Iatrochemical Medicine

Iatrochemistry in medicine requires that you somehow relate the metaphysics of medicine to the physical manifestation of wellness and disease, and that you base your premises on the effects of chemicals on the individual due to the reactions they have with the body in a very alchemical sense.  This important point to keep in mind is that very little was known about chemicals at the time and so they were interpreted in a combined material-metaphysical sense.  Physicians like Osborn, and any associates he had respecting the practice of iatrochemistry of the 1600s, would have thought about disease mostly in a superficial sense, presenting itself from the body out but manifesting itself within and throughout the internal parts of the body, with the body viewed as a vessel.  This way they can interpret the body and its disease as a representation of how the environment reacts with the body physically, mostly due to such things as weather, air, temperature, and the impacts that natural things have upon our various senses.  The may also interpret a disease as a result of imbalances within our “vessel”, due to misbehaved spirits flowing about, or the loss of too much of a specific humour resulting in an imbalance, or the temperament and make-up of our body and how it reacts to things based on some heredity based trait.  Relating this same interpretation to the psychological and emotional state of a person, these physicians would have reasoned that the “Passions” (as Benjamin Rush later emphasized) may be out of control, or our melancholy too strong, etc.  This philosophy gave rise to the cause for internal medical problems of a mental, spiritual or even soul-based nature. 

The questions you might pose as an 18th century physician thinking this way might include:

  • Is this a disease from within the body or due to the surrounding environment?
  • Is the stress of the disease expressing itself at the stomach level, the chest or heart level, the head level, the mind and soul level?
  • Is this patient’s problem presented in one fashion, but turning into another now due to the transfer of its symptoms and apparent causes to another organ or body part? 
  • Which disease came first, i.e was Jaundice experienced before or after the Dropsy?
  • Was your asthma emotionally-activated through problems with personal and family responsibilities and other personal experiences, or did it take a too long of a stroll through local fields and nearby smoke clouds to cause it to initiate?
  • Is the patient overly impacted emotionally or passionately by the disease? 
  • Did passions and their result imbalance with the nervous energy paths or vital force channels in the body, altering the body in such a way that the victims has become ill? 
  • Did her imagination and her dreams at night get the best of her last month when she was pregnant and about to conceive?
  • Was the individual’s choices of behavior responsible, such as what he/she chose to eat or drink at a party, or the ways in which he/she decided to recreate during the spare time, such as by walking or riding horseback?

Osborn had to understand the place of the problem, the exposure of the body to the elements, food, drink, etc., the cause for this irritation, the body’s ens veneris amounts and balance, and where imagination and thinking are taking this individual’s physical state.

Once he has determined the answers to these questions, Osborn has to produce his rememdies for the patient.  Just how much effort went into making these medicines?  Were many of them purchased as commodities of a local store?  From a low merchant or apothecare specializing in medicines? Or did Osborn make these remedies himself from scratch?

The appropriate answer to this question appears to be ‘All of the above’.  At least this is what Dr. Osborn wanted us to think based on his vade mecum.

Some of Osborn’s recipes are patent remedies purchased from a store or via a merchant ship.   One of the best known Colonial Patent medicine of Osborn’s lifetime is in his repertoire–Hooper’s Pills for women.  The  Spermaceti he requires came from the local river port brought back from the Carribean or perhaps a Long Island whaling operation in East Hampton, possibly owned by one of Osborn’s distant family members with the name Cornelius.   His Sassafras and leatherwood came from his own excursions into the woods if not a local gatherer and distributer.  The Bloodroot and “Pricere Ash” most certainly came from a piece of land close to his house, at the north end of his personal property.  Osborn’s recipes also required various sulphur balsams, oils, and tinctures which he would have to make himself.   The diet drink beer he fermented in his own backyard.   His ens veneris he may have produced some traditional way using sal ammoniac, but by this time he may also have obtained it in part from the local store and in part by way of his own iatrochemical practices.  There were also the iron rich tonic and rust-powder he produced from a bar of iron, upon which he allowed dew drops to form overnight while rusting under the moonlight (the Luna according the 1650s Yale Christian Alchemist George Starkey).  Some of his herb tonics, based on some universal energy concept, required decoctions made in the sun for exactly ten days (the Sol).  An equivalent tonic made use of the traditional alchemical means for warming a preparation the Pectoral Balsam of Honey used to treat Consumption (MS p. 4), sandheat formed by placing sand in a metal container which is placed on the stovetop, heated and then allowed to disperse this heat mildly and uniformly into the recipe.

Osborn’s Iatrochemistry “Kitchen”

The makings of a colonial iatrochemical kitchen are quite variable, and are pretty much dependent on the availability of either the devices and utensils needed to brew your formulas, or the availability of local “substitutes” for these important household features once they are required by a physician.  Based on the current size of the building sitting exactly where Osborn’s residence once existed, it seems unlikely that Osborn had an significant amount of extra room in his home in order to supply himself with the space needed to produce a full chemistry setting.  This small amount of space in the home may have simply limited him to just a few pieces of metalware and glassware, enough to make a small distillary device, a heating unit and a small oven in which to cook the medicines. 

On the other hand, Osborn could have also made use of an extension he added to his humble abode in the rear, at the northnorthwest corner of his house adjacent to the wall.  This was very possible for the time based on the upgrades he had been performing on this home since acquiring it around 1744.   His discussion of how to prepare items suggests he did engage in at least some of these projects, and we can assume that somewhere on his property he needed a place to store and process any local plant substances he gathered for use as medicines, like the strips of sassafras and prickly ash bark, the rhizomes of bloodroot, seneca snake root and black snakeroot, bundles of mint, celandine plants, and newly budding poplar twigs , etc. 

For this reason it is also possible Osborn may have had a different shed or roofed dwelling built elsewhere on his land to engage in his medical and apothecary activities (this would also be a safer alternative, generally speaking).  In a deed to Osborn’s land recently uncovered as part of this research process, it became apparent that Osborn did have another place where he engaged in some of his activities.  This was primarily due to the way he manufactured one of his most cherished remedies–“the Dia Drink bear for all Decay.”

We really have no idea where he had the other buildings typical for the Old Dutch Farm, as this place was originally called in the oldest tax records referring to Osborn’s place.  He most likely had a place for one or more horses, and another perhaps for a head of livestock or two or some poultry.  He was also likely to have had some gardening area set up where many of his domestic herbs grew such as Hyssop, Sage, and Rhubarb.   Still, little to evidence can be found in later documents about this property mentioning the possible existence of  some old farm buildings or the like.  To determine if such a setting did exist on Osborn’s old estate, one would have to return to this setting and try to determine where additional buildings stood by the homesteading property and then try to find evidence of an old chemical manufactory or brewery setting operating between 1745 and 1780, or later (search for metal pieces, glass pieces, ceramic or earthware chards, and the like).  The evidence that such a site exists is seen in the deed for Osborn’s poperty, by then owned by his youngest son James, James’s family, one of James’s in-law relatives, their Remsen (Rumsey) cousins, and two of their friends:

The conclusion that is inferred here is simply:  Osborn had a separate brewhouse and distillery shed or building situated close to each other or side by side.  They were located somewhere along the hill where his home was at the edge of the Fishkill Village, in a trangular-shaped tract. The options for this place are Somewhere between his home, in the woods just north of St. Mary’s Church and School perhaps; or as part of the properties of nearby homes, or within the triangular tract of land situated at the intersection of the two major roads .  Discussions with Fishkill hsitorian Willa Skinner, who in turn has talked about this with the owner of the home occuping this at the intersection, suggests the barn was just behind the house now standing there (the original one burned down in the early 19o0s).  There is a small piece of the foundation still remaining at the edge of a steep slope behind the owner’s house.  (I originally identified this stone entrance like settings as a root cellar dug into the Osborn hillside.)

Osborn’s Distillery

To best understand the layout of such a setting in Osborn’s home, insight into the requirements for such a setting  are found here and there in various science books for the time.  In 1775, Elements of the Theory and Practice of Chemistry by M. Macquer was translated from French into English and published.  This book provides some figures of the typical chemical equipment expected for this time in the history of science.  With a little bit of imagination, and a review of his actual living space and work requirements and resources, we can pretty much deduce what Osborn may have done locally to concoct his own remedies, build the unique contraptions needed to ferment and distill his products, and the machinery needed to be a true iatrochemist.  The larger pieces of equipment normally required for iatrochemistry may have required that Osborn be more versatile and imaginative with his plans, in order to be able to have  the local iron tools-and furnace that he required.  Explaining this iron machine to the local iron-specialist/machine-maker on how to produce this item for you and have it fit into you living space would have been quite a task or two for the time.     No doubt the smaller glass objects Osborn needed to perform his practice were a great deal easier to have manufactured and probably could have been made by any of a number of glass blowers in the region.  This was not an unlikely expectation. 

The following figures summarize these devices, contraptions, tools and glasswares.

The Furnace or Stove

Osborn required the equipment needed to make the sandheat and thereupon decoct his formulas.  This meant he had an iron stove of some sort, upon which to produce the sandheat.  The flat top of this stove would also serve as a place upon which utensils and pots and pans lie, from which decoctions were made and strong tinctures boiled down,  developed and resolved.




Metalware and Glasswares