Taking a leisure hour a few evenings ago to indulge in the book-lovers complacent contemplation of his collection of old, rare and curious books, my eye fell upon a dilapidated little leather-bound volume which I picked up years ago in an old book shop and had never read. Of course I had glanced it through hastily when I bought it, as all book hunters do, and decided almost by instinct that it was “worth while.” Every collector has an eye out for such unappreciated curios, and nothing gives him keener pleasure than to discover one of them. So my “find” was brought and pocketed and shortly given a modest place on my shelves among the others, there to await its turn to be “read, marked, learned and inwardly digested.” Its turn was long in coming and would perhaps have been longer, but that I happen just now, at odd times, to be writing the life of a remarkably interesting but long-forgotten American pioneer, and so am in the biographical mood.
The incident brought back memories of my childhood in the country, some sixty years ago, when we still heard occasionally about “Herb and Root Doctors” and “Botanical Physicians” whom we regarded as glorified old grannies.
The characteristics, old-fashioned title page of the little volume (it measures only 32 x 52 inches, and 14 thick), reads as follows:
“A Narrative–Of The–Life, And Medical Discoveries–Of– Samuel Thomson;–Containing an account of–His System Of Practice,–And The Manner Of Curing Disease With Vegetable Medicines; Upon A Plan Entirely New.–Written By Himself.–Ninth Edition.–Columbus, O.–Published By James Pike & Co. Agents;– Jenkins & Glover, Printers;–1833”.
The first edition was published in 1822, and was entitled “New Guide to Health; Or Botanic Family Physician”.
The fact that this book had gone through eight editions in about ten years and was in its ninth editions in 1833 is at least presumptive evidence that Samuel Thomson had created quite a stir in the medical world of his day, even if we did not know it from a perusal of medical history. It may, therefore, be assumed that Samuel Thomson was a man of parts and that he did something that was probably worthy of the wide attention it attracted.
Knowing the history of medicine and the almost invariable reaction of “The Faculty” to all medical reformers, one could safely outline the career of Samuel Thomson without actual knowledge of a single detail of his life and personality except his name and vocation. Medicine like theology has always resisted, ridiculed, maligned and persecuted its reformers. “So persecuted they the prophets” from time immemorial and so they continue to do.
Taking “Samuel Thomson, His Book” in hand, therefore, I settled down for an evenings reading if it should prove as interesting as it promised to be. It did not disappoint me. The book held me until far into the night and moved me to take it as the subject for this months article. It will be seen that Thomson was the forerunner of Hahnemann in America–a medical John the Baptist coming up from the wilderness, clad in rough garments and living on “locusts and wild honey”–a voice crying, “Repentye. . . . Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight”. Samuel Thomson was born February 9, 1769, in the town of Alsted, County of Cheshire, State of New Hampshire.
His father, John Thomson, was born in Northbridge and his mother, Harriet Cobb, in Medway, both of Massachusetts. There were five other children. The family was very poor and the country where he was born was at that time a wilderness. His father had brought a piece of land on credit, to be paid for with the proceeds of his labor. Their dwelling was a rough barn in a little clearing and their only food bean porridge and potatoes. With this food the children were content, for they knew no better. Their nearest neighbors were three miles and one mile away, respectively. The father and mother were Baptists and very strict in their religious observances.
They had family prayers morning and evening and sometimes at midday. They ruled their children by fear, telling them horrific stories about witches and hobgoblins, and threatening them with the coming of “the Knocker” or “the Bear,” if they misbehaved. Samuel relates that the children, being left alone one day, nearly died of fright when they heard a woodpecker at work on the wall of the house outside and dared not look out to see what it was. They told their parents about it when they came home and, instead of having it explained to them, were told that it was “the Knocker,” who would always come if they did not do as they were bid.
At four years of age Samuel was taken out to work with his father. His business was to drive the cows to pasture and watch the geese, besides doing many other small chores which kept him in the fields all day. From five to eight years of age he was kept at hard work, although he was lame from birth. He suffered greatly from pains in his hips and back, and the hard work made him so stiff he could barely walk; yet this made no difference with his inhuman father, who had a violent temper and gave way to fits of passion frequently. The younger children were treated in the same way.
When Samuel was eight years old the family moved into a house which his father had eventually got covered in, and were a little more comfortable. His mother tried to be kind to him, but he lived in constant fear “lest his father should call him sometime and he should not hear him.” He grew to hate the farm and everything connected with it, including his parents religion.
At ten years of age he attended for one month a little school which had been established about a mile away. This was all the schooling he ever had.
When Samuel was fourteen years old his father changed his religion. He became a Universalist, and under the humanizing influence of the teachings of that denomination became a different man in his house. Thenceforward until his death the children were treated more kindly. During all this time poor little Samuel had one never- failing and constantly increasing source of joy and consolation. In his loneliness and suffering he was irresistibly drawn to the wild flowers, herbs and shrubs that he saw growing.
He loved them and had an insatiable curiosity about them. He was always asking people he happened to meet about “what they were good for.” All that he was told he carefully stored away in his memory and pondered over it.
Near the Thomsons lived an old woman by the name of Benton who had a great reputation for her knowledge of herbs. Whenever anybody in the neighborhood was taken sick she was called upon to treat them. Doctors were almost unknown, although there was one who lived ten miles away through the woods; but there were no roads then, only a blazed trail through the forest and the Thomsons managed to get along without his services. When they were sick enough to require attention, Old Lady Benton treated them with her “roots and herbs,” applied externally or made into hot teas to produce sweating. That was the great thing–to make them sweat. If one did not succeed she tried another until the desired effect was produced.
This usually sufficed and nearly all of her patients got well–which was more than could be said of the doctors work. She successfully treated the Thomson family in several illnesses and Samuel became much attached to her. He begged for and was accorded the privilege of accompanying her when she went out to collect herbs and diligently piled her with questions. From her he learned the names and uses of the plants she used. He also made experiments of his own by tasting and chewing the various plants he found and observing their effects upon himself–quite in the fashion of the other Samuel (Hahnemann), who was doing much the same thing in Germany about the same time, only rather more scientifically. Of his first independent discovery and personal test, made when he was between four and five years old, Samuel naively says:.
“Being out in the fields in search of the cows, I discovered a plant which had a singular branch and pods which I had never before seen. I had the curiosity to pick some of the pods and chew them. The taste and effects were so remarkable that I never forget them. I afterwards used to induce other boys to chew them merely by way of sport to see them vomit. (The little rascal!) I tried this herb in this way for nearly twenty years without knowing anything of its medicinal value. This is what I have called my Emetic Herb, and is the most important article I make use of in my practice”.
It was indeed! He came to regard it as a cure, in part or wholly, for every illness. He gave it recklessly, sometimes with dire effects, but often with palliative and occasionally curative results.
“It is a certain counter-poison,” he says, “having never been known to fail to counteract the effects of the most deadly poison. . . . It operates as an emetic, clears the stomach of all improper ailment, promotes internal heat which is immediately felt at the extremities, and produces perspiration”.