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Samuel Thomson: The Father of American Herbalism

The setting is rural New Hampshire in the early 1790's. The two-year-old daughter of an uneducated farmer is deathly ill. Discharges are coming from her mouth, nose and eyes. She has lapsed into a coma and is breathing with great difficulty. The local doctor says there is nothing more he can do.

As the father watches hopelessly he is seized by a sudden flash of intuition. He fills a bath with boiling water and holds his daughter over the steam. After about 20 minutes she relaxes and begins to breath normally. It is the turning point. The child recovers, but the death blow to a farmer's faith in orthodox medicine has been delivered. From this time forth whenever a member of his family is ill, he treats them with steam baths and herbs. His methods are so successful that soon neighbors and friends are calling on him to tend their sick.

Thus began one of the most unusual and influential medical careers in American history--the career of Samuel Thompson.

To Samuel Thompson rightfully belongs the title "The Father of American Herbalism." As naturopathic physician and author Stan Malstrom has stated. "Samuel Thompson has probably contributed more to the science of herbalogy than any other individual in the history of the United States." Without any formal medical training, he devised a system of healing that not only swept frontier America like a storm, it crossed the oceans to kindle a new botanical movement in Europe (particularly England) as well. In fact, it is estimated that by 1840 three to five million Americans had adopted the Thompsonian method of treating illness.

Because this book is largely based on Thomson's system, it is only fitting that we understand something of this man. Dr. Thomson was born in 1796 and raised in the back country of New Hampshire. He had little chance for formal schooling, but he did have a natural curiosity concerning plants.

When I was between three and four years old, my father took me out with him to work...I was very curious to know the names of all the herbs which I saw growing, and what they were good for; and, to satisfy my curiosity was constantly making inquiries of the persons I happened to be with for that purpose...There was an old lady by the name of Benton lived near us, who attended our family when there was any sickness...The whole of her practice was with roots and herbs, applied to the patient, or given in hot drinks, to produce sweating; which always answered the purpose. When one thing did not produce the desired effect, she would try something else, till they were relieved...when she used to go out to collect roots and herbs, she would take me with her, and learn me their names, with what they were good for; and I used to be very curious in my inquires, and in tasting every thing that I found.

It was at the tender age of four that Thomson discovered one of the herbs that was to be the hallmark of his herbal system.

Sometime in the summer, after I was four years old...I discovered a plant...that I had never before seen, and I had the curiosity to pick some of the pods and chew them; the taste and operation produced was so remarkable, that I never forgot it. I afterwards used to induce other boys to chew it, merely by way of sport, to see them vomit. I tried this herb in this way for nearly twenty years, without knowing any of its medicinal virtues. This plant is what I have called the Emetic Herb, and is the most important article I make use of in my practice.

The plant was lobelia (Lobelia inflata), an emetic herb, also known as Indian tobacco or puke weed. Some twenty years later, Thompson had an experience which convinced him that this herb was a valuable medicine. While working in a field he found some of the plant and gave a sprig to co-worker. The man ate it. A short time later he said he believed what Thompson had given him was going to kill him, because he'd never felt so bad in his life. The man then vomited several times and Thompson lead him to the house to rest. In his biography, Thompson records that the experience seemed to do the man a great deal of good. about two hours he ate a very hearty dinner, and in the afternoon was able to do a good half day's labor. He afterwards told me that he never had any thing do him so much good in his life; his appetite was remarkably good, and he felt better than he had for a long time. This circumstance gave me the first idea of the medicial virtues of this valuable plant, which I have since found by forty years experience, in which time I have made use of it in every disease I have met with, to great advantage, that it is a discovery of the greatest importance.

Eventually, lobelia became the "number one" herb in Thompson's materia medica and its use stirred a controversy that continues to the present day. As more and more people came to Thompson for help, orthodox physicians began to harass him. They charged that lobelia was a deadly poison, while Thompson claimed it was beneficial and harmless. The irony of these charges is that orthodox physicians were administering doses of mercury, arsenic, strychninne, antimony, salt peter, opium and other deadly poisonous materials.

One local physician, a Dr. French, had Thompson arrested in 1809, by charging him with murdering one of his patients with lobelia. Although Thompson was acquitted after a brief trial, he was forced to spend a month in a cold, filthy dungeon with a man convicted of assaulting a six-year old girl.

Had his successes not aroused the jealousies of local M.D.'s Thompson might have remained an obscure "root doctor." But legal actions like the one above and the realization that he couldn't single-handedly treat all the patients who needed his services caused him to consider his future carefully. He settled upon an ingenious answer to these problems. In 1813, he visited the United States Patent Office and secured a patent on "Thompson's Improved System of Botanic Practice of Medicine."

Armed with this patent on his herb formulas and methods, he appointed agents to publicize and promote his work. "Family Rights" to use the Thompsonian medicines and system were sold for $20. Right-holders were able to purchase Thompson's herbs and formulas, which he distributed from a central warehouse, and a copy of Thompson's book, New Guide to Health or Botanic Family Physician. They were also organized into Friendly Botanical Societies. These societies loudly proclaimed Thompson's belief that "every man could and ought to be his own doctor- intelligently responsible for his own health." By 1840 a hundred thousand patent rights had been sold throughout the nation. Thompsonian medicine was also introduced to England by Albert Isaiah Coffin, where it enjoyed similar success.

Medical historians have attributed it to a number of things. They say it was because people were frightened or discouraged by the failures of medical orthodoxy. They claim it was also part of the spirit of the times--the time of west-ward expansion and rugged individualism. Thompsonian medicine fit that model exactly because Thompson believed that every man or woman could be a doctor to their own family through his system. Thousands of Americans were opposed to "king-craft, or priest-craft, lawyer-craft and doctor-craft."

While all of these factors and more contributed to the success of botanical medicine, the medically--oriented historians have overlooked one important point--Thompsonian medicine was successful because it worked! The author and many others have personally tried the full course of Thompsonian treatment with excellent success. Three to five million people adopted the Thompsonian system over a thirty year period because they found it worked consistantly in cases where orthodox medicine failed. Keep in mind that the population of the United States in 1830 was about 13 million people, so we are talking about 30% of the population. Also remember that this system was not "forced" onto the people by legislative monopoly, but was accepted on its own merits.

In fact, Thomsonians weren't interested in obtaining legal monopoly on the medical profession. In fact, they wanted just the opposite. Thomson and his followers believed that "the people are certainly capable of judging for themselves, whether what is done for them, removes their complaint or increases it." So, supporters of this "grass-roots" health movement aligned themselves with the Jeffersonian democrats, who considered all monopolies to be undemocratic and improper in a free society. They helped form a powerful political movment known as the Popular Health Movement and were amazingly successful in their efforts. By 1850 they had wiped the medical licensing laws off the books in every state. As the Story of Medicine in America noted, Thompson "demonstrated to the satisfaction of many that the capacity of Americans to survive between 1630 and 1760 without a medical profession had not been an accident, that a separate class of medical men was a luxury incompatible with sound reasoning or democratic practice."

Thomson's influence extended far beyond his own day. His system may have helped pioneers coming to the Rocky Mountains survive their harsh wilderness experience. Many pioneer physicians used Thomsonian herbs and therapies and their journals record that they achieved the same excellent results he did.

The repeal of licensing laws and Thompson's success with a patented medical system, helped usher in the era of patent medicine. Although most history books portray this as a dark period in American medicine, this is not necessarily so, as Dr. Andrew Wiel points out in Health and Healing.

It was a time of great experimentation in matters of health. There was a trend toward self-responsibility, summed up in the slogan "Every man his own doctor."...Resentment of regular doctors ran high, and with justification. Not only did they bleed and purge people to death, they tried to put out of business competitors who attempted to heal the sick with gentler methods.

The botanical movement continued to grow after Thompson's death in 1843, but it became more and more divided. While he was alive, Thomson strongly resisted the creation of a special class of "healers." Thomson felt that every every family ought to have its own doctor. He felt that the right to this knowledge belonged to every man and not to a special class of men. However, there were those who pressured Thomson and wanted him to create a school to train doctors in his system.

Those following after Thomson did exactly what Thomson had resisted. They formed schools. These physicians, known as neo-Thompsonians or the Physio-Medical doctors, began to abandon the systematic approach advocated by Thompson in favor of the diagnostic and prescriptive approach used by orthodox medicine. They became quite sophisticated in their practice, but were economically and politically overshadowed by the changes in orthodox medicine.

Thomson's influence is still with us today. The herbs Thompson discovered or popularized include many of the most popular Western herbs sold today--cayenne pepper or capsicum, lobelia, golden seal, bayberry rootbark, myrrh gum and red raspberry leaves. Many of today's popular herb books use a neo-Thomsonian approach. Back to Eden is one of these. The author, Jethro Kloss, emphisizes Thompsonian herbs and therapies, including the lobelia emetic, capsicum and goldenseal.

Furthermore, the resurgent interest in herbs in recent years is at least indirectly due to the influence of Thompson. John R. Christopher, one of the key figures in the herbal renaissance of today, was strongly influenced by the journal of Priddy Meeks. Meeks was a Utah pioneer who had purchased Family Rights to the Thompsonian System. His journal describes Thompsonian methods and herbs. As a result, Dr. Christopher's theories and methods, as well as the herbs he learned to use, strongly parallel Thompsonian medicine. His herb formulas, most of which contain cayenne and/or lobelia, are sold by at least five of the largest herb manufacturers in the United States.

The story of Thomson's career has many modern parallells. Most of the herbalists I have met, started out just as Thomson did. They never intended to become herbalists. When they obtained no relief from modern medicine, they began searching for alternatives. They found they could succeed with herbs where orthodox medicine had failed and before long, they were helping family and friends. Before they even realized what was happening, they were practicing herbology either full or part-time.

Just as people of the early 1800's were dissatisfied with the ineffectiveness of orthodox treatment for acute and contagious disease, people of today are largely dissatisfied with orthodox treatment of chronic and degenerative diseases. And, just as Thompson offered an attractive and apparently effective alternative, herbalists and natural healers of today are succeeding where orthodox medicine is failing.

Thomson was hounded and criticized sharply by the regular physicians. Still, great numbers of lay people, like you and I, followed him. They believed the Thompsonian claim that they could be responsible for their own health. Today, many people are again taking up that cry and seeking to take responsiblity for their own health. Men like Thompson are claiming answers and like Thompson, have been charged with "murdering" their patients. It appears the same controversies that existed in Thompson's day are still with us, but on a more sophisticated level.

Even the lobelia controversy is still alive and well. While many herb users still claim it is a harmless but effective herb, the FDA has been seeking to remove it from the marketplace, claiming it is poisonous, while the wholesale marketing and use of tobacco, a proven killer, continues unabated and even subsidized with the tax dollars of an unaware American citizenry. As we shall see in this book, Thompsonian medicine holds much for us to consider, if nothing more, it demonstrates that even in medicine, history repeats itself. The following statements from Thompson's works sound like they could have been written today, by a modern herbalist or naturopath.

...I think we never had more need to be on our guard than at the present time. The people are crammed with...poison drugs, and the laws say they shall not examine and judge for themselves. The effects are pains, lingering sickness, and death...poison given to the sick by a person of the greatest skill, will have exactly the same effect as it would if given by a fool.

If any man undertakes to pursue a practice differing from what is sanctioned by the regular faculty, let him show ever so much ingenuity in his discoveries, or be ever so successful in curing disease, he is hunted down like a wild beast; and a hue and a cry raised against him from one end of the country to the other. There must be some reason for all this, more than an aim to the public good; for the people are certainly capable of judging for themselves, whether what is done for them, removes their complaint or increases it. It is not unreasonable, we think, to conclude that it arises from a fear that their craft is in danger.

The doctors were not very well pleased with my success, because I informed the people how to cure themselves, and they have had no need of their assistance in that disorder since.

Thomson's methods were successful in his day, and they are still successful proving successful with those who use them today. After over ten years of applying his methods, I can say without reservation that they are correct. They WORK and work consistantly. Furthermore, his philosophy, which we will cover in the next chapter, has taught me more about the nature of health, disease and healing than anything I have read before or since.



Dr. Samuel Thomson by Stan Malstrom, Herbalist, Vol 1, No. 7, 1976, p. 281.

New Guide to Health or Botanic Family Physician by Samuel Thomson, Boston: J.Q.Adams, Printer, 1835

The Story of Medicine in America by Geoffrey Marks and William K. Beatty. Charles Scribner's Sons: New York, 1973

Health & Healing, Andrew Weil, M.D., Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1983, 20-21

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