Applications of Dutch Regionalism to Local Medical History

There is an application of this information about the establishment of Dutch cultural boundaries to a number of popular topics I research concerning New York and Hudson Valley Dutch heritage and traditions.  One of the more popular applications to this application of geographical (spatial-temporal) thinking has related to foodways and cultures.  This topic was heavily popularized by the research and writing of Dutch cultural foodways expert Peter Rose.  During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the impact of Dutch traditions on local economic policy, governmental practices and, as Stuyvesant once practiced, “tolerance” of numerous other cultural lifestyles, beliefs and living practices, altogether have made the two riverways the place of birth for Dutch tradition in this part of North America, and the place for perpetuation, continuance and celebration.  

The other piece of Dutch tradition normally not reviewed or focused upon by researchers, the focus of much of my work and the findings I report elsewhere at this site, are the effects of Dutch tradition on Colonial and United States medical practices.  The Dutch traditions set the stage for many of the unique events in medical history that took place throughout the Hudson Valley.  These cultural influences not only involve differences in lifestyle and “tolerance”, but also are the reason  important steps in the evolution of medical philosophy take place within the Hudson Valley.  One of the most important impacts Dutch tradition had upon American medicine was the perpetuation of metaphysical-based healing practices and the evolution of new ways to interpret this metaphysic in a natural philosophy sense that is not just scientific, but also naturalistic, or humanistic in nature. 

The following alterantive medical practices made their way into the United States by way of the most active Commercial route via Manhattan shipping ports.  Some tried to enter the North American continent via other routes, such as Boston, Philadelphia, North Carolina, Georgia, but for some reason never took hold in the local settings of these important shipping ports.  For the most part, the density and size of the New Amsterdam/New York population is what helped these professions obtain their followings dueing the 17th through 20th centuries.  But this was not the only requirement for alternative medical thinking to take hold in a given region.

The second requirement for alternative philosophy to take hold is the willingness on behalf of the general public to consider these alternatives to the status quo.  The Dutch who settled New Amsterdam and New Netherlands were very much these types of people, especially during the earliest years of this regions in-migration history.  Even with the turnover of the city and valley to the British in the late 17th century, the planting of Dutch traditions and their continuation for decades to come in spite of British rule, made the New York-Hudson Valley population more tolerant of the “new age” thinking for their times.

A couple of other features helped to further define how and why alternative medical thinking behaved the way that  it did within the Valley.  One major stumbling block to “new age thinking” is the political forces at play, that are often against these new ways of thinking.  In the case of New Netherlands/New York, the status quo who held their most politically powerful medical and governmental positions were typically residing in the more economically successful parts of this region, more often than not in large urban settings like New York City, or in the case of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and in the case of Massachusetts, Boston.  Each time new thinking arises in medicine that is against the status quo teachings, local disputes erupt, followed by mob scenes during the first decades of US history, followed by the elimination of the new practice within the urban setting, and its relocation to other more viable and popularly supported community settings.  For New York City, these urban settings were along the Hudson Valley, out of reach of the political leaders in medicine residing mostly within large urban settings.

The final events to often spur changes on in medicine are the failures of regular physicians.  In the case of late 18th and early 19th century medicine, these failures were the relentless continuation of bloodletting practices, the administration of fairly effective medicines that often had significant side effects, and most importantly, the inability of regular medicine to treat some of the most common epidemics that took palce from time to time throughout urban-valley history.  The truest test for physicians took place whenever these epidemics were spurred on and thereafter continued such as Yellow Fever, Typhus, and Asiatic Cholera.  These epidemics were perceived as a test of the physician’s ability to practice, and to many, practice medicine according to “God’s plan”.  Each of the following alternative medical practices had its epidemics which helped it find its birth within the Hudson Valley:

  • Typhus, var. years
  • Yellow Fever, 1793, but especially, 1797, 1802, ongoing to 1806,
  • Asiatic Cholera, 1832, 1848-50

Although these epidemics were commonly due to agents that were unknown and uncontrollable by the physicians for the time, the apparent actions of the other healers to produce less of an impact on the body as a physician than regular physicians, often made their method of practice more popular and broadly accepted.  In some cases, strong religious advocates seemed to favor one practice over another, countered by the alternative thinking of natural philosophers interested in still other forms of “irregular” medicine.  The domestic healers, the socioculturally accepted and highly popular midwives, curees and herbalists, and the not so scientifically sophisticated “Indian” doctors and later, Thomsonians, all had their reasons for their broader acceptance by locals than the regular apprentices or university trained MD.  To the onlookers who survived the Yellow Fever epidemics, their Dutch tradition is what made them become Thomsonians and believers in either the trinity or natural philosophical reasoning for this returning “plague” of the Bible.  For the witnesses of Asiatic Cholera epidemics striking the valley, their Dutch tradition and “Dutch regionalism” made them more tolerant of this second series of Nature’s or God’s test of Faith.  Reformed or Eclectic Medicine was born in New York city but soon forced out by the local status quo.  Water Cure or Hydropathy made its was first through Boston, but was more effective at getting started in New York City just a couple years later, only to be best practices upstream using the fresh cold mountain springs of the Hudson Valley.  The originators of Thomsonianism developed their most aggressive and politically successful followers in the parts of New York extended from Troy downstream to Poughkeepsie.  The various counties along the Hudson River were prime territory for testing the efficacy of theories proposed for climate/weather based disease developed immediately before (by Colden), during (by Dr. Schoepf), and after the Revolutionary War (by various “Hudsonites”).  The various topographic features of the valley were the best way to define disease causes of non-meteorological, more ecological nature.  The various plant medicines made available by these various ecosystems helped establish the materia medica needed to satisfy the needs fo the most atheistic and more natural philosophical of physicians to become popular within the Hudson Valley setting.  All of these types of changes took place effectively in the Valley due to political and sometimes social “tolerance” to otherwise unpopular healing professions at times.  Throughout the middle and upper Hudson valley, social acceptance and preference outweighted political and professional dissonance.

 The birthplaces for most of these practices are located just upstream from New Amsterdam and New York City.  Still other practices that were founded in states and counties adjacent to the Valley and old Dutch settlements, performed their best publicly and politically in social settings already familiar with Dutch metaphysical thinking and history.  For this reason, the region between Old Albany County (especially around Troy and Hudson) and Old Orange and Dutchess Counties (especially around Poughkeepsie), is in need of research, documentation and attention paid to this important part of Hudson Valley history.

Dutch Influences

Aside from the multiculturalism allowed by Dutch tradition, there were also specific Dutch teachings that assisted those residing in the traditional Dutch social settings in the Hudson valley to hear about and learn about specific types of philosophy that would not be as heavily promoted or tolerated within other cultural settings.   The msot obvious examples of these alterantive lifestyles and traditions are those of other religious cultures and upbringings.    Some of the most traditional examples of this include the stories of:

  • the landing of a ship with Walloons instead of High Dutch people
  • the migration of Sephardic Jews from South America to New Netherlands during Peter Stuyvesant’s governorship
  • the migration of Huguenots into New Amsterdam and the neighboring tracts of land in and around Flushing

This form of social practice continued around the turn of the century when Stuyvesant handed over his governorship to the British.  This resulted in leniency and “tolerance” on behalf of the first few British Governors for the land now renamed “New York” and with Governor Thomas Dongan’s help spur on the possible value of this tolerance in getting more people to move to the New World and help in the development of this land.

In spite of Dutch occupance under British Control, one would expect to see British medicine playing a strong role in how and what gets practiced in the New York colony.  Instead, governmental control could only hold its own within the urban setting for the most part.  This enabled the traditions of Dutch families resuiding up the Hudson River to continue to practice their lifestyle traditions, including religion and medicine.  With regard to medicine, this would have a substantial impact on medicine due to the background of some of the most influential writers for the time, not only in medicine but also in philosophy and several of the natural sciences.  The following religious leaders of Dutch tradition had significant impacts where their heritage along with their non-Biriitish philosophy and heritage would be favored by tradition Dutch communities.  Several of these scientists/physicians are important to know about and understand because their teachings may have been favored, even if and when they were ever in conflict with English teachings and philosophy.  Rivalry existed within the medical profession due to these differences.  We see signs of this rivalry impact the physicians philosophy as revealed by his willingness to practice one recipe in lieu of another, or make mention of one philosophy in favor of the other.

Historians like to teach that medicine across Europe was pretty much an offshoot of Greco-Arabic teachings and certain parts of the Greek and Roman philosophies and practices of physicians such as Hippocrates and Aesculapius.  Even though their teachings were strongly incorporated into the traditional lines of reasoning used for many procedures, different cultures had different quirks to how they practiced this particular part of the teachings. 

It is easy to see an understand how one could argue that a Native American 4-Directions is not at all like the European-borne 4-Humours tradition.  The Native Americans did not believe in black bile and yellow bile as the European physician believed it to work.   The Europeans did not belief that every herb first had to be considered for its Manitou power or Snake Spirit method of healing. 

If we try to argue the same for Swedish versus British versus Dutch interpretations of the four humours, seeing the underlying minor differences can be troublesome at times.  Each of these three cultural groups had their own lines of reasoning to base their related arguments upon.  To the Swedish settler residing in the mountains at the new York-New Jersey border, the redness of the berries on a barberry shrub in the woods may have similar types of use for an individual with a blood or sanguinous problem, but the alternatively trained British or Dutch physician might see differently into the symptomatology and argue that the Swede was missing the hepatic or liver problems that also related to the problem, and so ignore the barberry in exchange for combining a yellow- or black bile plant-based formula.  In some ways, the Swedish uses were more traditionally Renaissance in Nature, and very much similar to the writings in John Gerard’s Herball or John Parkinson’s Paradise in the  Sun.  One of the most known set of plant medicine teachings, those of Nicholas Culpeper, were more traditionally practiced, and perhaps cited, in Swedish cultural settings than in Dutch or British settings.  Although the phytognomica or Doctrine of Signatures was in practice in all cultural groups utilizing herbal medicines, it is more Swedish to be responsible for accidentally performing a “Culpeperism” with plants in front of another physician against such forms of out-of-date thinking.

So who are the most important medicine thinkers and teachers in Dutch tradition?  They are as follows:

  • Johannes Van Helmont
  • Hermann Boerhaave

Van Helmont helped change medical and chemistry philosophy into a seet of beliefs that could be related to the molecule and atom concepts of ancient Greek and Roman medicine.  Although this is to some extent an extension of some very old concepts in medicine, there was more willingness by the Dutch to explore these ideas in more detail philosophically.

Hermann Boerhaave was one of the key professors in the medical school setting to emphasize certain energy concepts at the thuman body tissues level.  Boerhaave’s philosophy played with the energy concepts of the body enough to define the differences between Animal Spirits and Non-Animal Spirits.  The first could be used as some sort of reason for the body or the person engaging in some practice that ultimately resulted in disease.  The second focused on Willis’s concepts which states that there was  a specific form fo energy related to the nervous system, housed pretty much by the brain, that is distinctly different that the energy passing through the reset of the body.  Some scholars like to interpret this as Boerhaave using Willis’s claims to draw the conclusion that there are diseases of an energy nature directly linked to the brain or nervous system alone (psychiatric) and those that are energy based that are produced by the body’s energy or animal spirit/vital force.

Because the animal spirit/nervous energy concept was strongly promoted by the Dutch, it took the British a short while to accept it fully, and even then, they had to have British writers come up with their own writings to help promote this line of reasoning.  Hermann Boerhaave also had his own Paracelsian off-shoot for a formula, that the British were perhaps, once again, slow to acknowledge or support.   Boerhaave devised a formula to give to the Dutch army to keep its people from dying.  This was pretty much an offshoot of some old alchemical thinking that remained on and off active during the 17th century.  Boerhaave’s formula was claimed to produce some form of magnetic energy that would help the soldiers along in their energy and healing.   Boerhaave is not the only doctor to try and take this sort of metaphysical path as a part of his teachings and training, but he is the one to become famous for taking this step in his profession, within a Dutch setting rather than an English or British school setting.

The favoritism Dutch families and physicians had to Boerhaave’s teachings could have had their British counterparts.  Robert Boyle was heavily engaged in alchemy-chemistry teachings and philosophy during the late 1600s, and even interacted some with one of the more metaphysically-minded chemists of the Americas residing in a British Colonial setting–Charles Sharpley.  But for some reason, the British physicians seemed less likely to incorporate these types of old-aged thinking into their regimens.  For this reason, we find a rural Dutch-English physician (Dr. Osborn, Fishkill, NY, ca. 1768) practicing medicine in New York’s Hudson Valley with numerous expressions demonstrating Sharpley’s, Boyle’s and Boerhaave’s and Helmont’s influences, with a regimen that appears to be more Dutch than English.

A major difference between British and Dutch interactions with and responses to Native culture are fairly obvious.  Although most European Christians were into promoting some form of Christianization process for the Native American communities, the Dutch were consdierably more tolerant of Native thinking and tradition.  Dutch settlers in the New York area fairly early took on some of the local Native American practices.  In many cases there were plants in the vicinity that could serve as more than adequate substitutes for some fo the imported plants, which the locals knew about.  But for the most part, British factors paid their respect to this knowledge but in the end turned to the more trustworthy imports of plants shipped in regularly as part of the British shipping industry.  In a British setting, we find specific plants becoming quite popular every now and then, like the Virginia Snakeroot (Aristolochia serpentina). but we see them being a little bit slower about accepting and using traditional Mohecan or Iroquois herbs that the Dutch settlers took notice of fairly early on in the settlement years, such as Black Snakeroot (Cimicifuga racemosa) and S’enega Snakeroot (Polygala senega).  As for the Dutch-English physician residing in the Hudson valley, Dr. Osborn, we see him add as well to his regimen the local plants like Bloodroot (Sanguinaria candense), Leatherbark (Dirca palustris) and Prickly Ash (Xanthoxylum spicata).  Of these, even British physicians came to accept Prickly Ash and Bloodroot in due time, but were fairly resistant to applying the well-established local Leatherbark into their practice.

This emphasis on local Dutch tradition stopped, or at least was significantly reduced in terms of specific plant use details, with the commencement of the Revolutionary War.  Dutch-English patriot physicians, if they were to practice as a physician during the War, pretty much had to pass inspection by the physicians and surgeons already chosen by George Washington and his assistants.  These officers were pretty much learned in the most recent writings and teachings, British or not, and so tested their physicians for their knowledge of these new concepts before placing them into some Revolutionary War medical or surgical position.  Even though some early evidence indicated that local physicians were at first requenting that local herbs be obtained for use in treating the soldiers, restrictions were apparently quickly developed in order to prevent too much use of untested local medicines, at least according to the Chief Physicians and Surgeons.  Only the most reputable medicine were used, and so some originally Native America-Dutch medicines were dropped from the materia medica.  It was unlikely that Hermann Boerhaave’s magnetic formula would be revived in any way shape or form for application at the Revolutionary War hospitals,

Following the revolutionary War, other parts of early American medical history were not as Dutch as the Colonial period in this piece of New York/Hudson Valley history.  There is some strong evidence that certain British and German teachings related to climate and disease began to prevail and redefine the entire medical profession.  This is especially the case since one of the major writers of this philosophy served as a physician during the American Revolution.  We see hints of climate- and weather-based medical thinking in the Valley initiated in Colden’s writings, which were published by the London journals focused on philosophy and science, medicine and surgery.   Approximately 10 years after the Revolution, this theory for disease took center stage, along with some related philosophies pertaining to natural history and disease, and natural theology.  The emphasis upon this latter philosophy was again Dutch-originated.  In particular, how it was expressed was the most Dutch-part about it.  This claim is heavily substantiated  by the history Dutch tradition had in defining the whole practice of medical electricity, from scratch, beginning with the Leyden Jar. 

Even though several other countries had their say in the development of this field, the impacts of which appear to be somewhat ewqually distributed amongst French, English, German and Dutch philosophers and writers, it appears that the open willingness some families had to promoting all aspects of the medical electricity philosophies was due either to their Dutch or French heritage.  As the French Midwife/Medical Electrician performed his practices within the town of Poughkeepsie during the early 1800s, they were matched by British forms of medical thinking which emphasized rather heavily the importance of weather, climate and local airflow in determining your health-related state.  These two European practice methods were accompanied by the best of the Valley region, the natural history interpretation of local topography, climate, wind patterns, minerals, soils, plants and animals as important factors influencing health and disease.  By 1805/1810, the Dutch influences allowed for the open-mindedness needed in local settlers to make the best use of all they were witnessing about other practices, and merged these to make a unique form of practice of their own.  For this reason there is also a fairly large number of medical topography and natural history articles that appear in the first medical journal published in the United States–Medical Repository.

[More supportive documentation to be provided with subsequent follow-ups on each of the traditional Hudson Valley forms of medicine practiced between ca. 1790 (following the post-war depression) and ca. 1730.]