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Samuel Thomson

Samuel Thomson (born 1769-02-09, died 1843-10-05 in Boston, Massachusetts) was an American herbalist and the founder of the "Thomsonian System" of medicine. As naturopathic physician and author Stan Malstrom has stated. "Samuel Thomson has probably contributed more to the science of herbalogy than any other individual in the history of the United States," although he had no formal medical training.[1] His influence was such that a substantial portion of American families used his medicine and it went on to influence more professional medicine. [2] At a time when so-called "regular doctors" used mercury, arsenic, strychnine, antimony, salt peter, opium and other poisonous materials to induce vomiting or purgation, botanical remedies like lobelia which were cathartic but without toxicity had an attraction.


Personal life

Samuel was born in 1769 in Alstead, New Hampshire, the son of John Thomson (1744-1820) and his wife, formerly Hannah Cobb.

Thomson was born lame, and began working in the fields at the age of five. He had one month of schooling at the age of ten. He enjoyed wandering through the woods and tasting plants that he found there. He later liked telling the story of tricking his young friends to taste one herb he had discovered; "I . . . used to induce other boys to chew it, merely by way of sport, to see them vomit."[3][4]

Thomson learned some botanical medical lore from a neighborhood widow, and wanted to be an apprentice to a local doctor. However, his father needed his assistance on the farm, and the doctor felt Thomson's lack of education was a drawback.

At the age of 21, Samuel's father left for Vermont, placing Samuel in charge of the farm and leaving his mother and sister in his care. Soon after, his mother became ill with measles, and in spite of the efforts of several doctors, Samuel's mother died when the measles turned into "galloping consumption." When Samuel also became ill with measles, he cured himself using herbal remedies.[3]

One year later, Thomson married Susanna Allen on July 7, 1790 in Keene, New Hampshire. After the birth of their first child, Susanna became very ill, and a parade of seven conventional doctors were unable to cure her. Samuel arranged for two "root doctors" to treat his wife, who returned to health the next day.[3]

Thomson and Susanna went on to have eight children.

Development of the Thomsonian System

When his wife nearly died after being treated via conventional medicine, Thomson consulted two herbalists, who treated his wife and taught Thomson some of their methods. Subsequently, Thomson used steambaths and herbs to cure one of his daughters and a son, and a few of his neighbors.[3]

In this way, Thomson developed his own method, the Thomsonian System, and practiced in Surry, New Hampshire and the adjoining towns. During the first half of the 19th century his system had numerous followers, including some of his sons. It was based upon opening the paths of elimination so that toxins could be removed via physiological processes. This was not unique to Thompson- so-called "regular physicians" used Calomel in what today appear to be alarming quantities to induce vomiting and purgation, but the more moderate and less toxic means attracted large numbers of followers.[5]

His system of medicine appealed to the egalitarian anti-elitist sentiments of Jacksonian America in the 1830s, and families far from established towns came to rely on it. Licensed doctors, and their methods such as bloodletting, came under intense scrutiny during this period. Thomson's system was appealing because it allowed each individual to administer his or her own treatment.

  Eventually, Thomson came to believe that exposure to cold temperatures was an important cause of illness and that disease should be treated by restoring the body's "natural heat." Thomson's methods for doing this included steam baths, cayenne pepper, laxatives, and administration of the emetic Lobelia inflata, a plant also known as "Indian tobacco" or "puke weed" that can cause vomiting.  

After practicing this form of medicine for about ten years, Thomson wrote a book called "New Guide to Health; or Botanic Family Physician" in 1822. Thomson sold "patents" to use his system of medicine to any family 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. He sold over 100,000 patents by 1840.[6] His suggestion for a family's medicine stock (and his contempt for conventional medicine) are demonstrated by this quote from his book:

"One ounce of the emetic herb, two ounces of cayenne, one-half pound bay-berry root bark in powder, one pound poplar bark, one pint of the rheumatic drops. This stock will be sufficient for a family for one year, with such articles as they can easily procure themselves when wanted, and will enable them to cure any disease which a family of common size may be afflicted with during that time. The expenses will be small and much better than to employ a doctor, and have his extravagant bill to pay."

Thomson took great care to guard his patented cures, and used legal authority to prevent others from manufacturing and selling lobelia pills. Thomson's monopoly was broken by Alva Curtis, who created the "Independent Thomsonian Medical Society" to train practitioners, who in turn gave rise to the "Eclectic medicine" movement.

Part of Thompson's downfall was due to a bombastic personality and an arrogance which would not permit him to interact with regular doctors or even to pursue additional studies in anatomy and physiology. Others who received his training broke with him and went on to pursue advanced medical education founding Eclectic medicine which drew from a variety of sources and included a wider variety of treatment modalities and medicinal substances. [7]

Taken to court

  Licensed doctors, however, came to resent Thomson's popularity, as well as his criticisms of their techniques. In 1809, a physician named French accused Thomson of killing a patient, Ezra Lovett, through the administration of excessive amounts of Lobelia. Thomson claimed his patient was cured, but then died when he unwisely ventured into the cold instead of recuperating in his warm home. The prosecution claimed excessive vomiting, brought on by Thomson's administration of lobelia, was to blame. Ultimately, Thomson was acquitted when one of his defense council demonstrated that one of the prosecution's exhibits, labeled "Lobelia", was actually the plant marsh rosemary, by consuming some in court. Subsequent literature reviews have failed to demonstrate any deaths or symptoms more dangerous than emesis from even significantly larger doses than Thomson administered in the Ezra Lovett case. [8]

Despite Thomson's acquittal, many states passed "Black Laws",[9][10] Blacksburg, Virginia prohibiting the sale of Lobelia and similar patent medicines. The laws were of small practical effect and were mostly repealed by the 1820s.

Herbalist Michael Moore in his introduction to Eclectic physician John Uri Lloyd's biography of Thomson, gives a flavor of the debate of the times:

Thomson's own description of his legal problems is given in flat, understated New England dryness and couched in seeming venal paranoia.... After finishing the later material, offering 3rd party perspective, you realize that Thomson's movement had affected a million or more Americans, started a medical reformation that would not peak for another 50 years, and the brightest medical minds of the time were split vehemently both against and for Thomson's right to practice...bitterly divided between Federalists and Republican politics...Populists and Elitists...rural and urban. The tribulations of this former pig farmer rocked the young republic for over a decade and were headlines everywhere. Because of the success of Thomson and his followers, states began, for the first time, regulating medical practice along party and class lines. Messy and fascinating stuff.[11]

See also


  1. ^ Samuel Thomson: The Father of American Herbalism, Steven H. Horne, 2007.
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b c d The Toadstool Millionaires: A Social History of Patent Medicines in America before Federal Regulation, Chapter 4: "The Old Wizzard", James Harvey Young, Princeton University Press, 1961.
  4. ^ Samuel Thomson, New Guide to Health; or Botanic Family Physician to Which Is Prefixed, A Narrative of the Life and Medical Discoveries of the Author (Boston, 1835), 14-95.
  5. ^ History of Warren County, Ohio
  6. ^ Dr. Samuel Thomson by Stan Malstrom, Herbalist, Vol 1, No. 7, 1976,
  7. ^ [ The History of Western Herbal Medicine], Chanchal Cabrera, 2006.
  8. ^ Lobelia toxicity: A Literature Review by Paul Bergner
  9. ^ Black laws were called this by unconventional medical practitioners in analogy with laws restricting African Americans from practicing medicine and engaging in other activities (The Influence of Slave Healers, Sarah Mitchell Cotton, Chapter Two of "Bodies of Knowledge: The Influence of Slaves on the Antebellum Medical Community", Thesis submitted to the Faculty of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in History, May 2, 1997).
  10. ^ Jane Purcell Guild, Black Laws of Virginia: A Summary of the Legislative Acts of Virginia Concerning Negroes from Earliest Times to the Present (Whittet & Shepperson, 1936); reprinted, (New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969)
  11. ^
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Samuel_Thomson". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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