Samuel Thomson

The Thomsonianism Timeline

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale.

1800-1820s–The Jeffersonian Period

1804–Licensure of physicians  starts to become a state requirement.

1809–Thomson invented his philosophy.  Puke, Purge and Bleed is the common regimen for the time.  The majority of patent medicines that are popular out there are British inventions.  The first American patent “medicine” is produced–Tuscarora Rice (from the western NY Tuscarora Indians).  The most popular domestic medicine guide is William Buchan’s book.  Rev. Joseph Townsend writes his own vade mecum and domestic remedy guide that is published in Boston and distributed about this time (maybe a little earlier).

Samuel Thomson’s method questioned by court; a patient of Dr. French, Ezra Lovett, died due to an over-administration of Lobelia.  French was acquitted due to expert witness’s misidentification of Marsh Rosemary (Limonium sp.) as Lobelia.  For more on this  (and if you have the journal access for these rare documents) see:

Thomson’s Legal Trial articles:   “Thomson’s Trial.” Physiomedical Recorder, v. 24 no. 4, April 1859. p. 131-132; “Thomson and his “Crudities.””  ibid.  v. 24, no. 5, May 1859, p. 163-164; “Trial of S. Thomson for the Murder of Ezra Lovett.  Criminal Court of Massachusetts, 1809.  Judge Parson’s Official Report.”  v. 24, no. 6, June 1859.  pp. 165-168;  ibid. “Dr. Thomson’s Narrative of the Trial.” pp. 168-175.; ibid. pp. 175-177. “Letter from Dr. Waterhouse.” to Samuel Thomson, Boston, from Cambridge, Dec. 11, 1835; including letter from Dudley A. Tyng, E.G. House, Esq., Boston, Newburyport, October 17, 1825; Ibid, no. 7. August 1859. pp. 259-260. “Communication from Dr. Thomson.

Ca. 1810

Thomson patents his various treatments, and sells a certificate along with copies of his related texts and medications to aspiring physicians for $20.00.

1811–Thomson’s philosophy was solidified by the court case and his philosophy gets more public acceptance.

In 1811, in Eastport, Maine, he held his first meeting to establish a society consisting of his followers.

1812–The following year, a circular on his healing sect was published, and in 1813, he applied for a patent of his healing system.   Another eleven years would pass before his pamphlet was improved enough to be printed as a book.  Beginning 1822, his Guide to Health went through the publishing of thirteen editions, with one in German to satisfy the Germans residing in Pennsylvania.

1815–Thomsonian possibly becomes a locally well-known “doctor” and his philosophy gets spread around the Vermont-New Hampshire-Connecticut-Massachusetts region [Its competitors in Ohio and Kentucky, and perhaps Indiana are Indian Doctors]

1817–first “reformed school” attempts to open in Ohio (see medical history in Ohio books for this; it is not mentioned in any medical directories or the standard history of medical school books).   This school had a very short lifespan (1 or 2 classes at most, with classes usually just 4 to 6 weeks in length).

1820/21–followers of Samuel Thomson publish their own books; many of these books are quite obviously plagiarized.  Example:  Isaiah Smith, Buffalo region of NY.

1820/1–The first meeting is held and the group is called Friends of Thomsonianism.

1822–Thomson’s work is published as a book.  Indian Doctoring is now very popular as well.

1825-1850–The Jacksonian Period

1825–the first followers outside the Vermont-New York-Connecticut-Massachusetts  region, in particular further west and south, become influential.

One of the most influential members of the allopathy profession, and a very important botanical medicine expert, supports Thomsonianism and its claims in a courtroom.  This is a temporary political blow to regular physicians.

1827–Dr. Wooster Beach, NY, formed Eclectic or Reformed System of Botanic Medicine.  Dr. Beech would be an ally of Thomson’s for several years.

1830s–some attempts are made by state to stop Thomsonism from being legally practiced; most of these attempts fail.  There is some evidence that herbalism and the sales of herbal goods is becoming an important piece of Shaker history as well (this may have been initiated some time between 1820 and 1825); they begin aggressively farming these herbs and produced some of the dried herbal products.

1832–A publication called the Thomsonian Recorder is established; it soon becomes a very popular periodical; this periodical’s articles are cited by several of the most popular Christian periodicals then in circulation.  A link between Christian Sanative philosophy and Thomsonian is is solidified, without much promotion of this interpretation made active by Thomson himself.   Thomsonianism has some of its strongest followers along the Bible Belt and the more active Christian communities (many Southern Baptist), as evidenced by letters to the editor of professional magazines for both Thomsonianism and Christian teachings and living practices.

1832, September 15   Dr. Thomas Hersey begins publishing the Thomsonian Recorder. [Wilder, 488]

1832, December    17    First United States   Thomsonian Convention meets in Columbus, Ohio.   Attended by Dr. Alva Curtis, of Richmond, VA.  [Wilder, 489]

Second Convention: October 1833, Pittsburg, PA [Wilder, 490]

1833–Second Convention.  October 1833, Pittsburgh.  Attempted to create a permanent organization.  Tried initiating the “National Thomsonian Infirmary” in Boston. [Wilder, 490]

In an 1833 count of licensed Thomsonians subscribing to one or more of the trade journals through agents, it was found:

  •  41 agents were in Ohio.
  • 29 in Tennessee
  • 21 in Alabama
  • 14 in New England
  • 11 in Indiana
  • 8  in New York

1833– Horton J. Howard, printer, died from Cholera.

1834–Third Convention: Baltimore, MD, 13 October 1834, 4 days.  Events included passage of a “Test Resolution”:  Guide to Health re-accepted by the national committee. [Wilder, 492]

Dr. S. Thomson began his work in an Infirmary in Boston, MA  [Wilder, 491].  Other participants to meet at these conferences were:

  •       Dr. Tatem of Norfolk, VA
  •       Dr. Gregory, Montreal, Canada
  •       Dr. Alva Curtis, Columbus, Ohio
  •       Dr. Hiram Platt, Hartford, CT
  •       Dr. John Thomson, Albany, NY
  •       Dr. Thomas Lapham, Poughkeepsie, NY
  •       Dr. Abiel Gardner, Hudson, NY
  •       Dr. E.J. Mattocks, Troy, NY
  •       Dr. Samuel Tuthill, Kingston, NY
  •       Dr. William Jones, Haverstraw, NY

1835–Alva Curtis is still faithful to Thomsonianism, but is teaching new methods in his home.  He Incorporates his business this year.

In a speech given to the Maryland House of Delegates, Dr. Williams discusses the Thomsonian National Infirmary opened [in Boston?].   Dr. Williams. “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.  In this speech, Dr. Williams gave his interpretation of the Thomsonian system:

“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]


Thomsonian protocols during the early years (ca. 1810-1820)

  • Lobelia
  •  Vapor Bath
  • Cayenne/Capsicum
  •  Bay
  •  Gum Myrrh/Capsicum/Lobelia preparation

Thomsonian books:

  • Guide to Health
  • Midwivery

Thomsonian Journals:

  • Thomsonian Recorder

Botanic Medicine initiated as an offshoot of traditional Thomsonianism.  Founder: Alva Curtis; school is opened in Chillicothe, Columbus and finally Cincinnatti, Ohio.   The Thomsonian Recorder he published gets renamed Botanico-Medical Recorder.

1835–Other writers begin to officially publish Thomsonianism, defining this philosophy in a more complicated manner.

1836–In 1836, Alva Curtis and his Ohioan following broke away from this sect, and formed the Columbus Infirmary to be used by his Botanical Medical School.  Alva Curtis is the first of a number of “Independent Thomsonians” are defined by one author as having differences contrived “largely in the mind of Curtis.”  He could not tell the differences between “this brand of Botanic physicians and the older ones.” [article, p. 184.]

Thomson’s theory read as “Heat is the manifestation for life, the cause for fever, and cold an effect or obstruction the cause for diseases.”

Thomsonian thinking was defined as:

 “[He] counts irritation, fever, and inflammation as so many modes of manifesting an interruption of the free action of the vital force,–of course not disease, but a sanative effort.  Secondly, it never seeks to diminish the power to produce the symptoms, but always to remove what prevents an equilibrium of vital action, whether that obstacle be a positive substance, as in retained secretions or excretions; or a mere condition, as in cramp. tetanus, the contraction of the surface in the incipient stages of fevers, etc.”

 The emphases made include “natural medications,” “cure by exercise” and “cure by physiological laws.”  See advertisement definition, quoted on p. 185.

1837–Curtis renames Thomsonian Recorder to Botanico-Medical Recorder, to be published out of Cincinnati.  Curtis was the editor for this journal until 1852, after which it is renamed Physio-Medical Recorder, published as such until 1859.  (Note to researchers: this extremely rare journal has its 1859/1860 copy in bound form at NCNM, Portland OR).  In 1860 it was renamed Cincinnati Medical Gazette and Recorder.  Much of the writing that defined this journal as Thomsonian was no longer found in the text from this point on.  This signified the end of the Thomsonian period based on the profession as it was known prior to the development of a bacteria theory.

In Autumn of 1837, Curtis announced that new classes to be held at his new school in Chillicothe.  He charged $25 per class.   Also in 1837, J.E. Carter had published his The Botanic Physician of Family Medical Adviser (sic). Madisonville, Tennessee, 1837.

As the expiration neared regarding to patent of Thomson’s remedies, new schools were still opening with the intentions of teaching this form of medicine.  One of these schools was the Botanic Medicine in Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, and Mississippi.   Other schools around this time favored the other term for this period in national medica history, and recommended the use of “Reformed Medicine” as part of their professional name.  By this time in “Irregular” Medical history, three doctors–Drs. Curtis, Howard and Beach–began forming their own factions.   Dr. A. Biggs, Memphis, Tennessee was also a standalone at times in the political sector for this medical profession.  Previously an advocate of Thomson, Sylvester Graham becomes less supporting of Thomsonianism for some reason (perhaps he was readying to start his own alternative healing faith).

Also in 1837 , Dr. Frost was brought to court on manslaughter charges for work done as a Thomsonian-Physio-medical doctor; considered “the first great legal test of the harmless nature of Lobelia.” [“Editorial Miscellany.  Frost’s Trial.”  Physiomedical Recorder, v. 24 (4) April 1859. p. 131].  Dr. Frost is imprisoned for killing one of his patients using Thomsonianism.  [The Sweat or Vapor bath was often the cause for these horrible deaths; as the vapor baths became patented items for one to use, this problem became even more prevalent.]

The copyright for Guide to Health was renewed.

1838–A request to dissolve the Thomsonian Convention was filed.  Later that year, the Thomsonians decided to cease holding their annual conventions and the founder, Samuel Thomson, assisted in this splitting at the Convention.  Curtis then went on to form the Independent Thomsonian Botanic Society.  The traditional  Thomsonians, mostly of the east coast, retained their name United States Thomsonian Society.

1839–Curtis filed for a State Charter for his school.  As a consequence, in March, The Literary and Botanical-Medical Institute of Ohio was opened.  In Autumn of that year, The College of Physicians and Surgeons was opened in Columbus, Ohio.  Dr. Thomas Cooke, wrote Botanic Medical Reformer & Home Physician (Philadelphia, 1839).  By the end of the year, it was estimated by Thomson that over 100,000 to three million copies of his book were sold.

1840–U.S. Thomsonian Society met.  True Thomsonians said to have changed the sect’s name to “Botanics.”   Reformed or Independent Thomsonians were likened to “Eclectics” and Curtis’s Thomsonians.

In New York, The Legislature in Albany was petitioned by the supporters of the Thomsonio-botanic profession who asked the Legislature to pass a law exempting Thomsonians from having to pay a fee of twenty-five dollars to receive a licensure, as required by a law passed by the state in 1830 (which see).   Petitioner to meet with the Speaker of the House in New York was John Thomson, President of the New York State Medical Thomsonian Botanical Society.

1841–Curtis removes to Cincinatti.  Initiated the Physiopathic College, which lasts until 1885.  Alva Curtis died about this same time.

1843–Samuel Thomson died.  By now the Botanics sect was reduced in size due to the desertion of members to the other two sects.  Following Thomson’s death, near all members deserted this group and joined other sects, Thomsonian or not, by the Civil War.

1845–Albany hearing regarding Thomsonism.  Samuel’s son defines significant parts of the Thomsonian philosophy and provides some of the most important insights into the popular culture nature of the medical fad.  The Concentrated Plant Extract is invented by King, and perhaps simultaneously by Parke and Sons (precursor to Parke, Davis & Co.).

1849-1856–Documents provide insights into Thomsonianism as a popular philosophy of the past.  Oregon Trail history writings refer to Thomsonism as a practice of the Jacksonian era, primarily still being practiced by grand parents and older aunts and uncles.  This defined the 1820s and perhaps early 1830s as the period of its most active following.  Its continuation appears to persist mostly due to old schools still operating, some sanative healing teaching facilities (some even schooled at church, i.e. Illinois, 1842), and those of the Reformed or Eclectic Medical profession either reminiscing on this fad (1845 on), or still supporting some of its original claims about the unsafe mineral remedies and use of certain botanicals.


1860–From 1827 to just before the Civil War, 22 botanical medicine schools were established.  Most resided in the southern and mid-western regions, usually established in small towns, and were formed after 1845.

Thomsonian popularity is once again at a low.  The Civil War years did much to increase the reputation of regular medicine, in particular from a military angle, but also at the scientific level as well.

1864–Indian Doctoring is once again popular

1875–Eclecticism retains its popularity; Thomsonianism only remains because it is integrated into parts of the Eclectic School teachings.   Lister’s formula is tested for sanitizing the surgery equipment, surgeon and patient.

1880-1885–many states initiate a State medical licensure group meant to oversee licensure and the rights to practice medicine; nearly all states have at least one physician on the state board for each practice: regular, homeopathic and eclectic.  Many states have 2 regular MDs for each Eclectic MD and Homeopath.  There are no board representatives allowed for botanico-medicine, physiomedicine and its related fields, Indian Doctors, water cure or hydropathy physicians, osteopaths, chiropods (early podiatrists) or chiropractors.  Requirements are established for proving a bacterium is the cause for a specific disease.

1885-1895–a revival in Thomsonianism is seen in the old-time Thomsonian states.  Eclectic medicine reacts to bacterial theory for disease; produced a new breed of Eclectic physicians who for  a very short while call themselves the New Eclectics (1885).  The basic beliefs popular to the Thomsonian and Eclectic alternatives  remain sanative in nature; most practitioners of the new Thomsonianism and new Eclectics fields of study contest the recently popularized and nearly proven bacterial theory for disease.   Books on this are published around 1890.  Early 1890s–regular medical societies are facing a problem with the old-timers who have poorly documented training and lack of the required certifications.


Early Anti- or Neo-Thomsonian writings included

  1. Dr. A.A. Benezet.  The Family Physician…calculated particularly for the Inhabitants of Western Country… (Cincinnati, 1826.)
  2. Daily’s Family Physician. (Louisville, 1848)
  3. Miles.  New and Improved System of Medical Botanical Practice.  (“Cleaveland,” 1929) which failed to mention Thomsonianism.  [Pickard and Buley, p. 173]
  4. Horton Howard.  An Improved System of Botanic Medicine, Columbus, 1832.
  5. J. Kost. Practice of Medicine according to the Plan Most Approved by the Reformed or Botanic College.
  6. J.E. Carter.  The Botanic Physician of Family Medical Adviser (sic). Madisonville, Tennessee, 1837.
  7. S. & C.A. Preston.  The Medicinal Instructor, or the Cause and Cure of Disorders expressed in Plain Easy Language and intended for the Great Benefit of Mankind.

See Also:

  1. R.E. Banta.  “The Indian Doctors.” Wabash Bulletin. Vol. 40 (Jan. 1942), p. 24.
  2. Juettner.  “Rise of Medical Colleges in the Ohio Valley.”  Ohio Archaeological and Historical Society Publications. Vol. 22 (1913), p. 488.
  3. Prof. A.J. Howe, M.D., Cincinnatti, Ohio.  “Art. XVI.A Chapter in the History of Thomsonianism.” Eclectic Medical Journal, v. 35 no. 2, (Feb 1875) pp. 71-73.

Thomsonianism-Primary References

  1. Samuel Thomson. Life and Medical Discoveries of Samuel Thomson and a history of the Thomsonian Materia Medica as shown in “The New Guide to Health (or Botanic Family Physician.” (1835).  (Bulletin of the Lloyd Library of Botany, Pharmacy and Materia Medica.  J.U. & C.G. Lloyd (eds.), Cincinnati, Ohio.  Bulletin No. ____, 19–, Reproduction Series, No. 4).
  2. J.W. Comfort.  The Practice of Medicine, or Thomsonian Principles…4ed.  (Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1853).

Thomsonianism-Secondary References

  1. Alex Berman.  “Neo-Thomsonianism in the United States.”  Journal of the History of Medicine, (April 1956) p. 132-155.
  2. Alex Berman.  “The Thomsonian Movement and its relation to American Pharmacy and Medicine.”  Bulletin of the History of Medicine.  Vol. 25, no. 5 (Sep.-Oct 1951),  no. 6, (), pp. 405-428, 519-538.
  3. Gerald L. Cates, Ph.D.  “Thomsonian Medicine and Early Medical Societies.”  Journal of the Medical Association of Georgia.  Vol. 66 (Jan. 1977), pp. 23-27.
  4. Swineburne Clymer, M.D.  The Medicines of Nature.  The Thomsonian System.  (Quakertown: The Humanitarian Soceity, Registered, 1960).
  5. Benjamin Colby.  A Guide to Health.  (Hammond: Hammond Book Company, 1940)

Thomsonianism-Secondary References–Journal Articles

  1. John Haller, Jr.  “Kindly Medicine:  A History of Physio-medicals in American Medicine”.  New York State Journal of Medicine. 93, 2 (Feb. 1993), pp. 144-141.
  2. J. Ben Nichols, M.D.  “Physio-Medicalism.”  Medical News.  Feb. 9, 1895.  pp. 152-154.