Since this review is focused on the Smithsonian article about the content of medicine chests, it is enpossible that during the war, surgeons and physicians often had to turn to the use of local medicines at times. This would have required individuals with some familiarity with the local ecology, ethnobotany and plant growth habits. Dr. Cornelius Osborne is the only one we can be certain had this knowledge. Nevertheless, there were a number of physicians working locally who had some familiarity with medicinal plants in general, a consequence of their more standardized training in medicine and surgery during the years prior to the war. Identifying which of these professionally trained physicians were learned enough to understand the local flora however may be difficult. At times it seems unlikely that a physician of the Virginia setting may be familiar with all of the medicinal herbs growing in the Fishkill setting. A medicinal snakeroot in the Mid-Atlantic states for example was very different in appearances and clinical impacts than an herb by the same name in New York. Nevertheless, there was some overlap, like with the Dandelion of Virginia, versus Pennsylvania, versus New York, if this plant was in fact used at all by the Regiment.
The contents of the Medicine Chests were in fact just representing the ideal provisions to be allocated to Regimental Surgeons and the like. These lists of contents were more international in nature and content, and minimal in terms of local value or purpose. Once these provisions were used up, they could not be so easily substituted by using local equivalents. For this reason, this review of the medicines in the Regimental Chests should be interpreted more as an official statement for the types of medicines and surgical provisions to be allocated to doctors and surgeons professionally, but not necessarily in any realistic manner. Therefore, this review of the medicinal chest contents serves just as a starting point to udnerstanding the medical and pharmacal practice of physicians at the Fishkill Hospital and nearby facilities during the peak times of need. Following this review, one of the most important insights into the true practice of pharmacy and medicine during the War would come from a series of books printed in Europe just prior to and during the years of the Revolution. Due to the influences of foreign diplomats like Lafayette, it is possible that some of this knowledge was transferred to the war camp itself throughout the years of battle. If this were the case, the over-ambitious attempts of French pharmacists to meet battlefield needs pharmaceutically had an impact on what local and home-grown plants would be employed in the nearby hospitals. But for now, the following is a review of just the official medicine chests and their provisions, in a more ideological sense.
The Botanical Medicines
Most of the plant-derived medicines in the Medicine Chests are produced from plants that are not native to the North American continent. Some of these medicines involve plants that have some potential for successful growth and harvesting locally, were attempts made to cultivate these plants within the Fishkill Encampment environment. In fact, a few tropical plants may have already been manageable within warmer southern colonial climates, such as senna, camphor, aloe, and jalap. During the post-war years, we know that attempts were made to try and grow a number of foreign plants of high importance to medicine in the New York setting, such as poppy. Some early studies demonstrated potential outcomes for some of these attempts being made, but for the most part, few attempts to grow tropical drug-producing plants in the mid-Atlantic and New York settings were for the most part unsuccessful.
The most promising medicinal plants from foreign soil during the later Colonial and Revolutionary War years were rhubarb, gentian, squill, and aloe. Castor bean, being a native neotropical-central American species capable of growing in the Gulf States, also had some potential for cultivation in New York. For the most part, Western European and mediterranean plants of temperate to warm temperate/mediterranean origin could be grown in North American herb gardens. Chamomile and Melissa are the best examples of these noted by the above Medicine Chest contents. Originally of European origin, these two herbs are already adapted to growing within the local temperate zone climate settings and were fairly common to many home and apothecary gardens. As indicated above, a number of other warmer climate non-American herbal medicines were propagated in local gardens such as Rhubarb and Lavendar.
The only native plant medicine noted above, Radix seneka, Polygala senega or Seneca Snakeroot, originated in wester New York. Although there are a number of other fairly popular plant medicines within the immediate vicinity, their use is not represented by the Medicine Chest contents. The most influential and historically important example of this is the Sassafras (Sassafras albidum), a highly popular remedy since 1700 when it was first harvested in large amounts in parts of Massachusetts; the primary use of this medicine at the time was for an ailment not at all specific to the Revolutionary War–Syphilis. Another important local remedy was Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), which had uses similar to those of the Cinnamon noted in the above listings. The local evergreens were capable of producing turpentine or Oleum terebinthinae. Interestingly another North American plant with a use similar if not identical to that of Polygala senega, Aristolochia virginiana or Virginia Snakeroot, is not included on either of these two medicine chest lists.
The following tables includes summaries of some of the immediate associations that could be made between the medicine chest ingredients, their probable uses, and local plant medicines suspected to be of similar or equal value. These local plansts that may have served as substitutes need to documented as such prior to the Revolution, either in published writings or in manuscripts either reviewed first hand, or referred to in other historical writings.
All of the above plants, with the possible exception of Rhubarb, were pretty much obtained only through foreign trade. Even though edible Rhubarb can be grown locally, the strength of the medicinal Rhubarbs of Europe and Asia were probably superior to any American grown Rhubarbs of vegetable quality, but applied as a substitute for medicinal Rhubarb instead.
The South American Ipecac (sometimes called Ipecacuanha spp.) has plants of similar value in both the Central and Northern American continents. Those in North America were not Cephaelis ipecacuanha and in appearance were completely different as plants or dried medicines. Gillenia trifoliata and Euphorbia ipecacuanha of the Carolinas were perhaps the first such substitutes to be documented, with Gillenia possibly the only substitute documented prior to the Revolutionary War.
The herbal medicine listing for the medicine chests offers some insight as to what purpose the medicines in the medicine chest were meant to serve. It is important to note that the traditional uses of these plants at the time of the Revolutionary War did not mimic many of the uses for these plants made more popular during the post-war years, in particular by the 1850s when botanical medicine was at one of its first political and economic peaks as an industry. The sedating effect of Chamomile, for example, was probably not at all a reason for its use; soldiers had more important medical concerns to be treated for than simple insomnia. Jalapa was very distinct as a medicine. One or more wild cucumber substitutes in the New York region may have sufficed as substitutes, in theory, and appeared much like the southern or tropical version of the Balsam Apple, Momordia balsamina.
Foreign, possibly New York grown
Foreign, not locally grown, with possible substitutes
The strong laxative effect of Senna is due to a group of compounds found in a select few other plants in the same family (Leguminosae). Similar compounds with medical properties are contained in two other species, not of Leguminosae: Rhamnus (cascara) and Sambucus (elderberry).
Citrus peels are from fruits of tropical origin; as time has shown these plants were manageable in the neotropical setting, such as in Florida. There is no direct substitute for Cinnamon (Cinnamomum sp.) in terms of genus. The Central American tree White Cinnamon (Canella alba) had an inner bark with an aromatic quality remarkably similar to Cinnamomum, and therefore probably used in the local and colonial trade settings as a substitute.
Tropical American Origin
Domesticated and locally grown
Domesticated or Naturalized European Plants
These are the only two herbs in the Medicine Chest lists that could be easily grown in New York colonial gardens.
American native plants
The only native plant in the Medicine Chest is Snakeroot (Polygala seneca). Polygala senega is a New York plant. It is noted in Jane Coldens herbarium collection as an Indian remedy.
Aristolochia serpentina or virginianum is more often found in warmer climates in North and Central America, and has an ethnobotany history that extends throughout South America, comprising nearly 130 species of Aristolochia from one area or country to the next.