The first time United States plants were used in medicine after the Revolutionary War, physicians and medicine underwent several changes in medical thinking and traditions. The philosophy of medicine was no longer focused on the errors and ideologies derived from the humours theory of disease. Even though certain descriptions of diseases maintained some of the nomenclature attached to the humoural theory, the belief that it was an imbalance in these four parts of the body that resulted in disease had pretty much been removed from much of the philosophy for the time. For the traditionalists there was what is now called the solidists theory of disease, in which disease is realted to the health and form of specific body parts like organs and tissues. Then there is the metaphysical forms of disease theory which used energy related components to define disease, forces like electricity, heat, and other non-physical forces often likened to some vital force concept.
These changes in thinking were already well underway even before the war. A number of physicians tried to exclude the older concepts as much as possible by focusing on climatic and environmental explanations for disease, relying upon nature’s qualities related to temperature, humidity, precipitation and wind to explain why many diseases developed. Other physicians remained attached to the old Bible-related adages that told us we had to live, eat, drink, work and behave in such a way that we maintained the health of the body offered to us as a part of our birth. For a physician devoted completely to science, attempts were made to define disease and body changes as a result of interactions between the body and the many components of nature. For a physician more focused on the patient and human thinking and behavior, body form and function were important, although not as important as the human psychology and values in life assigned to remaining healthy, social interactions, and going to church.
Some of the most influential scientists and writers of late 17th century, with influences continuing well into the 18th century, used other imbalances within the body and between the body and nature to describe why diseases happened. Boerhaave’s emphasis on the alkaline theory for disease was devoted neither to the four humours nor the four elements theories for imbalance and disease. This theory focused mostly on just a few of these components in order to explain how and why diseases happened, using a philosophy that a century later could again be related to disease theories based on the unknown element of nature–the phlogiston, an magical chemical, element or substance yet to be identified. The phlogiston concept was used regularly to explain a possible cause for disease whenever a scientist came upon a substance proven to prevent certain maladies from ensuing, but was never able to define and identify the magical substance that worked in counterbalance with this vital substance.
Other examples of this theory in which vital forces or vitalism was used to define illness include the Dutch-Colonial teachings of this in New York by Borden (the practice of Osborn is an example of this), and the creation of the various forms of electric healing that became popular in this country. These static and later galvanic electric devices were said to contain the same spirit or energy of nature as many of the natural events seemed to possess, events like lightning, a passing comet, a solar flare from afar.
Still, non of the vital force concepts had much to do directly with the use and discovery of how and why herbs worked. The discovery of the healing power and use of an herb is typically a very physiological, physical event involving the body. When the herbal medicine is not working in this fashion, its effects upon the body in the form of hallucinations or emotional highs and low had something to do with the four temperaments and the uncontrollable nature of the passions of our physical body, a problem with the mind brought about by a physical problem that the body is experiencing.
The majority of herbal medicines discovered and for which effective and highly popular uses were developed are those which have obvious physical effects upon the body’s physiology and the ways in which its components work, or fail to work in unison. With the focus on nature and the environment as the causes for our diseases, physicians turned to plants with the goal of finding plants designed specifically for use against these natural events and experiences the body must endure whenever it is ill. The fever for example, a consequence of nature’s activities involving heat, in and out of the body, is the result of the body being stressed by certain natural events, such as overworking, engaging in too much drinking or gambling, involving yourself with other unhealthy people, or failing to abide by the rules of nature when it came to engaging in such basics as regular diet, sleeping, and outdoor exercise. Such a fever is due to too much heat, not an imbalance in the four humours, or the effects of alkaline foods and water upon our liver and spleen, but simply the result of untamed and unreleased heat and other bodily energy products. For dropsy or edema, the build up of fluids in the body was due to too little excitants needed to energize the functions partaken in by the heart and kidney. For a suppressed menses, the lack of adequate nutrient and one’s overall weakened state due to lineage, temperament and eating-recreational practices were to blame for this intermittent malady. ‘ Try to life better and more “purer” this next month’ a doctor might say to this patient.
Plant medicines during this time, the first post-colonial decades, were in competition the increasingly popular mineral remedies. However, plants too had their stronger concoctions that physicians were using. From the opium poppy came opium latex and later the more effective purified opium derivatives. From the mandrake root, wolfbane, and nightshades came the first purified alkaloids. From the concentrated plant extract came the much stronger medicinal resin, for example the coniine from water hemlock.
It was also during this time that mercury salts came to be used as a medicine, salts like glauber’s and epsom became even more popular, and arsenic suddenly was marketed as having medicinal potentials. The mineral content of healthy waters was a primary principal tested for its medicinal values. The ash or salt of the mummy was removed from the local materia medica, replaced by the salts from ashes of extensively dried, charred and incinerated plants like the wood sorrel (for oxalic acid) and the artemisias (for potassium). From the geology of a region, lime could be formed by burning certain soils and rocks, potash produced using certain organic and inorganic debris blends, and gypsum removed from the soil and used to create for the first time non-organic fertilizers for soil and crops.
Dr. Samuel Mitchell had something to say about anything and everything that had to deal with medicine during the late 18th and very early 19th century. Like most physicians, he went through his period of studying and writing about the herbal medicines, publishing his interpretation of the history of this profession important to medicine like several physicians before his, and that many more that followed in his footsteps. Most of Mitchell’s work served him well, and made him outstanding when it came to his knowledge base as a physician, editor or the Medical Repository, and in his later years, as a congressman for the people of New York.
In his study of American herbalism and the earliest writers on this subject, Mitchell reviews equally the Northern, Middle and Southern parts of the Americas. This means his work includes the writings and discoveries of medicinal plants for New Spain, New France, New England, New Sweden and New Netherlands. Mitchell never mentions of these former names for the Americas soon after they were discovered. He does mention when an explorer wrote about his endeavors in these new places, and whether or not that writer or discovered made any new findings of importance to local, American medicine. Samuel Mitchell’s work is some of the first comprehensive work done as fairly subtantial review of American medical plant history up until his period of schooling and medicine. Of course, there were some European works as well reviewing the medicines discovered in the Americas, but these writers were European in their nature, not American, and most certainly not United States citizens. No one else could understand and write about American herbal medicines as completely and fully as Dr. Samuel Mitchell, and so this thesis of his came to be.