Commentaries and Aphorisms

Many of the recipes have commentaries produced based on the research of the formula, its history, its interpretation based on time, place, ingredients and the roposed or inferred philosophy.   These include reviews of the ingredients and their historical, philosophical, cultural or ethnic basis.  In some cases, these reviews can also imply some sort of assumptions being made by Osborn as a practitioner, providing us us with insight into his education, philosophy of medicine, and how he views the body and one’s methods of remaining healthy versus becoming ill.  In some cases, the best outcome of this type of review of Osborn’s writings include conclusions that can be drawn about his personality.  We can use these aphorism to determine his personal philosophy in comparison with those of his mentors and comrades, determine whether or not he was read and learned in certain authors more than others, and define how much personal insight and speculation was made by Osborn as physician, and a scientist to some extent.  At times , these conclusions are very much the center of the aphorisms that can be developed based on his vade mecum, brief lessons on his professional and personal psychology and his overall philosophy in comparison with others.

What’s in an aphorism?

The term aphorism is from aphorismós ap-horizein (see  Wikipedia), which refers the to and from link  text can have.  Literally translated as “from-to”, this phrase refers to one’s ability bring concept, thought, practice and memory into one phrase or sentence.  It refers to the meaning of the word(s) and how each relate to and contain some sort of unique or original form of thinking.  To the physician, the aphorism demonstrates his or her personal philosophy and originality as a doctor.   To the reader or student of this physician, an aphorism teaches you how to learn and understand a particular aspect of the trade and its philosophy, and/or is an easy to remember lesson on how to perform this part of your practice. 

An aphorism is usually written in some sort of poetic, laconic, or otherwise memorable fashion of writing or speaking.  But this is not always the case.  Hermann Boerhaave’s aphorisms, which Osborn may have been trained in, served more as brief statements of facts and conclusions, expressed in such an order as to mimick the lessons one might go through as a kid learning your lines from the foreward to the postscript.   Osborn’s writings as they appear in the manuscript are far from being some sort of poetic, but they were meant to be remembered, by his son James who this vade mecum was addressed to.

In Osborn’s work, this collection of aphorisms serves as lessons by reminding us about his sources for knowledge, the paths he took to find answers to him most important questions, and the additional avenues he had to take to learn as much as he could about his profession in order to be the one in the local community you had to go to for your much-needed answers to questions,  your instructions as to how to handle your illness or wife’s disease, and at times, simply for physical and metaphysical inspiration in the form of medicine and drinks.  With his manuscript, Osborn provides use with direct evidence as to where and how certain parts of his philosophy regarding disease came to be.  He also provides us with enough detail to make suppositions about his other sources for his knowledge of medicine.  By his materia medica we know he must have been somewhat familiar with the thought and writings of physicians practicing in the New World a century before.  By his description of disease history, onset, behavior and progress, we learn about his interpretation of disease in the sense of how it alters or changes the functions of the human body. 

Osborn’s sources of inspiration and knowledge

There are a number of authors Osborn refers to in his vade mecum and authors we can only suspected he was learned in for the time based on the conent of his writings.  There is also some indirect evidence about the types of authors the Dutch settlers relied upon with regard to health and medicine, medical authors and books referred to my past historians attempting to cover the  role of medicine in local colonial history.  There are also the authors and famous medical practitioners who lives locally in the New World, individuals who by word of mouth could have provided some form of inspiration for Osborn during his apprenticeship and early practice years as a physician.  Finally, there are those writers and physicians who provided Osborn with certain forms of valuable feedback, such as in the form of practice and practical experience evidence by working alongside Cornelius Osborn during the years prior to the War as well as during the War.

Even without him mentioning people by name, we can deduce that Osborn was familiar with certain scholar’s writings.  As a prime example of this, we know very well that he was familiar with the writings of Christian Alchemist George Starkey (1628-1665), who was raised in Bermuda,  became a student at Harvard in 1645, and made his first discovery in alchemy by the very end of that very same year.  By observing that Osborn was familiar with one of Starkey’s most unique formulas invented just one colony over from his homestead, we can also surmise that he was familiar with least one of Starkey’s associates, the famous alchemist/chemist Robert Boyle, who altered Starkey’s formula is such a way that it became Osborn’s specific way of making this magical Boerhaavian-like medicine.  

There is also Daniel Turner, an author and physician directly referred to in Osborn’s writings as an important source for knowledge.   Daniel Turner was a self-directed and self-trained physician or practitioner of medicine who became popular some time between 1720 and 1730 in Colonial American history.  His importance and social influences are barely described by some historians, but no doubt they were significant.  Daniel Turner’s most famous experience as a learned physician came in the late 1730s when Yale College awarded him an honorable MD degree due to his important in local medical history and practice.  Turner’s most important influences perhaps were in the form of his writings, including a treatise on how to deal with fevers in general.  Osborns mention of Turner may have even been brought about due to some direct or almost-direct contact with Turner at some early point in his career.  Surely this contact was possible, for travels between Rhode Island and the Hudson valley we know were common and possible as evidenced by Jewish physicians travelling between their settlements in Rhode Island, Connecticut and lower New York.  Mroe than likely, this was no different for Osborn’s life experiences, for Osborn himself even spent a considerable amount of time travelling to and from the Catskills to meet with some families he was acquainted with, and since his child had spent a considerable amount of time travelling back and forth up and down the river valley to where his father and mother resided near Haverstraw.

We also learn much more about Osborn’s experiences and training as it was influence by at least one famous very local family–the Coldens.   Osborn was a neighbor of surveyor, scientist and engineer Cadwallader Colden, who was also governor of the province of New York for a short time suring the earlier years in lcoal history.  Osborn later became a close associate as well of  the governor’s daughter, Jane Colden, a botanist trained to a limited extent in local Native herbalism and in the practice of botany, with the help of her father who was becoming less capable of performing these skills himself due to aging and the loss of vision.   With her father’s influence, Jane was able to meet up with famous Philadelphia botanists  affiliated with the medical school in that urban setting, and with Alexander Garden, who in her later years helped her to publish some of her plant discoveries and even have a plant named in her honor.   More than likely Jane Colden’s influences are what enabled Osborn to develop a better understanding of the philosophies practiced by local Natives and herbalists and make use of some of these plants in his recipes. 

Being of Dutch descent, we also know that Osborn had to be familiar with one of the most famous Dutch scientists, Hermann Boerhaave, who even though was never mentioned in his writings by name, nevertheless influenced Osborn’s materia medica selections and his fashion of treating certain types of disease.  Osborn’s familiarity with Boerhaave also infer he had some training in the teachings of Dutch Chemist Helmont.  Due to Osborn’s lengthy attempts to explain the reasons and selection process for his formulas, Osborn makes use of specific words and catch-phrases demonstrating his preferences at times for one writer over another.   From the instructions for his recipes, we know he was trained in both the traditional practice of apothecarianism, as well as the more ancient methods and philosophies for producing his remedies.  Finally we know that he was familiar with the most recent discoveries made by his contemporaries in medicine, tending to favor the older, more traditional remedies promoted earlier by their predecessors. 

Osborn’s philosophy was unique due to its origination in the rural parts of the New York Province.  His familarity with the most famous authors demonstrate a certain kind of pre-War patriotism not at all linked to the Revolutionary War that would take place in the 1770s, seven years after his manuscript was written.  Osborn tended to favor the local successors of the scientists, physicians and surgeons of the Old World.  He was very much in favor of his maternally-bred Dutch descent nature and favored the teachings of Dutch writers.  He was also much in favor of physicians who avoided the task of actual schooling in medicine, one of the least important forms of training according to one of his famous authors Thomas Sydenham.  We also find substantial evidence suggesting Osborn read whatever medical books he could get his hands on, as required, but tended to favor the teachings of physicians who were not always status quo.  One of the more local authors Osborn cites is Daniel Turner, a physician who did not receive an MD degree until he was awarded an Hon. MD by Yale University in the 1730s.  Osborn also cites Robert James, who was both a writer and a translator of some of the most important medical books for rural physicians like Osborn to learn from.

Osborn’s Aphorisms

Osborn never composed an actual series of aphorisms.  Yet his manuscript is full of evidence for what these aphorisms may actually be.  His personal comments and observations, his manner of expressing his methods of treatment, and the personal and emotional parts of his comments penned to James, tell use more about his personality and philosophy than a simple series of recipes.  This makes Osborn’s vade mecum more revealing than the typical recipe guide a physician might write.  This book was not a notebook penned during his years as an apprentice or avid reader of medical books, it was a short depictions of whatever summaries and conclusions he had drawn since his training in medicine almost thirty years earlier.  A lot was learned by Osborn during this time, and a lot has changed regarding the philosophy of disease.  For this reason, Osborn’s work stand out when compared to most of the other writings of the time, first handscribed and then printed.  Osborn’s work provides us with important insights into the local history of medicine as it was practiced in the rural towns of the valley, within a multicultural community setting, during the eve of the Revolutionary War.   It is perhaps the last and best evidence we will find for this period of time in early American history.


Much like the methods engaged in by Hippocrates and Hermann Boerhaave, these aphorisms are being developed and expounded upon, and are broken down into parts meant to suggest a flow in how this philosophy was learned and developed.  Therefore, some sections may begin with very well demonstrated principles, with later aphorisms being less proveable to some extent. 

Note: commentaries and vocabulary with terminology not expected to be used or understood by Osborn appear in parentheses and brackets.

Physical World

1.  Some diseases are simply what they appear to be.  There is no need to try to delve into their complexities such as by trying to understand their metaphysics or underlying humoural concepts.

Osborn’s recipes for Colic are simple.  He recommends medicines still used todayby herbalists for similar conditions.  Since colic is in general a painful griping of the intestines due to eating something that “disagrees” with us, .  There are some forms of “colic” that are not at all typical, but Osborn does not make any mention of these. 

2.  One disease can progress into another.  The defining factors for how such events take place pertain to the history of the individual’s health and day to day living practices, such as how much one works versus takes rest, how much one eats and what kinds of food are eaten, and just how much an individual engages in personal habits.

Several times Osborn suggests there is an interrelationship between diseases which we typically do not assign correlations to today.  Consumption for example can lead to illnesses effecting the liver, the stomach or the intestines, leading to such illnesses as spitting of blood,  jaundice, dropsy, the piles, and in the worst of situations decay.  The reasons assigned for this migration of disease patterns pertain to the humoural theory, and possibly a variation on this ideology in which some sort of energy concept is implied by Osborn [referred to as ens or entia by me, and inferred only once directly by Osborn using the term ens].  

3.  When they exist for a long period of time, diseases tend to progress towards being worse, impacting the total body inside and out. 

An ongoing chronic disease like consumption in time leads to a state of decay.  Decay is when the individual has progressed to such an extent that he or she appears to be weak, and demonstrates symptoms suggesting an exceptionally poor state of health.  In the worst looking cases, consumption can cause a darkening of the skin (dark rings under the yes), preceded at times by a period of pallor, suggesting anemia and an overall weak state.  To Osborn, these physical appearances would have been interpreted as changes in the humours, which in turn impact overall temperament and any physical attempts the body makes to maintain survival.  

4.  Inwardly migrating diseases tend to progress from being outward appearing and phlegmatic towards involving the blood and fire/heat, or towards involving the yellow bile, finally becoming worst in which case the black bile begins to demonstrate impacts.  

This series of changes again follows the previous  trend noted.  The worst conditions end with a demonstration of black bile, such as the eructation of blackish colored masses upward from the lungs (tuberculosis-rich lung tissue that is decayed and deceased), or the release of black bile from below as an end state of dysentery (this black bile may actually be blood coagulated and partially digested, being expelled, as a sign of serious tumor, ulceration or some other internal disease that can be fatal.) 

 5.  The color of the presentation of a condition tells us approximately where this condition is coming from. 

Pulmonary diseases present as phlegmatic states at first, and can then progress into sanguine (blood) or cholic (yellow bile states).   The sanguine disease states result in sanguine signs, such as a flushing of the skin, the expansion of capillaries in the skin or eyes, the iniitation of some bleeding or the vomiting or coughing up of blood.  The yellow bile state (implying liver) presents with a vomiting or coughing up of yellowish phlegm (implying lung, stomach and liver inclusion), and is expected to demonstrate other more sickly signs and symptoms if not adequately treated.  This could represent a dangerous change in the person’s health to a state of decay, in which case the black bile begins to present.

Metaphysical World

6.  There are several levels of metaphysical relationships between healthy and sickened parts of the body:  humoural, fire or heat, and some sort of energy related principle.

The most basic entity is humoral in nature.  This is followed by events or activities that are primarily related to heat or fire related expressions, which can add to the humoural effects. Energy-related events are also possible, in addition to humoural and heat-generated illness, or as their own causes for disease and illness. 

Notice how this trine resembles the Paracelsian principle of Earth-Sulphur-Mercury.  Earth was the most physical form that existed.  Sulphur was presented due to the effects of energy and fire (like sulphur burning).  Mercury was the essence of something, its most energetic and lightest, invisibile (some might say gaseous) form.

When an object was put over fire in alchemy, the first of the three elements to be release was the mercury (evaporated essential oils), followed by the sulphur (putrid, sulphury smells).  What is then left is the earth (ash).  Read in at least a little bit of alchemy (Osborn was a chemist, making beers and ales at least), Osborn was probably very familiar with this concept.  With a little redefining of substance, this trine turns into something  that is very typical of Christian culture.  1650 Harvard Chemist George Starkey’s take on this concept was both Christian and alchemical.

Understanding this trine is important to understanding local medical philosophy and history due to its primary promoter the decades before–Jakob Bohme.  Bohme effectively redefined the Paracelsian Earth/Sal-Sulphur-Mercury concepts into some metaphysical substances that could be linked to people behavior and philosophy.  According to Bohme, our body’s metaphysical makeup bore these three elements in different ratios and amounts, which in turn assisted in defining our means of existence and the types of individuals each of us became.  Osborn’s mother would have grownup learning this concept.  It was promoted as well by the famous Dutch chemists/physicians Van Helmont and Hermann Boerhaave.  This ultimately led to the development of a unique form of medicine called Iatrochemical medicine between ca. 1670 and 1690, taught at the Dutch medical schools.

7.  Salts are the most basic constituents of a physical object (medicinal ingredient) and have their own unique qualities that can be ascribed to that object; salts present these qualities in a much stronger, more concentrated form than would be presented by the object itself.

A number of Osborn’s medicines are in the form of salts.    These are produced by exposing something to fire in order to evaporate off the mercury and sulphur, leaving behind the salt.   These are represented in Osborn’s recipes by ingredients with the word ‘sal’.

8.  Oils represent the mercury and/or sulphur of a physical object or medicine and have a certain amount of volatility.

The volatility of an Oil is demonstrate by its evaporability, the expression of which is noticed by its smell.   These oils are often different than the “oil” referred to as an essential oil, like the mixture of pure menthol and piperol extracted fom a peppermint plant, or the eucalyptol of a eucalyptus.  Osborn’s Ol Juniper for example is probably a combination of essential oils of juniper, with some sort of oil or resinous base.  The resin, if it were extracted as a part of this process from juniper, would in Paracelsian/Bohmite philosophy be the sulphur.  Jakob Bohme further subdivided this elemen into its two parts, which he defined as (believe it or not), the ‘Sul’ and the ‘Phur.”  One was very aromatic and could be likened to an essential oil, the other was a much heavier component.

7.  Fire represents a components, and perhaps a form of energy, that defines the activity and reactivity of an object or substance. 

Fire and heat go hand in hand in metaphysics.  It is even possible that light may have been associated with these components of nature, but Osborn provides us with evidence suggest he distinguished light from heat in a critical way when using these concepts to produce his remedies.  Fire or heat was linked to the body’s fever states.  Whenever a person became febrile, this as due to events that encouraged the heat to be developed and formed within the body.   This heat was not so much due to a blockage of heat flow, as it was due to some sort of event or activity, probably likened by Osborn to the fermentation process (again, recall, he fermented beers on the side).  Some of Osborn’s treatments are designed to eliminate excess heat, others to form heat in specific ways impacting specific parts of the body.

8.  Ens or Entia represents the most metaphysical part of the body.  It is very close to what we consider to be the soul and spirit of  our existence and life energy.

This is another of Starkey’s teachings that Osborn favored quite a bit.  Osborn did not make use of ens too much in his formulas.  Ens was used to treat only two conditions which represented a loss of internal will power and desire to live, and in the case of Osborn’s vade mecum, events only involving women and their ability to conceive and reproduce.  This sis somewhat likened to the concept of the seed or life or semen, a philosophy promoted by another of Osborn’s noted authors–Daniel Turner, and made available for Osborn to learn about and peruse as a major holding in possession of the Yale medical library.