The Vade Mecum

A number of Osborn’s recipes deserve a more detailed review.  By better understanding the philosophy of these cures, we are provided with a very rare window into the past regarding Colonial Medicine.  For this reason I have added commentaries at the end of each section on the vade mecum.  These commentaries provide insights into the theory Osborn appears to be following with disease, as revealed by the types of medicines he usd, how he made use of them, and his occasional impressions on treatments and diagnoses found throughout the vade mecum. 

Much of the philosophy reviewed here pertains mostly to the Hudson Valley setting during this specific period of time. Whereas some of the utlimate outcomes of the logic in reviewing these formulas, there are some aspects of this work that can be related to other colonial medical research. I have not tried to compare Osborn’s work much with other colonial vade mecums.  For the most part, vade mecums consist of information passed down through the textbooks in writings.  Dr. Osborn’s vade mecum is not this kind of writing. He does not give us formulas copied from other published materials–he provides us with his own recipes based on his own philosophy, due mostly to his unique upbringing and the uniqueness of the place where he was raised.  It is common to see the results of a physician’s life during the colonial period when that physician is well-endowed and lives in the urban setting, next to a college even, in close proximity to a paper manufacturer. Osborn is none of these.  For this reason, this review of his vade mecum is the opportunity for everyone to have a very unique look back into the past of his part of the Hudson Valley.

Ens Veneris

Osborn’s most fascinating recipe was his ens veneris, or ‘essence of venus’, which he used to treat the “wandering uterus.” The wandering uterus was a popular name given to the menstrual irregularities, missed periods and seemingly uncontrollable nature of the menstrual cycle in relation to the woman’s venus cycle. Interestingly, it is important to realize that Osborn did not adhere to astrological law when composing his ens veneris formula, Although much of the philosophy responsible for defining ens veneris and the role of Venus in the woman’s lunar cycles, the general attitude for the time was to pay less heed to the astrological concepts originally used to explain this traditional form of treating the ill, and pay more attention to the new discoveries people in the field were making regarding the “truths” about how ens veneris worked.

In his formulas for ens veneris, Osborn did not make use of any astrological cycle to compose his finally remedy, although it is possible that he placed some of the ingredients under a full moon at night in order to capture both the energy from moonlight (if he felt it actually exists), and to take the best advantage of the environmental conditions required for dew to form and initiate the rusting process with whatever pieces, chunks or filings of iron he used to compose this remedy.

Osborn used Iron to produce his ens veneris, an ingredient seemingly not at all meant to serve the women in some venetian way for her condition. It was traditional to make your venetion recipe or ‘essence of venus’ by taking the venetian element or metal copper, and moduifying this metal in such a way so as to produce a product that appears very much to be blood- or menstrual flow related. Instead, Osborn applied Iron to this formula.

This use of iron instead of copper to produce ens veneris was first proposed by Robert Boyle, a late 16th century chemist trained in alchemy as well the upcoming more scientific field of chemistry. In time, Boyle’s work, became largely responsible for eliminating much of the metaphysical tradition of the practices of alchemy once considered a critical component of producing apothecary products. Robert Boyle deduced that if one is to treat blood, and use alchemy to produce this metallic remedy, that it seemed more reasonable to produce this reddish formula using ingredients that seemed to work best with the blood. Boyle decided that it was unnecessary to try to convert copper, a green metal, into some metallic compound that became red in solution, just to resemble blood. Instead, Boyle suggested that this copper be replaced with Iron, which in turn could be converted into rust–and so become red. This rust could then be mixed in water to form the red beverage needed to serve as the ens veneris medicine.

There was no doubt greater success with the ingestion of iron instead of copper in the attmept to treat blood-related diseases. This was especially true for such common conditions as anemia, a side effect of many illnesses ranging simple from poor nutrition to excessive blood loos due to many things, not only the menstrual period. Boyle’s recipe was favored by Osborn, who was again practicing a modified form of traditional medicine which for the msot part tried to avoid the sue of such philosophical concepts as ‘essence of venus’ presented instead in a masculine form– Ens Martis–the essence of Iron, the metal of Mars, essentially.

Osborn’s Herbalism

Osborn was also influenced by his neighbors across the river banks family, the Coldens. The daughter of former Cadwallader Colden in particular Jane Colden, was no doubt highly influential upon his training in plants and medicine. Due to Jane’s work as a girl much younger than him, Osborn probably learned more about the use of local plants than he might have otherwise been provided by the much older physicians residing nearby. Osborn’s recipes made ample use of the local plants, some obviously serving as substitutions for the mroe expensive European equivalents that were being shipped in. Osborn also made mention of several ancient medicines, by then sold primarily in pre-made forms rather than made fresh by an apothecary each time they were needed. To learn more about the traditional European remedies, Osborn made use of several pharmacopoeias for the time. He also must have had some access to a pharmacy book devoted to the preparation of these medicines, although he never really makes mention of such a text.

Examples of how and when Doctor Osborn substitutesd the local plants for the more expensive British herbal remedies are numerous. In particular, he made use of the local Native American herbal medicines described by Jane Colden in her herbarium samples, such as Dirca palustris (leatherbark), Sanguinaria canadense (bloodroot) and Xanthoxylum spicatum (prickly ash). The most important note Osborn made of a local herbal remedy pertained to same Polygala s’enega (Seneca [Indian] snakeroot) Jane Colden wrote detailed notes about.

Like nearly all of the physicians practicing during this time, Osborn practiced bloodletting. He also made heavy use of the black opium tar purchased by the English from Turkey, but shipped over to the colonies to be sold as a fairly expensive import product. The use of this opium at the time is not what it was used for just fifty years later. This tar of opium worked to quiet the upset bowels. It was then used primarily to stop diarrhea, particularly the bloody dysentery that many colonists got due to unsanitary living conditions. This opium tar was typically a life-saver in such cases, by preventing the excess loss of water and dehydration. Not necessarily by halting the dysentery.

In terms of Dr. Osborn’s understanding of disease, he was not unlike the understanding and philosophy of medicine held by his peers in the profession, not to mention many of his friends only superficially trained or read in this profession. Most important to Osborn’s phuilosophy as a physician was his attentiveness to his patients. We can surmise this from the history he provides on how certain disease progress with time and by getting older. Osborn also noted the possibility that one illness can lead to another that was totally unrelated, like the consumption leading to cases of edema or pleurisy. These were not necessarily correct, but were the best conclusions drawn from observations made at the time.

Osborn’s treatment of people was dictated by the teachings of Sydenham. At the time, there was a separation of physicians into two groups with differing philosophies regarding the treatment of diseases and individuals. The increasingly popular philosophy was to ebtter understand the science of the illness and the patient’s condition and use this understanding to direct your clinical activities.

The followers of Thomas Sydenham, a physician of the 17th century referred to by Osborn in a part of his discourse on fevers, was more a practical physician who felt the best doctoring could be done only by paying attention to the patient, not just the urine and other signs and the results of bloodletting.