” Seize upon truth wherever found,
” On Christian or on Heathen ground;
” Among your friends, among your foes,
” The plant is divine where e’er it grows.”
Thomsonian Recorder, Vol. 2. COLUMBUS, OHIO….DECEMBER 7, 1833. (Accompanying the minutes for an annual meeting)
During its earliest years, the followers of Thomsonianism learned the value of applying trinity faith to the practice of this medical sect. Engaging in such an interpretation was not that hard for most followers, due to the simple nature in which Thomson designed and writes about his treatment recommendations. Exactly why trinitarianism became a part of Thomsonianism is unknown, but chances are it had to do with simply two things: the recurrance of yellow fever during the late 1790s and early 1800s, and the meaning and purpose that the emphasis on trinitarianism might mean to the most devoted religiophiles also engaging in Thomsonian nature cure. When we look back at some of the history of Thomson’s work, there is little mention of trinity or the use of threes in any of Thomson’s writings. Still, we know this way of practicing Thomsonianism had to exist, based on the court records detailing a court procedure involving John Thomson, Samuel thomson’s son, and the New York State Attorney. The purpose of this meeting and related communications with J. Thomson by the State Attorney pertained primarily to Thomson’s request to be exempt from a state law regarding the licensure and state approval and documentation of medical practitioners. In 1840, John thomson confessed to this use of the symbolism of Thomsonian thinking in threesomes to answer one of the questions he was asked by the attorney general. The following is a review of the Thomsonian philosophy in a way untold by Thomson’s book. This particular numerological approach to interpreting Thomson’s meaning and the value of his recipes had a fairly strong influence upon his most devoted New York followers. The bulk of these followers resided between the border of Westchester County and the towns of Albany and Troy within the Hudson valley. Just like the Hudson Valley families who believed in and practiced in this region during the late 1790s and early 1800s, when the triennial or yellow fever was creating recurrign epidemics throughout the valley, these healers, this time regardless of their religious background, believe in the value of symbolized your faith or belief whenever practicing medicine by practicing your cure in good old-fashioned trinity style.
Thomsonian Practice is Put to the Test
The basics of practicing medicine in Thomsonian fashion may not have at all changed from one region to the next, although at times a physician may disobey certain preachings of Thomson such as by administering opium every now and then. The opposition to bloodletting was still a strongly followed guideline to practicing Thomsonianism, and practitioners also usually included the steam bath as part of all practices, although at times there were other ways this could be done through the development of special chambers invented in which the bath could take place. This uncertainty about making the change completely from one faith to the next was typical of other alternative professions as well. The most illustrative example of this is the transitions that took place as homeopathy became a popular practice in the staes during the 1830s. The first practitioner of this philosophy and its instigator in American medical history was not only a homeopath, but also a believer in blood-letting. The differences between the two theories underlying these distinctly different practices still had a lot of maturation to go through to become what they are today.
With more people now practicing Thomsonian medicine in the New York-New England area, the likelihood of failures were also on the rise for the region. Yet the same was true for practitioners of regular medicine as well. More importantly, it was the numbers of cases in which failure took place due to these method of practice that captured the public’s attention. There were still other parts of the Thomsonian practice that people were already well aware of, such as how and why the steam or vapor bath was to engaged in as part of the healing practice. Since many of the Thomsonian procedures could be done on your own without a physician’s intervention, practicing this form of medicine often became a decision to practice performed at your own risk. During the 1830s and 1840s, the failures or fatalities due to Thomsonianism were not so much a consequence of the regimen, but more the direct result of technology engaging in medicine to its fullest extent. In just a few years, it was much easier to steam one’s own self to death.
The reformation of Thomsonian principles or rules of practice has its evidence mostly at a very local level. There were few if any professional writings about this method of practice, except in the popular magazines then published, and often by both skeptics and comedians more so than by important political supporters of this method of healing.
An important example of just how unique Thomsonian can be is provided by court records pertaining to the legalization of Thomsonian practice in the state of New York. In 1840, the rights to practice Thomsonianism were argued in court in Albany, New York, where the State’s Attorney General questioned Dr. John Thomson of Albany, Samuel Thomson’s son, about his practice. Dr. John Thomson was then the President of the New York State Medical Botanical Thomsonian Society.
Referred to as Botanico-thomsonian practice by a reviewer of this court case, 1875 Eclectic Medical Journal writer (and probably editor “H.”) Professor A. J. Howe of Cincinnatti, Ohio (see “Article XVI. A Chapter in the History of Thomsonianism”, in EMJ, February 1875, pp. 71-73). The Legislature of New York was then reviewing the validity of Thomsonianism and trying to determine whether or not a particular state law applied to the practice. This law stated that prevented individuals from being able to practice medicine until they reached 21 years of age, required that a fee of $25 be paid by those who do practice physic or surgery “without being authorized” to do so by law, that anyone who does practice such medicine be required to do so only after undergoing four years of training or apprenticeship under either a physician or surgeon authorized by law do engage in such practices, and to be “duly examined by and received a diploma from the censors appointed by law to take such an examination.”
In the court’s words, as quoted by Howe:
“. . . 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.”
Members of the Thomsonian sect were trying to make their practitioners exempt from this law, and so forwarded a signed petition with their request for exemption to the State Legislature. This Legislature appointed members to a committee that would examine the practice of Thomsonianism to determine whether or not it merited such support. A summary report was then filed, which when reviewed by revealed to him an unusual series of replies to an inquiry concerning the philosophy of Thomsonianism. The State forwarded to John Thomson their questions, to which he offered the following replies in writing (again. based on Howe’s depiction and quotes).
When reviewing the following statements, look for the threesomes or trines in the responses given. The philosophy on Thomsonianism had an underlying trinity theme, making it highly attractive to the average person strongly devoted to the faith, as well as the doubtful agnostician or pseudo-atheists and transcendentalists for the time, devoted to natural philosophy and God’s signs in nature.
Evidence supporting this devotion to trinity is also found in a Philadelphia item detailing the discussions that took place between the religious leaders and government and physicians regarding the recurring yellow fever epidemics in the years just before Samuel Thomson invented his philosophy. Then equated to the plague, this disease caused 40,000 people to flee this city following the deaths of thousands of its citizens per day. An entire social belief and movement was initiated due to these events in New York as well, and even some behaviors in healing that relied upon such a belief system. In the mid-1830s, this system matured due to the severe impact of the Asiatic cholera pandemic, creating one of its strongest movements between Poughkeepsie and Albany due to the Lapham Family (this is covered on another page).
In 1832, Thomas Lapham began distributing Thomson’s remedies in Poughkeepsie. In 1837, he and Edmund Platt began publishing the Poughkeepsie Thomsonian, which remained in publication for the next 5 to 6 years. During this time the state of New York rewrote the licensure laws for medicine, in [particular for Thomsonianism. These laws were first in favor of the Thomsonians, but later these decision were reversed. The following interaction took place as a result of these legal arguments up in Albany in 1840. [Volume 1 of the Poughkeepsie edition, very rare, is in my possession and is reviewed in parts on other pages, with plans for a more detailed review focused on local information and history.]
“Question first: What is the fundamental principle on which the Thomsonian theory of Medical practice is based?”
“Answer: All diseases consist in obstruction; that obstruction produces irritation–irritation produces suppuration, and suppuration, death.”
“Question second: What are the leading remedial agents employed by Thomsonians to remove disease?”
“Answer: The first object is to remove obstruction,–the second to allay irritation,–the third to prevent suppuration. And as the remedial agents are held under a patent by my father I do not propose to disclose them, though they are known to all physicians of our faith.”
“Question third: What book do you and your pupils study?”
“Answer: Thomsonian Guide to Health, by Sam. Thomson; Hearsey’s Midwivery; Rafinesque’s Botany; the Thomsonian Recorder, published at Columbus, Ohio; and the Botanical Sentinel, Philadelphia.”
“Question fourth: Do you study anatomy and physiology?”
“Answer: We do not, nor do we recommend the studies. We do not consider ourselves surgeons, and those studies are useful only to them.”
“Question fifth: Are Thomsonian doctors midwives?”
“Answer: We are midwives, and the most successful of any in the country.”
“Question sixth: What stimulants do you use?”
“Answer: Our chief stimulants are cayenne pepper, lobelia, and aromatic herbs.”
“Question seventh: Do you use anythings as medicines, except vegetables?”
“Answer: No, we consider all other medicines poisonous, whether they be elementary or natural or artifical compounds. This extends to all mineral waters, no matter how popular; we consider them all deleterious, and of course poisonous. One of our apothegms is, that the metals and minerals are in the earth, have a tendency to carry all down into the earth, or in other words, the grave, who use them. That the tendency of all vegetables is to spring up from the earth. Their tendency is upwards; their tendency is to invigorate and fructify, and uphold mankind from the grave.”
“Question eighth: Do practitioners of your School avow that there are only four elementary principles in nature–earth, air, fire and water?”
“Answer: We do, and we indignantly disavow all the modern teachings of chemistry. My father arrived at the conclusions after mature consideration.”
“Question nineth: Why do you designate medicine by Arabic numerals, No. 1, No. 2, etc.?”
“Answer: Because we do not want anything to do with the scientific stuff employed by the mineral doctors.”
“Question tenth: Do you in the study of medicine ever dissect the human body?”
“Answer: We do not; in the first place it is wicked and unlawful; and in the second place, if a physician can not tell what medcines to use without dissecting a corpse he better do something else.”
“Question eleventh: Do you ever emply opium in any form?”
“Answer: We never use opium, quinine, nor any other mineral medicine.”
“Question twelfth: Do you advocate a thorough education as of any importance for students of medicine?”
“Answer: 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.”
“Question thirteenth: Have you anything additional you desire to place before the committee as explanatory of your doctrines?”
“Answer: 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.”
This inquiry ended after thirteen questions.
In his subsequent lines commenting about this court record. Howe makes mention of the strong emphasis on nature cure which the Thomsonians believed so strongly in. It is now more than 35 years since the court case, and the philosophy of Eclectic has undergone considerable change, although it is important to note that as of yet, the bacterial cause for disease had yet to be made, much less proven and then supported (an event that took from 1875 to about 1883). Howe was fairly critical of the physiopaths then trying to establishe themselves, as well as other offshoots of Thomsonianism with other names but sharing the belief in the nature cure philosophy.
A more important clue the results of this trial in New York give us pertain to the underlying ability of the individual’s philosophy to play an important role in belief and adherence to a particular healing faith. Thomson’s final statement provides evidence for one of the most important reasons Thomsonianism became so popular, at least in New England and the New York area. Belief in trinity played the most important role in determining whether or not Thomsonianism would become the most important non-allopathic healing faith in both religious and non-religious community settings. For a variety of psychologic, sociologic, demographic and geographic reasons, Poughkeepsie became the prime location for this change in philosophy and medical practice to happen. Due to religious views of the yellow fever, Poughkeepsie was the only place to be whenever an epidemic struck and followers of Samuel and John Thomson were abundant.