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”.
This drug, whose “physiological” action he quite correctly but very crudely describes, was Lobelia Inflata, the so-called “Indian Tobacco” (which is not tobacco), largely used even then by botanic and eclectic physicians, as it had been by the Indians before them. Of this, however, he denies having had knowledge at the time. For him it was an original discovery and for many years he did not even know its name.
Thomson continued his observations and experiments upon himself with native medicines and after a while began to treat others. He believed that he had “the gift of healing.” “I was often told,” he writes, “that I should poison myself by tasting everything I saw; but I thought I ought to have as much knowledge as a beast, for the Creator had given them an instinct to discover what is good for food and what is necessary for medicine”; which reminds us of the pious but very practical reflection expressed by Hahnemann under closely similar circumstances.
Later, after he was married and had children of his own, he called in the doctors and watched them. His young wife very nearly died of puerperal convulsions during her first confinement and would have died if, after several days, he had not dismissed the doctors (there were six of them, including two “root doctors”) and treated her himself after they had given her over to die. . . . He brought her through and she began slowly to recover.
Many illness followed in which he continued to employ two of the doctors until, to save the time and trouble necessary to get them, he let a young doctor (who had “studied with Dr. Watts” and was looking for a location) have a house on his farm, “so as to have him handy.” This young doctor lived on his farm several years. Being a good fellow and grateful, he taught Thomson all he knew about medicine. Thomson says that it was of great use to him (in part negatively) but found that whenever a child or his wife “were attacked by any trifling complaint they were sure to have a long sickness; so he (the doctor) paid his rent and keeping very easy”.
His neighbors were not slow to observe his aptitude, nor to avail themselves of it; but as he was only a farmer like themselves they felt little or no obligation to pay him for his services. In consequence he was soon spending so much time in treating the sick that he could not make a living on his farm. He was forced to either change his occupation or give up medicine.
In 1805 he left his farm and travelled about for several years, seeking more knowledge. For a time he made his home in Beverly, Mass., but later opened an office in Boston for practicing the system which he had formulated. This brought him into direct conflict with the doctors and the troubles usual in such cases promptly began and never ended as long as he lived.
Those of us who have read the Introduction to Hahnemanns Organon will appreciate the situation in which Samuel Thomson found himself. True, he had seen only a very small section of the great field of medicine, but it was enough. “I found from experience,” he says, “that doctors made more diseases than they cured.” It is greatly to the credit of this poor and unlettered backwoodsman that he early saw and appreciated not only the horrible effects of the mode of treatment then current, but realized that it was radically wrong in theory and principle and set himself about finding a better way. He did not fully solve the problem, but he took some of the first steps toward it and had a glimpse of the true solution.
Thomson was the first man in America to attack publicly the allopaths in their stronghold. In the face of almost incredible difficulties, opposition and persecution he persevered in his attempts and proved himself a foeman worthy of their steel. They ridiculed him, lied about him, threatened him with assassination, indicted and arrested him for murder, witnesses, threw him into jail and let him lie in unspeakable filth for months, starved him, brought him finally before a prejudiced judge and perjured themselves, but failed after all to make out a case, because his friends rallied around him in court and showed them up.
It was the day of the lancet and leech, of cupping glass and Spanish fly blister, of setons and issues, of moxa and cautery, of diaphoretics and diuretics, of emetics and purgatives, of irritants and counter-irritants, of evacuants and derivatives. In short, medical treatment then was hell. The most powerful and deadly drugs were used, including the mineral such as mercury, antimony, lead and zinc. All of these Thomson discarded and denounced their use. He relied mainly upon his “vegetable emetic” and the vapor bath, supplementing these with a list of comparatively harmless native vegetable medicines, many of which he gathered and prepared himself.
The list of these medicines looks strangely familiar to the homoeopathician. To mention only a few of them, using their botanical names, which Thomson did not know; Aletris, Apocynum, Arum, Asarum, Berberis, Capsicum, Ceanothus, Chimaphila, Eupatorium, Hamamelis, Hydrastis, Lactuca, Lobelia, Macrotys, Pinus canadensis, Prunus virginiana, Rhus glabra, Rumex crispus, Sanguinaria, Solanum dulcamara, Symphytum, Taraxacum, Trillium, Verbascum, Xanthoxylum–these are now all old friends of ours. Thomson knew most of them only by their common or traditional names. Many of them were in use among the aborigines and were named by Rafinesque. Others were in use by the herbalists, and perhaps a few by the doctors.
Thomson did not claim to have discovered all the drugs he used. He had learned about them when and as he could, and claimed only to have elaborated a method of his own for their use, which was a true claim.
He did not even adopt the methods and theories of the Botanic physicians and Herbalists with whom he had so much in common, but propounded a theory and carried out procedures of his own. The vapor bath was in use among the Indians. From them he probably learned much, but indirectly, for there is no reason to suppose he ever came into direct contact with them. He had many original ideas, was ingenious and practical in carrying them out, and was able to explain most of his cases and the reasons for his treatment in a rational manner. Some of his diagnostic and pathological explanations, crudely as they were expressed, are far more intelligible than those of the doctors of the period.
Thomson was particularly forceful and intelligent in combating the almost universal practice of blood-letting as shown by the following case:
“A young lady applied to me who had been much troubled with bleeding at the stomach. She stated to me that she had been bled by the doctors forty-two times in two years. So much blood had been taken from her that the bloodvessels had contracted, so that they would hold very little blood; and the heat being thereby so much diminished, the water filled the flesh and what little blood there was rushed to her face, while all the extremities were cold. This produced a deceptive appearance of health. . . . I kindled heat enough in her body to throw off the useless water, which gave the blood room to circulate through the whole system, instead of circulating, as it had done before, only in the large blood vessels.
They being much distended by not having heat enough to give it motion led the doctors into the erroneous idea that there was too much blood and they resorted to the practice of bleeding, which reduced the strength of the patient but increased the disease. There is no such thing as a person having too much blood; no more than there is of having too much bone or muscle or sinew. Nature contrives all things right. The blood may be too thick, so as not to circulate, and is liable to be diseased like other parts of the body; but how taking part of it away can benefit the rest, or tend in any way to remove the disease, is what I could never reconcile with common sense”.
Has anyone ever stated the case against the blood-letting doctors more clearly or more logically? What fault can be found with Thomsons pathology? Who can explain it better today?.
Hahnemanns teaching was very similar; but it was fifty years before this homicidal practice was abandoned by the orthodox, only to be replaced with the equally pernicious practices of vaccination, hypodermic and intravenous medication. They are still meddling with the blood. Formerly they stole it; now they pollute and poison it. Which is worse? Yet they call this “scientific progress” and plume themselves upon it!.
By a curious coincidence Samuel Thomson and Samuel Hahnemann were contemporaries. Hahnemann was born in 1755, Thomson in 1769. Both died in 1843. Probably they never heard of each other; but the two men, although differing so greatly, had much in common. Both were filled with the spirit of benevolence and altruism. Both were naturally attracted to the field of medicine. Both were interested in the action of drugs upon the human organism. Both tested drugs on healthy persons including themselves.
Both were shocked and repelled by the evils and abuses of medical practice in their day, and both fought them with all their might. Both suffered extreme poverty, although at different periods of life. Both were persecuted by the medical profession, Thomson the most shamefully, but both gained a large following and brought confusion to their enemies. Yet the two men were very different in mentally, personality and environment.
Hahnemann was the son of an artist, thinker and logician. He was trained from childhood in accurate observation and logical thinking. University educated and erudite; master of eleven languages and widely read; teacher, translator, author, chemist, physicist, physician, philosopher and savant; original researcher and innovator; formulator of the greatest, most scientific and most successful system of therapeutics the world has ever known, he stands as one of the worlds greatest reformers and benefactors, secure in his fame as one of the Immortals.
Thomson was the son of an ignorant, bigoted, cruel father. Born and reared in poverty and isolation–a child of the forest; denied the privileges of education, society and books; ill- treated in childhood and compelled to hard labor; half starved physically, mentally and spiritually, but feeding his soul on the beauty and usefulness of forest flowers and herbs; yearning for knowledge and picking it up bit by bit as he could from old women and backwoods doctors; blindly experimenting and imitating, at first, the crude practices of others almost as ignorant as himself, but soon recognizing and rejecting the worst of their blunders and selecting what appeared most useful and least harmful of the resources within his reach.
Sensing the existence and operation of a healing principle in nature and groping after it; impressed with the power of the living organism to protect and repair itself, he bravely trusted it almost to the point of recklessness. Observing, experimenting, guessing, meditating, feeling his way along almost blindly, yet persistently following the faint glimmer of light ahead of him; slowly gaining the confidence of his neighbors and building up a following; ultimately attaining recognition and leadership in a movement which went far toward reforming medicine and elevating it to a higher plane–such a man was Samuel Thomson.
He too won a place among the benefactors and reformers of mankind and well deserves it.
Thomsons theories were simple. Probably without knowing that he was following in the footsteps of the ancient Ionian and Greek sages, and later of Galen, he adopted the theory that all animal bodies are formed of “the four elements, earth, air, fire and water”; that air and fire, or heat, are the “cause and substance of life”; that “lessening of heat,” or impairment of the power of life, is the cause of all diseases; hence, that the proper treatment for disease is “restoration of heat” or the power of life, “by clearing the system of all obstructions and causing a natural perspiration.” The “four elements” are the four primary forces in nature, oxygen, hydrogen, carbon and nitrogen.