Thomsonian Medicine: Herbalism, Home Remedies, and Popular Distrust of Professional Medical Training in 19th-Century America

Be sure to bundle up well this winter to avoid getting sick and catching a cold! While this common ailment has no cure, that hasn’t stopped people throughout history from coming up with ways to alleviate their sniffles, coughs and all other cold-related discomforts. In his work The book of health, Dr. Silas Wilcox described the common cold as “the exciting cause of nearly ‘all the ills to which flesh is heir.’”  

A page from "The Book of health" that reads:
Common Cold.
This is at first simply an obstruction of the perspiration; but it is often followed by a sympathetic obstruction of the mucous membrane of the lungs and other secreting organs with various derangements of the weakest parts of the system thus becoming the exciting cause of nearly all "the ills to which flesh is heir."
Regular Treatment – Where?
Natural Treatment – In this every person should be wholly and faithfully his own physician. When any one discovers that they have taken cold, they should go at once and take heat. Drink freely of composition or cayenne, if not at hand, peppermint herb, pennyroyal, or some other stimulating medicine;– then take the vapor bath, and bath the feet or take an old fashioned sweat; and if necessary an emetic of lobelia, boneset, or blue vervain. If a cough attends, the cough powder, or some mild expectorant may be used; but do not doctor alone for that in that..
The common cold: its symptoms and its remedies, as described by Dr. Silas Wilcox, a practitioner of Thomsonian medicine. Image: The Book of health

Wilcox was an adherent to the Thomsonian school of medicine, a nineteenth-century American herbalist movement named after its founder Samuel Thomson (1769-1843). As a Thomsonian, Wilcox would prescribe a drink of cayenne peppers, peppermint herbs, pennyroyal, “or some other stimulating medicine” for those afflicted with a cold. After the drink, the patient should “take the vapor bath, and bathe the feet, or take an old fashioned sweat.” In true Thomsonian fashion, this was followed by an emetic (a mix that induces vomiting) of lobelia, boneset, or blue vervain. The patient was advised to repeat the process every evening until well, “remembering to steam thoroughly, sleep warmly, and be careful the next day.”  

The herbs and plants in the listed remedies would be familiar to anyone familiar with Thomson’s system. The stimulating herbs that Wilcox mentions (such as cayenne, peppermint, or pennyroyal) were considered vital in staving off illness, which Thomson believed was caused by cold. It was thought that a person could only recover by restoring the body’s natural heat.

an illustration of a cayenne pepper plant
Capsicum annum, aka Guinea red or Cayenne pepper. Listed as a stimulant, aperient, aromatic, and expectorant for the use of raising and retaining “the vital heat of the body” and for promoting “free prespiration.” Image: The Thomsonian materia medica
A passage from the Book of health that reads:
The Thomasonian Panacea – Take Bayberry 2 lbs., of ginger 1 lb., Cayenne 2 oz., cloves 2 oz., finely pulverized and mixed. This is a highly valuable and pleasant medicine in colds, head-ache, or pains in any part, bowel complaints, cold hands and feet, female complaints caused by cold. In fine it is almost universally applicable in disease. Directions, 1 teaspoonful in a cup of hot water, with milk and sugar, repeated at discretion.
Thomsonian remedies often involved herbs with heat (such as the abovementioned ginger, cayenne, and cloves) to restore the body’s natural balance and ward off the cold that Samuel Thomson believed was the cause of all diseases. Image: The Book of health

Thomson also heavily advocated for the use of lobelia, a plant whose discovery and medical attributes he mainly attributed to himself (and a claim that was refuted by some of his contemporaries). The plant was a favorite of his and a signature of his medical system. He described it as “of great value in preventing sickness, as well as curing it.” Much like modern  “cleanses,” the vomit-inducing properties of lobelias were believed to invigorate patients after emptying their stomachs of “every thing that nature does not require for the support of the system,” leaving them with “a full flow of vigor and spirits.”

An illustration of the lobelia plant
Lobelia, also known as Indian Tobacco and Puke Weed, induces vomiting when consumed. Thomson is usually credited as the man who popularized its use in medicine in America during the 19th century. Image: Flore Médicale

These herbs and remedies were easily accessible to the average person, and it was in this manner Wilcox and Thomson advocated for each layperson to be their own doctor. This sentiment formed the core of Thomsonian medicine. Using the Thomsonian system of herbs, one would be able to cure all their ills at home instead of relying on professional physicians, which those under Thomson’s banner both disdained and distrusted.

The preface of Thomson’s published A New Guide To Health, written “by a friend,” denounces medical training as nothing more than years spent “learning the Latin names of the different preparations of medicine” and “different parts of the human body, with the names, colors and symptoms of all kinds of disease, divided and subdivided into as many classes and forms as language can be found to express.” As a result, these doctors-in-training only gain enough experience and practical knowledge to know “how much poison can be given without causing immediate death.”  

A recipe from the Book of health that reads:
1 ounce of the Emetic Herb,
2 ounces of Cayenne,
1/2 lb. Bayberry root bark, in powder,
1 lb. of Poplar Bark,
1 lb. of Ginger,
1 pint of the Rheumatic Drops.
This stock will be sufficient for a family for one year, and with such articles as they can easily procure themselves, when wanted, will enable them to cure any disease, which a family of common size may be afflicted with during that time. The expense will be small, and much better than to employ a doctor, and have his extravagant bill to pay.
Medical remedies were supposed to be easily affordable and accessible under the Thomsonian system. Image: The Book of health

Thomson believed that not only were people able to sufficiently cure themselves through the use of botanic knowledge, thereby denoting medical training as unnecessary, but also that trained physicians were actively poisoning their patients through the injections of mercury and arsenic and the practice of bloodletting. Rather than thinking that doctors were simply misguided, however, he believed that these practices were a malicious and deliberate attempt to sicken their patients, as “it is for the interest of the doctor, if the family is not sick, to make them so.” Although untrue, distrust of medical professionals persists throughout history, even long after the Thomsonian system fell out of practice.

A portrait of Samuel Thomson.
Portrait of Samuel Thomson as depicted in his New guide to health, or, Botanic family physician.