Osborn’s five recipes pertaining to feminine problems provide us with the best insight into his natural philosophy or religious way of conceptualizing his life and physical existence. The underlying philosophical features do not suggest that he is agnostic or atheistic in any way, nor do they suggest he was a devoted chruchgoer. What they do suggest is that he had a philosophy about life and the reasons for it existence that are somehow based to some naturally existing power contained within the body. Even though was can pretty much guess with some degree of accuracy that Osborn may have not sat down and read such impotant natural philosophy writings about life as Robert Boyle’s chemical treatises or any one of the many essays produced by religious leaders on life and its meaning, we know he had to have been experimenting with some of these concepts, and had some of the locally provided knowledge required to engage in this process.
One of my early theories on this aspect of Osborn’s persona comes out of my work on his first partner in medicine, Isaac Marks, a Jewish physician who no doubt had the trainings expected of Jewish doctor, be he Sephardic, Ashkenazi or Hassidic in nature, including perhaps some training in the Qabala.
There is no evidence in the vade mecum that Osborn knew anything about the Qabala and its mysticism. There is also no evidence that Osborn was at all associated with any one of the many natural philosophies prevalent in the Hudson Valley since its first settlements during the early 1600s. We know for example that the Filipse family residing in Westchester area had a matron who was a religious leader and mystic. We know that slighly south of Dutchess County, reminders of the Salem Witchraft trials resurfaced around 1720 when a lady had to appear in court for her questionable behaviors. When we read about the history of the Hudson Valley first published in the early 1800s, we learn about the shamanic Mahican and burial sights and their strange, eery supernatural powers. The possibility that Hannah cleansed the house of Madame Brett by cleaning the curtains of ‘bad spirits’, not simply dust and dander, suggests that there was ongoing concerns come families had about the growing history of unique natural powers possessing their lands, homes and ersonal belongings. This attention paid to the supernatural and to metaphysics was common to the region, be this a practice performed by man or beast, doctor or wife, son or daughter.
Dr. Osborn’s metaphysical faith focused on some remainsof the esoteric science of alchemy, and in particular some remaining traits of a unique form of alchemy that remained active in the local culture for mroe than a century after its departure from the science and intgellectual publications. Christian Alchemy is the practice of alchemical methods, with a certain amount of religious spirit underlying some of the more important features of your practice habit. This christian alchemy became popular to the Massachusetts to New York region around 1645, when its initiator, Charles Starkey, made his way to Harvard University from Bermuda.
Before going a little more into the history and tradition of Starkey’s philosophy, I have to state that the knowledge of Starkey’s work is a philosophy forgotten and lost sometime during the late 1700s and early 1800s. Even though it is cited in some library holdings that were published during these years, the impacts of Starkey’s work on the fields of science were lost and completely forgotten, intraceable for centuries to come. About 10 years ago, Starkey’s original works in manuscript form were rediscovered by a scholar looking for a unique topic to study. To date, no association of Starkey’s importance to any other individual in science other than his immediate associate, Robert Boyle, could be found. That is, until I saw the link between the magical undefineable ingredient in Cornelius Osborn’s formula and Starkey’s definition of this term for the first time in the history of science. There have been few if any subsequent links to Starkey’s writings found following his demise around 1660. Most of his fame was forwarded to Boyle, to whom many assign the fame of transforming the metaphysical science alchemy to the true science of chemistry.
Dr. Osborn’s “magical” (and non-Qaballic) ingredient is ens veneris–the essence of venus. This was to Christian Alchemist Charles Starkey the closest thing he could produce to the Philosopher’s Stone. And Starkey obtained this recipe of making such a remedy from God Himself. According the diaries he kept on his chemical work seeking the Stone, this is how he obtained the instructions he needed to produce this magical ingredient.
In retrospect, no wonder Starkey’s work was hidden in storage and ultimately forgotten by scientists.
But as Osborn’s work reveals, the local legend of Starkey and his work at Harvard were not forgotten. Since Starkey’s term “ens veneris” is not found in the chemical writings for the time, nor even Robert Boyle’s work (Boyle called it ens primum veneris in a ltter about it), we have to consider the possibility that the knowldge of this medicine and remedy was passed down through oral traditions. As a primarily philosophical belief, the relationship an use Osborn had between his work and this substance pertained to the most metaphysically or philosophically defined part of his practice–the treatment of the female body and its medical conditions.
In the beginning of my research on Dr. Osborn’s vade mecum, I new there was an association between the “ens veneris” and “ens primum veneris” noted by Boyle. But I could never find the connection in any of Boyle’s other works to the use of the exact term “ens veneris.” For the next 15 years I continued my work udner the assumtpion that Cornelius learned this philosophy somewhere, perhaps from the Jewish physician Isaac Marks, a possible scholar read in the Qabala who might have also been Cornelius’s teacher. Reviewing several of Osborn’s other recipes, formulas and the methods by which he makes these medicines, we can come to a better understanding of Osborn’s philosophical upbringing and belief system. No doubt, these were not beliefs that he would ahave shared openly in any way with others when he was being considered for serve as a Field Surgeon in the Revolutionary War. This unique art of Osborn’s persona, like Starkey’s persona, was hidden from most of his peers and their followers for generations to come.
Relating this unique local history tale to Dr. Osborn and his recipes, we find the best evidence for Osborn’s natural philosophy imbedded in his treatments for the following feminine disorders:
- The Whites or Fluor Albes
- Overflowing of the Terms
- Stoppage of the Terms
- High Stericks (Hysterics)
- Barring Down of Ye Matrix
- Lying In or Delivery
Either consciuously or subconsciously, Osborn discusses these topics in an increasingly metaphysical fashion. The order in which these topics are covered progresses from the most physical, least metaphysical conditions or clinical dilemmas, to the most metaphysical, least physical conditions or clinical dilemmas.
Superficially this transition from one existential state to the next can be defined simply as follows:
The whites or fluor albes pertain more to the humours than any of the succeeding conditions.
The overflowing of the terms represents a condition brought on by blood related humoural imbalances, resulting in an overpresentation of the influences of these imbalances by way of the entia or spirit of existence as Paracelsus and even Dutch Helmontians and Dutch Boerhaavians might have referred to it. The bole armeniac in one of his recipes for overflowing terms is used traditionally “to purge away melancholy”
The Stoppage of the terms is treated even more metaphysically that the simple melacholy induced overflows. But most importantly, whereas the overflow was treated primarily by physical remedies, “Stoppage” is treated by the ens veneris. Symptoms for this disorder are also quite temperament based or linked to the anima (to use a Jungian concept); these include paleness of the face, convulsions, a palpitation of the heart (the heart was not a purely physical organ in colonial and pre-colonial times), and ultimately hysterics.
High Sterics is the loss of control of ones internal spirit and psyche (again a latent term). The only treatment for this malady is provided in the form of volatiles or essences–the most Paracelsian of Osborn’s recipes so far. In Paracelsian alchemical terms, there is a fifth element of matter–the essence (which to many later became the essential oil). This is the closest thing to the totally metaphysical nature of a substance. The ens in theory approximates this highly metaphysical state of being for an object. Boyle confesses for example that when he is trying to define the ens, in reference to Starkey’s ens veneris, he suggests that perhaps the venetian element is not as important as it seems. (One translation of ens veneris can be read as essence of venus, a feminine planet). He therefore suggests the ens martis concept (essence of Mars). But it is unclear if what he is stating is that Mars better represents the issue at hands–menstrual periods linked to feminine conditions are closely linked to blood, which is red, and therefore better reprpsented by iron; this is versus copper, the metal of venus, for which most salts are blue and green, and require a lot of work to be made into the red salt needed to treat the blood of the body with the most powerful form of ens veneris. I the end, neither Copper nor Iron came to be essential to Starkey’s final ens veneris formula. Along with Starkey, many of his associates confessed that this formula for an essence or spirit was best produced using a salt, sal ammoniac (ammonia essentially). To Osborn, sal ammoniac and ens veneris are distinctly separate spirits to be produced using different methods alchemically.
The Barring Down of the Matrix [matrix = uterus] is a condition referred to today as prolapsed uterus. This exists when either the uterus is protuding downward but not necessarily in a way such that it extrudes outwardly from within, of when the uterus is essentially turned inside out due to a recent childbirth, abortion or like medical history. The traditional notion is that the body possesses some sort of internal power and ability to keep the uterus in place. As people age, this energy is slowly reduced. For women, it can be reduced so much that they lose their feminine power and ability to hold their own. This matches the idea of the “wandering uterus theory” the notion that a women who is no longer in control of her motions, psyche, mental state, and who becomes psychologically different (today we call this PMS), has lost control of her uterus, or the spirits and energy it possesses, in much the same way that the heart possesses the spiritus anima, or the brain the spiritus of being human and man, possessing knowledge and intellect.
Notice the shared features of the different formulas Osborn proposes for treating the “Barred Down Uterus”. He recommends ingredients with odors that essentially “scare” the uterus back into its proper position and place in the back of the vagina. Asafoetida (also called devil’s dung), burning partidge feathers in steam, stinking orris root with motherwort and tansy, spirit cornu cervi (antler’s horn spirits or essentially ammonia), spirit lavendar (the only descent smell), and fetid pills are all strongly aromatic essences, like those Paracelsians would closely relate to. Also note how in the end, if none of these spirits effect a cure, Osborn recommends a physical object be put in palce to hold the uterus in its right position–the whale bone ring and waxed cork device, a 16th century invention.
Lying in or Delivery is the last topic Osborn reviews for feminine problems. To strengthen the ability of a woman to deliver, the doctor must administer to her either the ens veneris or some borax, or an alchemical recipe consisting of gum myrrh, fetid castor (fetid or smelly beaver scent extracted from a sexual gland; similar to civet), and oil succin (oil of amber, made with fire by burning the amber). Metaphysically, the semen or seed of a new being is engaged in this event. Since osborn states he is read in Daniel Turner, and since Daniel Turner is the primary donator of books to the nearby Yale Medical Library about 1720, it is possible that Osborn was familiar with some of Turner’s most important writings on the semen of life and the animal spirits of the body, and how these relate to sexuality, sexual disease, femininity, the ability to conceive, and the like.