medicine were spread as quickly as they were, even making their way into rural settings once again, and it is why these philosophies tended to undergo the types of changes they did in these largely populated areas. Unlike Indian Root doctoring philosophy, which seemed to have its strongest followings, authors and re-inventors of the tradition residing in the Northwest Territories of the newly defined states, such as Indiana, Illinois, and parts of Ohio, the incredibly popular practice of Thomsonianism satisfied the traditional religious settings found throughout the heavily populated coastal states.
One other aspect about Thomsonianism that tended to recur for other alternative healing faiths that formed throughout the nineteenth century was the tendency for these non-allopathic professions to develop deep followings in large urban areas just outside the main economic center for the region. The reason for this tendency to develop their followings in this way had mostly to do with the economy of the older urban settings along the coastal states. These large cities, such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, not only had a long history of supporting the status quo, namely the regular physicians trained in some formal type of university and/or apprenticeship setting, they also had the money and politics needed by regular physicians to fend off the reformers of medicine once they completed their training, and if not, they had the public following needed to get rid of any news schools that opened due simply to local mob-related behaviors. It did not really matter what the general public had to say about the new reformed physicians, even though their methods of practice seemed less physically stressful than the methods used by regular physicians. What mattered more was that the primary wants and needs of the richest urban settings needed to be met. Along the Atlantic shores, regular medicine managed to satisfy the richest doctors and their patients. More inland, within large urban settings, there was more leeway provided by the populus and their belief systems enabling them to make a choice as to what type of physician would be allowed to become the main form of medicine practiced in this setting. Once an alternative medical profession like Thomsonianism became as popular as it did in these more distant urban communities, it was only a matter of time before it could spread to the next community located a safe distance from the status quo, and then from each of these heavily populated regions into smaller towns rich in potential supporters. For this reason, it is possible that until Indian Root doctoring became the popular culture tradition for the time amongst more economically-secured urban settings, it would not become the main fad for the time in any of the older coastal urban communities.
In sum, the diffusion of alternative medical philosophies was very much defined by the types of communities that existed at the time each of these alternative healing practices developed. It was in part the type of belief being promoted that helped to define whether or not particular beliefs would become heavily popular in a given village, town or city setting. But it was also the cost of engaging in such practices and the interpretations of each of these practices as part of or distant from the status quo of the most elite families for the time. Since the Hudson Valley was full of entrepreneurs and very rich families and political leaders throughout this time, even as a successful enterprise for Valley physicians, Thomsonianism had its competitors. Whereas the most elite who did not favor Thomsonianism remained close to their place of origin down by largest urban settings positions along the shoreline, the other families situated more inland, with members who became governors, legislature members, members of council and various other political leaders, managed to develop their own faiths and philosophies that competed with regular medicine and Thomsonianism. In Poughkeepsie, there was a junction between the most elite, who tended to favor regular medicine and electric cure, and the poorer families and members of the elite who at times considered the value of the alternatives. For this reason, both regular medicine and the alternative forms of medicine became very popular throughout the Valley, and in some cases offered many locals still more opportunities to design and promote their followers devoted to personal health and well-being. For this reason, Thomsonianism became quite popular in this part of the Valley, whereas the more distant, fairly rural form of medicine practiced by the poor, in the eyes of Poughkeepsie and Dutchess County residents, would not be as heavily promoted in the local cities, if at all for this part of New York. This is perhaps one of the best ways to explain why the Indian Root Doctor fad did not become as popular as Thomsonianism along the Hudson River and eastward towards Connecticut and Vermont. Even though the Thomsonian period in alternative medicine history was preceded by Indian herbalism during the late and early post-revolutionary war period, other follow-up to this philosophy (most published west of New York in fact), would not be able to effectively compete with Thomson’s followers and other local medical preachers. It would take a fairly formidable movement to turn the public’s attention away from Thomsonianism to some extent and towards Indian Medicines once again. This transformation occurred during the Period of Transcendentalism in the Valley, and took place approximately from 1825 to 1840 (more on this later).