Introduction to this Project

A vade mecum is a pocket book which a physician produces in order to preserve their important recipes, discoveries and conclusions.  Osborn’s 82 page vade mecum accomplished this task exactly as he had planned.

The history of this manuscript is barely documented by the Dutchess County Historical Society.  I learned about this manuscript in 1981 when reading a 1920s Dutchess County historical society journal.  I spent several months trying to locate it, and finally had the chance to see it for the first time in the summer of 1982.

We can surmise that Osborn began its work on the date that appears on its title page–August 28, 1768.  We can also surmise that his reason for penning this bit of knowledge was at least two-fold.  It was meant to serve his son (or sons) as a source for knowledge in the practice of medicine, a profession all three tried to enter but which perhaps only two were successful in accomplishing (James and Thomas, but not Peter).  It was also meant to serve the family as a reminder of the immediate family’s first colonial physician and his practices.  Osborn no doubt understood by the time the Revolutionary War had begun that medicine in the totally professional setting was quite different from that of his more rual upbringing and practice.  For the first time, Osborn came to witness the practice of more careful hygiene practices carried out within the Fishkill hospital setting, in how the patients were cared for and how the buildings were located and structures to allow for cross-wind ventilation.  Osborn also came in contact with a number of individuals more trained in medicine than his self, some even much younger and more trained in surgery and such.  In spite of these differences, Osborn probably felt his training and background were most important to the practice of Revolutionary War medicine, and he even perhaps benefited greatly from his family’s namesake and heritage (many early New York physicians were Osborns, but could not be directly linked to Cornelius).  If William Thacher were to have come face to face with him, they most likely would have discussed quite thoroughly the possible uses of the local plants as substitutes, like the local oak bark or dogwood to use in treating fevers in place of Cinchona, or the application of local nut trees for use as caustics, much like Thacher already detailed in his diary regarding a similar use for the more southern Butternut tree.

As mentioned elsewhere, it is even possible that Cornelius may have come face to face with the Marquis de Lafayette during his travels by the Brinckerhoof estate.  On one such occasion, the Marquis even makes brief mention of this brief conversation, stating so little in passing, but just enough, to make his readers suspect that he wondered somewhat about Osborn’s background and training is medical and surgical matters.

The details on the content of this vade mecum tell us much more about the physician than its simple expression of his training and knowledge.  Its misspelling, vocabulary, phraseology and methods of explanation teach us plenty about his personality and psyche which otherwise we would learn little more about.  When taken in contect with the field of medicine as it was being practiced at the time, and in context with his social and political activities, we come to understand Dr. Osborn as an individual with quite and eclectic background.  Knowing his materia medica, one can easily travel through his past properties, or walk through some more traditional undistubed portions of the county lands, and still see many of the medicines Osborn makes reference to growing vivaciously throughout the local ecological setting.  On occasion, one can even pass by plants on Osborn’s terrain that were not mentioned in his writings, and yet became fairly famous just a few years after his death.  Did Osborn know about these Native American herbal medicines too?  Was his colleague Jane Colden familiar with them and their uses?  What did Cadwallader Colden write about them and their uses.  Did any of the famous Philadelphia doctors incorporate them into their practice?  Are there any other physicians like Osborn which we can learn this much about?

The following review of the vade mecum represents approximately ten years of research on this period of medicine.  The pages are presented as photographs of the actual document, followed by a transcription of these writings–word for word, letter for letter, but with some symbols excluded on occasion such as “v” for inserts from the line above and a few ink spills or drops that appear as though they could have been punctuations.   Following the transcripts is a rewording of this text, with abbreviated and truncated words of terms replaced by complete spellings and pharmacological symbols replaced with these same measures written in pharmaceutical form.

It is also important that Osborn’s writing is very much normal for this time.  It was penned by the use of a feather, with an ink probably made with Iron and some form of tannic acid source such as oak or the like.  The source for the paper itself is not known, and unfortunately, an attempt has not been made as of yet to uncover whether or not it had a watermark useful in indicating its source.  According to one calligraphy historian with whom I discussed this manuscript, the paper may very well have come from Rittenhouse in Philadelphia.  But it may have also come from paper produced in New York for any of the publishers residing in the city, or even Kingston, or further east from some source in Boston Rhode Island or Connecticut, if such a paper-manufacturer existed.

The leather cover of this document is tanned cowhide, halved lengthwise and beneath the surface so as to form two split piences, one very smooth on one it its fades (thus forming the outer surface of the cover) and the other thin layer (round on both sides) used for some other unknown purpose.  There is a slight tear in the cover, possibly occuring post-humously, but bearing threading similar to the apparently original hemp stitchings that tie its pages to the spine of this document.

All in all this document measures just the right size for a pocket book or vade mecum.  It contains more personality, more detail and a much richer historical content than many of the ledgers commonly perused for such research purposes.

Links to Pages