If New Hampshire’s Samuel Thomson had been George Washington’s doctor, America’s first president might well have lived another 10 years.
Calomel was an amazing cure-all for 18th and early 19th century physicians. A mercury compound, doctors used it to treat a host of ailments, everything from fevers and sexually transmitted diseases to teething pain and madness.
Containing mercury, as it does, it often did more harm than good. Take a lot of it and it could cause your hair and teeth to fall out, give you symptoms of insanity and, if you took enough, it would outright kill you.
But science-driven doctors of the early 1800s saw it as a modern tool, along with such treatments as blisters and bleeding patients.
Killing George Washington
George Washington is a perfect example of what could befall a man who entrusted his health to such physicians. Washington woke up one day with a fever and sore throat. His doctors administered doses of calomel, drained half his blood and treated repeatedly with hot plasters and poultices – right up until he died.
Lousia May Alcott, another well-known victim of calomel, suffered most of her adult life from the aftereffects of taking it.
Samuel Thomson viewed calomel and much of what the physicians of the day called healing as barbaric and ludicrous.
Born in Alstead, N. H., in 1769, Samuel Thomson was fascinated by root medicine. As a teenager, he studied and experimented on his own. At 19, he saw his mother die of measles after a succession of doctors treated her. When he caught the disease himself, he treated it with herbs and survived.
His wife, similarly, took ill shortly after giving birth to their first child. After physicians seemed to be making matters worse, Thomson took over her care himself and nursed her back to health.
It was then that Samuel Thompson began to seriously take up the study of the medicinal qualities of herbs and roots, and his medical career slowly evolved. He primarily looked after his own family, but as his reputation grew, his neighbors began seeking his assistance.
By the time he was in his early 30s, he had refined a basic set of medicines he worked with. Thomson’s system focused heavily on six medicines that he used for various ailments.
- lobelia, to cleanse the stomach, promote perspiration, and relax the muscles,
- cayenne pepper, as a stimulant to produce heat in the body,
- bayberry or candleberry root bark combined with the root of white pond lily, to cleanse the bowels,
- bitters, to restore the appetite,
- peach-meats or meats of cherrystones, mixed with sugar and brandy, to clear up dysentery,
- myrrh and cayenne mixed with brandy or wine, to ease pain such as rheumatism.
While he used a wide variety of other herbs and roots in his practice, he taught people to use these six basic treatments. By using these, they would avoid falling into the clutches of a physician in most cases.
By the 1820s, Thomson’s fame, and use of his Thomsonian medicines, grew throughout much of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. Thomson promoted his system through a series of books and magazines. Much of his energy was devoted to ridiculing “modern medicine,” such as in the poem Receipt to Cure a Crazy Man, published in his 1836 book, Learned quackery exposed.
Soon as the man is growing mad, Send for the doctor–have him bled; Take from his arm two quarts at least, Nearly as much as kills a beast.
But if bad symptoms yet remain, He then must tap another vein; Soon as the doctor has him bled, Then draw a blister on his head.
Next time he comes as it is said, The blister’d skin takes from his head, Then laud’num gives to ease his pain, Till he can visit him again
…Soon as the man is dead and gone, The doctor’s charges then comes on; For forty pounds the bill is made, And by the executor is paid.
What sickness, sorrow, pain and woe, The human family undergo, By learned quacks who sickness make, I fear for filthy lucre’s sake.
Samuel Thomson faced a number of lawsuits over the course of his career, many promoted by physicians who did not like his approach to medicine. By the time of his death in 1843, however, Thomsonian medicine had countless followers in the United States and abroad. It was also an early component to the Eclectic Medicine movement that flourished well into the 1900s.
This story about Samuel Thomson was updated in 2021.