Blind!-Leaders of the blind! lift up your eyes
And seek for light, that leads from ruins brink!
Your Calomel, and all your deadly drugs, reject!
The world is wakening round you! Botanic
Doctors (sounding the majesty of truth)
Gain ground: the mercurial craft declines!
Thick darkness flies before Thomsonian light,
Bursting in glory on a long benighted world!
-- The Thomsonian Recorder, 1834 .
Of all the medical patents issued in the early decades of American independence, the patent with the greatest impact on society was granted to a New Hampshire farmer named Samuel Thom-son. Influenced by the same forces that boomed the sale of pack-aged remedies, Thomson patented a system of medical treatment that made every man his own physician, a system destined to sweep the nation.
The road to the patent office, however, was arduous, and Thom-son's own account of it grim. He was born on the frontier in 1769. His parents were poverty-stricken. His father was stern and severe. The boy's own labor on the unyielding acres began when he was five. Lame from birth, Thomson was often sick. He had one month of schooling, at the age of ten. His main pleasure came from wandering through the woods and fields testing the products of nature's bounty. One herb the lad discovered brought him perverse delight. "I . . . used to induce other boys to chew it," he remembered, "merely by way of sport, to see them vomit .
His interest in plants, bolstered by popular medical lore learned from a neighborhood widow, almost brought Thomson's re-lease from the hated farming. He longed to go and live with a nearby root doctor, but his father could not get along without his son's labor and the doctor could not accept his lack of schooling. So Thomson toiled wretchedly on. When the young man was twenty-one, his father deeded him half the family farm and moved off to Vermont. His mother and sister were left in Samuel's care, but soon the mother died, a victim of measles turned into "galloping consumption." Several doctors had done her no good at all, Thomson was persuaded, whereas he himself, suffering from the same maladies, had managed to restore his health with botan-ical concoctions. A year later a new experience strengthened Thomson's convictions. He had married, and his wife, following childbirth, became gravely ill. Seven regular physicians rendered their conflicting treatments in vain. In despair the anguished husband called in two root doctors. One day later his wife was cured. This event turned Thomson's attention in earnest to the hobby he had never ceased to pursue. In the next several years he used herbs to cure a daughter, a son, then several neighbors. His fame spread. In time he was too busy healing to continue farming. He moved about from town to town in eastern New England, practicing the medical theories that by now he had formulated.
Samuel Thomson's ideas were neither complex nor new. He was convinced "that all disease is the effect of one general cause, and may be removed by one general remedy." The cause was cold, the remedy heat. Like the Greeks, Thomson believed "that all animal bodies are formed of four elements, earth, air, fire, and water." An imbalance of these elements which diminished "the power of heat," brought on an illness. The proper cure, therefore, was "to restore heat to its natural state." The whole thing could be summed up in a quatrain:
My system's founded on this truth,
Man's Air and Water, Fire and Earth;
And death is cold, and life is heat
These termper'd well, you are complete.
Thomson sought to do this "tempering" directly, by means of steam baths and "hot" botanicals like red pepper, and indirectly, by the use of emetics, purgatives, enemas, and sweat-producing herbs, which would clear the body of all "obstructions," let the stomach function properly, and thus preserve the natural heat-balance among the body's basic elements. "All the art required to do this," Thomson believed, "is, to know what medicine will do it, and how to administer it, as a person knows how to clear a stove and pipe when clogged with soot, that the fire may burn free, and the whole room be warmed as before." Early in his career, Thomson hoped that one plant alone might prove to be the universal remedy. His choice was the very same herb, lobelia inflata, that had set his boyhood com-panions to vomiting. The Indians had used lobelia as a smoke, and others before Thomson had mentioned it as an "Emetic Weed." But Thomson made it the keystone of his system of therapy. Lobelia did not work out as the sole cure -- Thomson ended up with some sixty-five botanicals, chosen in accordance with the "strikingly obvious" dictum "that the medicinal vege-tables of our own country must be more congenial to the constitutions of its inhabitants, and better suited to the diseases incident to our climate, than imported drugs." Lobelia remained No. 1 in the numbered list of six remedies which Thomson was to patent .
Thus an unschooled frontier farmer had propagated a one-cause, one-cure theory of disease, performing a feat of speculative medical logic not unlike the theorizing of leading European and American physicians during the same years. Almost simultane-ously with Thomson's musings, indeed, Benjamin Rush was working out his hypertension pathology that ushered in America's "heroic" age.
It must not be assumed that, by contrast, Samuel Thomson's system of therapy lacked courage. Lobelia alone required a certain hardihood. There were other brave aspects of the regimen, as made clear by a surviving account of the first of at least eleven Thomsonian treatments given a Maryland man some years later for an unspecified disease. The day began with "a steam bath 30 minutes in duration. When the sweat rolls off as thick as your finger the body is washed with cold water and the patient straightway put to bed with hot bricks to bring back the heat. Then a powerful vomitive is administered, composed of bay berry, of cayenne (red pepper) and lobelia, and all these herbs are mixed in 40 proof brandy, after which warm water is drunk until there has ensued the most extraordinary vomiting." After a second steaming, a second cold bath, and a second session with hot bricks, the patient "takes two injections [enemas?] of penny royal, cayenne pepper and l'obelia [sic] and the treatment is over for the day." 
The experience of this patient bolsters the assertion of a Virginian who described the "spirit" of Thomsonianism as "that of our restless, dauntless, active, western backwoodsmen, who even judge their 'physic' by the amount of labor it is capable of performing." 
If the New Hampshire farmer's system had its own form of rigor, it was distinguished from Rush's Philadelphia "heroism" in two significant ways. Thomson's approach to therapy did not include bleeding and it did not prescribe mineral medicines. Indeed, it not only did not include them, it forthrightly condemned them. Thomson was a frank foe of regular physicians. They had killed his mother, he felt, and had brought his wife to the brink of death. Their methods were anathema.
They are like Javas deadly tree
Whose sland'ring poisonous breath,
Are nuisance to society
A pestilential death.
It was not long after Thomson had launched his practice that he incurred the enmity of the doctors in his vicinity. The trained professionals were outraged by the presumption of this ignorant country bumpkin with his steam baths and his herbs. Thomson's growing popularity among the people made things worse. His outspoken castigations stung the doctors to white-hot anger. All that physicians ever learned about the nature of medicine, Thomson said, was "how much poison [could] be given without causing death," and considering "their instruments of death, Mercury, Opium, Ratsbane, Nitre and the Lance," they often gave too much. Soon a bitter feud was under way .
Thomson's temperament, as well as his ideas, led him into conflict with other people. One may imagine the reaction of the boyhood companions who had been persuaded to chew lobelia. After a quarrel, one of Thomson's later associates spoke of him as "illiterate, coarse in his manners and extremely selfish." The botanical doctor's face, to judge by an engraved portrait, was severe. He had a square head with an extremely high forehead, close-cropped hair, large eyes under heavy brows, and straight-set lips. He did not have the engraver remove from his likeness a conspicuous wart on his large nose. This high-domed head was naturally of interest to a leading practitioner of another sect, the phrenologist Orson S. Fowler, who made a personal examination of Thomson's cranium. Based on this -- and doubtless on observation of the steam doctor's career -- Fowler described Thomson's character. The three largest "organs" on his skull were "Firmness, Approbativeness and Causality." He was quick to anger, vigorous in his animosity, "obstinate, even to mulishness." "Nothing daunted him." His social "organs" also were large, especially amativeness, so that Thomson was "beloved or hated in the extreme." He "had no deception; loved and spoke the truth, and was not naturally cunning or double faced." "Benevolence stood out conspicuously, indicating that he had the good of his fellow-men at heart." Still, his "organ" of money-making was also markedly developed. And he had an unmistakable love of praise.
Thomson's enemies began by calling him names. He was labeled,
he said, "the sweating and steaming doctor; the Indian doctor;
the old wizzard; and sometimes the quack." His lobelia was
called such things as "screw auger," "bull-dog,"
"belly-my-grizzle." Thomson denied that this plant was
a poison, even in large quantities, and insisted he had the instinct
of the wild beast permitting him to discover by tasting "what
is good for food, and what is necessary for medicine." But
regular doctors began to circulate the rumor that lobelia had
killed some of Thomson's patients and in 1809 Thomson was arrested
and charged with murder .
The instigator of this attack was a regular physician named French who long had been the most vindictive of Thomson's medical critics. "I had considerable practice in his neighborhood," the herb doctor wrote later, "and was very successful in every case; this seemed to excite his malice against me to the greatest pitch; he took every opportunity to insult and abuse me both to my face and behind my back." Witchcraft and trafficking with the devil were among the charges hurled. Thomson had fought back, haling the doctor before a magistrate to answer for his threats. French countered with the murder charge, insisting that two years previously the botanical doctor had killed a patient with lobelia. Thomson was thrown into a Newburyport jail to await trial .
This "dungeon," in Thomson's memoirs, was horrible indeed. There was no heat against the winter's cold. The thin November sunshine had no means of entrance, nor was a candle provided for light. The first meal was hard corn bread, stale coffee, and "the nape of a fish." The air was heavy with filth. Lice crawled about the floor. Thomson's sole companion was a man convicted of assault upon a girl of six. Release did not seem possible. Bail could not be granted for a murder charge and no court would meet regularly to try the case for nearly a year. "This was the policy of my enemies," Thomson was sure, "thinking that they could keep me in prison a year, and in all probability I should not live that time."
But Thomson survived a month in his foul jail to face his principal accuser in a special court convened at Salem through the intercession of friends. The herb doctor pleaded not guilty to the murder charge. He had been called to treat a dying man, he said, afflicted with the same severe cold, possibly typhus, that shortly before had killed his mother. Thomson's treatments had brought relief, so that the young man had gotten out of bed. Foolishly he had gone outdoors into the bitter cold of a December day. There was a relapse, accompanied by delirium. Called back to the bedside, Thomson told the family there was no hope. He requested the patient's father to call in other doctors. This was done, but Thomson's prediction proved correct. The next morning the young man was dead.
A parade of prosecution witnesses at the trial gave a different twist to the interpretation of events. The botanical doctor had been called, they said, to treat the youth's cold. The therapy had consisted of three powders of lobelia within half an hour, which produced the most violent vomiting. On each of the next two days, Thomson administered two more doses of this powerful plant. Then he went off, leaving the patient prostrate with weakness. Several days later, Thomson returned and gave several more doses. The young man went out of his head and became so convulsed that it took two men to hold him down. Once again, Thomson insisted on giving two more lobelia powders. This was the last straw. The youth worsened and died. Such was the testimony of Thomson's accusers.
Then came a moment of high drama. A medical witness for the prosecution showed the court a plant he called the poisonous lobelia. One of Thomson's attorneys took the herb and calmly and deliberately chewed and swallowed it. The nation's leading botanist, Manasseh Cutler, then took the stand. The plant intro-duced in evidence by the prosecution, he said, was not lobelia at all, but marsh rosemary. The jury quickly found the defendant innocent.
A liberated Thomson failed in a suit for libel against the physician responsible for bringing the murder charge, but soon was pleased to note that his evil persecutor had been convicted of stealing a dead body from a graveyard .
French's discomfiture and Thomson's exoneration did not end the battle between the steam doctor and the regulars. As a result of Thomson's continuing popular success, his renewed blasting of bloodletting and mineral medication, and his advocacy of republican principles in a region where everyone who counted was a die-hard federalist, his enemies grew more determined and sought new weapons. Even before the Revolution, physicians in various colonies had secured legislative enactments, although they proved futile, to control quackery. Now doctors renewed their efforts, inspiring state laws which forbade the Thomsonian practice. This attack angered the botanical doctor and led him to patent his system. "I finally came to the conclusion," he wrote, "that there was only one plan for me to pursue with any chance of success; and that was to go on to Washington, and obtain a patent for my discoveries; and put myself and medicine under the protection of the laws of my country, which would not only secure to me the exclusive right of my system and medicine, but would put me above the reach of the laws of any state .
Patent procedures when Thomson went to Washington in 1813 were still lenient, requiring proof of neither the novelty nor the utility of an invention. Even at that the unschooled Yankee had a hard time getting the clerk to approve his application. Finally, after a former governor of Vermont had helped him re-draft his specifications, Thomson succeeded. It was comforting to know that he now had a document giving him "the exclusive right of preparing, using and vending to others the use of this Medicine, signed by the President, Secretary [of State], and Attorney-General, of the United States." Thomson in time would expand the actual truth and suggest that the President had guaranteed the medical potency of his system. "Oh! to take medicine 'by authority,'" a critic would chide, "and that, too, of the President, who would recommend nothing that he had not tried on himself, and found useful for the people .
Patent in hand, Thomson headed hopefully back to New England. On his way he stopped in Philadelphia to meet the most distinguished physician in America and to ask his advice about introducing the newly patented system to the world. Benjamin Rush was very busy, and he handed Thomson on to a professor of materia medica. This at least was graciously done, for Thomson remembered the Philadelphian's personal politeness at the same time that he recalled his own astonishment at learning to what lengths Rush went in bleeding his patients .
Thus did Rush and Thomson briefly meet. The untutored botanical doctor had hardly left the city before the urbane physician was dead. But Rush's system of heroic treatment lived on in the practice of most American doctors. Against it Thomson was pledged to fight with renewed vigor, since he was now supported by the power of the United States itself.
There still were lean years ahead. In a suit for trespass against an interloper, Thomson found that his specifications had not been drawn concretely enough to serve as a foundation for legal action. So he got a second patent in 1823. Nor did these patents give Thomson the protection he had hoped for against the "Black Laws" passed by state legislatures. The lobbies of regular doctors continued active and successful through the decade of the twenties. Nonetheless, Thomson's medical ideas spread. He advertised in the papers. He issued pamphlets. He traveled up and down the country promulgating his doctrine in person. Op-position only led to more rapid acceptance, Thomson wrote, "like whipping fire among the leaves." 
The years ahead were troubled ones for orthodox disciples of Aesculapius. In 1828 Andrew Jackson was elected to the presidency, a result of broadened suffrage, a signal that the common man was coming increasingly into his own. One foible of the ordinary citizen was a grave suspicion of too much book-learning. This pervasive feeling made it difficult for members of all the learned professions. "The priest, the doctor, and the lawyer," Samuel Thomson wrote, all were guilty of "deceiving the people." Doctors especially came under attack. Many a speech by a physician and many a resolution by a medical society began to reflect the tumbling authority of the doctors and their belief that this unhappy state of affairs was due to an excess of democratic individualism improperly aimed. "The people regard it among their vested interests," wrote a New York doctor, "to buy and swallow such physick as they in their sovereign will and pleasure shall determine; and in this free country, the democracy denounce all restrictions upon quackery as wicked monopolies for the benefit of physicians." A committee of the New-Hampshire Medical Society reported "so strong an antagonistic feeling" between physicians and the public that the people considered "their reliance upon nostrums and quack administrations of medicine more valuable than any dependence upon a learned profession. The profession to them is 'pearls before swine.'" The patronizing of pseudo-doctors and quacks, opined a book reviewer, "is incident to the character of our institutions .... It is the result of too much liberty." 
The popular distrust of doctors led to all sorts of wild charges. Ancient suspicions were refurbished as weapons for the renewed battle. Imbued with zeal for the common man's religions, which stressed fervor and decried intellect, state legislatures opposed the practice of dissection. Anyone who would desecrate the temple of the soul, ran the common belief, was bound to be an atheist. In the face of such laws, adequate medical education could not continue unless grave-robbing occurred. Samuel Thomson's medical foe had run afoul of such a statute. Imprisonment was the least danger faced by doctors and students of anatomy. A mob assault at a small Illinois medical school led to the death of a student and the serious wounding of a teacher. Nor were the anatomy professors at even Harvard and Yale immune from such dangers .
With atheism went immorality, and one more hoary suspicion was bruited again in the age of the common man. An Ohio agent for botanical medicines, who doubled as a Radical Methodist preacher, was quoted as saying: "The practice of employing physicians to officiate in Midwifery cases was so demoralizing that he believed, that any woman who would willingly submit to have a Doctor to deliver her of a child, would let that same Doctor afterwards get her with child, if he chose to do so." 
Such an assertion was patently absurd. But what made it difficult for reputable physicians and easy for untutored doctors and outright quacks was that much of the popular criticism, though it had its excesses, was to the point. Medical science was immature, and many people instinctively revolted against the heroism of noxious emetics and violent bleeding. Medical ethics had only the most tenuous authority among run-of-the-mill practitioners. The "Black Laws" did look like special privilege. And the pseudo-doctor was devilishly clever in parading the physician as an aristocrat before the eyes of the common man. "Every quack is, indeed, a demagogue," explained Daniel Drake, the most keen-minded doctor in the Midwest, in 1829, "and relies, for his success, on nearly the same arts, with his political and religious . . . brethren." The botanical doctor poses as "one of the people," as "pre-eminently the guardian of the people," and he accuses trained doctors of being "not of the people, but arrayed against the people, and bent on killing them off." The people were "charmed" by this appeal, Drake said, and "crawl[ed] into the serpent's mouth." 
The system that Samuel Thomson patented was the ultimate in the democratic approach to health. There was no need of doctors; every man could treat himself. Thomson sold, or had agents sell, family rights to use his system. For twenty dollars a family could buy a book of directions and the privilege of preparing and using the remedies described, although Thomson sought to maintain a monopoly of the sale of the basic botanical ingredients. Purchasers in a given area belonged to Friendly Botanic Societies and could share their experience and counsel, but no member was to give away secrets to nonmembers . Only the most trustworthy physicians and medical students were to be admitted, and they only after having paid $500 each and having sworn before a justice of the peace to keep their lips properly sealed.
Such a strange mixture of medication and salesmanship would never have been granted a patent under any but the most ludicrously laissez-faire of patent policies. The regular doctors, of course, were quick to point this out. To be granted a patent for the "clumsy" and "dangerous" methods by which Thomson prescribed his vegetable remedies, said Daniel Drake, was like getting a patent for vaccinating not the arm but the nose .
Drake even debated against Thomson when the steam doctor brought his gospel to Ohio, realizing full well that his own criticism, and that of other educated physicians, helped the prestige of "the artful demagogue and mischievous imposter" with the credulous. The scope of this triumph was amazing, even if it did not take quite the form which Thomson would have wished. By 1839 he claimed to have sold 100,000 of his family rights. Sections of rural New England, the South, and the West were won over to botanical medicine. The governor of Mississippi asserted that half the people of his state were treated according to Thom-sonian principles, and in Ohio the regular physicians admitted botanical recruits to be at least a third of the population .
The vast sweep of this botanical tide did not make Samuel Thomson happy. Indeed, his movement had gotten quite out of hand. It was supposed to be his. He had a patent for it. But "mongrel Thomsonians" kept stealing the booty. Rascals pirated his medical manual. Agents he had hired went off on their own. Unauthorized manufacturers compounded "Thomsonian" botanicals. There were even those who defied the master's motto, "The Study of Patients, Not Books -- Experience, Not Reading," and sought to make his concepts the basis of medical school education. Even in a democratic age, many Americans, anxious to be treated by Thomsonian principles, wanted a "doctor" to do it rather than relying on a book. About all these troubles, despite constant law suits, and violent diatribes, Thomson could do but little .
On one thing botanical practitioners of all persuasions did unite. They launched a vigorous drive to secure the repeal of the "Black Laws" discriminating against them. One of Thomson's own sons led the fight in New York state. On one occasion he pushed to the state capital a wheelbarrow containing a petition bearing so many signatures it was thirty-one yards long. The tone of the campaign is caught in the words of a senator in the course of the debate. "The people of this state have been bled long enough in their bodies and pockets," he said, "and it [is] time they should do as the men of the Revolution did: resolve to set down and enjoy the freedom for which they bled." Another New York solon spoke for the age of the common man: "A people accustomed to govern themselves, and boasting of their intelligence, are impatient of restraint. They want no protection but freedom of inquiry and freedom of action .
Medical democracy, indeed, was what Americans seemed to desire. They might not decide to treat themselves, but they wanted no restrictions on their right to choose the method by which they would be treated. The New York law was modified and then repealed. Medical control statutes in almost every other state likewise fell before the pressure of botanical lobbies and public opinion. Before mid-century, in those few states which still had laws in their codes, only three made any pretense at enforcement. The judicious might grieve, but the people and the people's doctors had won their way. In a pioneering and long-unheeded report on the public health in Massachusetts, Lemuel Shattuck wrote in 1850: "Any one, male or female, learned or ignorant, an honest man or a knave, can assume the name of physician, and 'practice' upon any one, to cure or to kill, as either may happen, without accountability. It's a free country!" 
Another token of the Thomsonian victory was the way many members of the regular medical profession broke ranks. "We must adopt the Thomsonian medical agents, or lose our practice." So argued a professor at the Pennsylvania Medical College. Many physicians, seeing the booming popularity of botanical medicine, followed this counsel. Other doctors, not willing to go so far, found it advisable to let up on the bloodletting and mineral medication which were the major objects of Thomsonian attack. This pressure helped to mitigate the excesses of "heroic" therapy. Thomsonianism was not the only force for reform. It was joined in due course by another strange sect, homeopathy, with its emphasis on infinitesimal doses. There came, moreover, the inevitable reaction within the ranks of regular medicine, originat-ing in France and brought to America by such students as Oliver Wendell Holmes. This literary doctor condemned bloodletting and asserted that, except for a few specific drugs, opium, and anesthesia, "if the whole materia medica, as now used, could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be all the better for man-kind -- and all the worse for the fishes." 
Many forces worked toward the replacement of the excessive "heroism" associated with Rush's theories by the new vogue of therapeutic nihilism. In the contest, the role of Thomson was that of primacy. He was, in the words of a sympathetic medical historian, "the first to publicly attack Allopathy in America." 
Whatever its role for good, Thomsonianism was no sound system for the American people, even though, in a democratic age, they might desire it. In 1837 a Thomsonian practitioner in New York suffered the fate which Thomson himself had luckily escaped, being convicted of manslaughter for causing the death of a patient by excessive use of lobelia. The impact of such sober-ing episodes, the continuing criticism by physicians, the bitter feuding within botanical ranks, and the arrival of new popular enthusiasms, brought the waning of the doctrine. There was a legacy of more judicious and fruitful study of the medicinal resources of American fields arid forests than Samuel Thomson had had the skill to provide. But the simple body-heat theory of the founder passed away. The patent, which had been renewed in 1836, expired in 1852. By then Thomsonianism was moribund. Six years earlier Daniel Drake had said that "STEAM-ERY" was out of fashion, and in 1859 a Tennessee physician asserted that the day of the steam doctors was over. Many of them, he said, had been preachers who now had returned to that calling .
The career of Samuel Thomson does not escape paradox. He hated the "heroism" of bloodletting and massive mineral doses, but he failed to realize that his own torrid baths and vigorous botanicals required enormous courage on the part of the patient. He denied the monistic pathology which Rush and his followers believed in, but he spun out a speculative one-cause explanation of his own based on a misconception harking back to ancient Greece. He fought the licensing restrictions by which regular physicians became a privileged class, but he sought to monopolize his own remedies and methods of treatment by recourse to the patent office.
Thomson died in 1843. His last years were no happier than his boyhood. He had managed to secure neither the loyalty of his followers nor the profits from his patent which he felt he deserved. In the end, even his own medicines failed him. He died taking them in vain .