Medicine of the Past

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When Dr. Samuel W. Torrey of Beverly, Massachusetts, died in 1917, his obituary spoke of his reputation as a “skillful surgeon, a sound and searching diagnostician, and a wise counselor and devoted friend in general practice.” Becoming deaf as a young man had not prevented him from receiving a degree from the University of Vermont, serving as a quartermaster for the Union in the Civil War, and taking a medical degree at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City in 1868. He opened a practice in Beverly and founded a private hospital which he later donated to the city. In addition to a distinguished reputation, he left behind a small leather drug kit, handwritten notes on the preparation and therapeutic uses of heavy metals, and a casebook of gynecological patients.

In his casebook are notations of prescriptions for hydrastis (goldenseal), viburnum (black haw), podophyllum (mayapple), cascara sagrada, and other herbal preparations. In his drug kit are vials of strychnine (from the seeds of plants in the genus Strychnos), cocaine (from coca), heroin and morphine (from poppies), and an asthma remedy containing lobelia and boneset, both common native North American plants. On his bookshelf, he quite likely had a copy of A Manual of Materia Medica and Pharmacology, a standard reference text of the time containing descriptions and methods of preparing several hundred medicinal plants.

Yet had you asked Dr. Torrey if he were an herbal doctor, he would almost surely have denied it. Herbal medicine in those times tended to be associated with folk practitioners, whose methods were regarded by the medical community as superstitious at worst, hit-or-miss at best, or with Thomsonians, who were regarded as quacks. The followers of Samuel Thomson (1769-1843) believed that metals and minerals, being heavy and from the earth, would draw a patient down; plants, which grew upward, elevated one. Thomsonians used only botanical materials and steam inhalation therapy. The Eclectics were medical doctors who used native American plants and took a broader and more rational view of their therapeutic benefits, but tended to be lumped into the “quack” category nevertheless.

The metals and minerals shunned by the Thomsonians were fundamental to conventional medical practice of the day. The nineteenth century saw great leaps forward in scientific ­­­knowledge– an understanding of such important principles as the bacterial causes of infection, the circulation of blood, the nature of digestion. But for much of the century, illnesses of all kinds were still regarded as an overexcitement of the body’s systems. Treatments consisted primarily of measures to subdue rapid pulse, elevated temperature, and other symptoms of disease by bloodletting (either with leeches or by opening veins) or thorough purging with toxic substances such as calomel (mercurous chloride). Dr. Torrey’s notes include detailed discussions of the preparation and uses not only of calomel and other forms of mercury, but also of arsenic, antimony, copper, zinc, and lead–all of which were used to cause vomiting, diarrhea, sweating, and/or profuse salivation.

Purging was not inconsistent with herbal treatments. Lobelia, Samuel Thomson’s herb of choice, is also poisonous and a strong emitic (a nickname was “pukeweed”), and Dr. Torrey’s podophyllum was used as a somewhat gentler alternative to calomel. Then, as now, herbal and allopathic (conventional) medicine had similar aims but a philosophical gap between “scientific” and “natural”.

The common ground, one feels on reading Dr. Torrey’s casebook, is a careful attention to the individual ­patient that is a hallmark of herbal medical practice but is too often lost in allopathic medicine today. Judging from his notes, this highly respected professional spent careful, extensive time in examining, counseling, and treating patients. Whether middle-class house­­wives, immigrant maids, or “lost” women, whether paying or non-paying, whether gravely ill or clearly hypochondriac, Dr. Torrey’s patients had the benefit of a kind of care that transcends the form and content of the pills he administered.

Herbal Derivatives in Dr. Torrey’s Medical Kit

The therapeutic uses of the herbs listed here are among those espoused in the nineteenth century; they have not necessarily held up to the present day.

Belladonna. Deadly nightshade (Atropa ­belladonna). A perennial herb of the nightshade family (other members include potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplant) native to Eurasia and North Africa. Source of atropine, a central-nervous-system narcotic. Sedative, antispasmodic, pain reliever. Small doses stimulate; large ones paralyze. Used to treat gout, neuralgia, sciatica, ­encephalitis, meningitis, vomiting in pregnancy; to dilate pupils; smoked with opium for tuberculosis.

Cascara sagrada (Rhamnus purshiana). The dried bark of a small tree in the buckthorn family native to the Pacific Northwest. Purgative, tonic. Reduces fever; ­in­creases secretions of stomach, liver, pancreas; used to regulate action of bowels.

Cinchona. Quinine tree (Cinchona spp.). A genus of South American trees of the madder family that yield bitter alkaloids such as quinine, an antimalarial. Tonic, astringent, antiseptic. Stimulates the appetite, reduces fever, relieves spasms.

Digitalis. Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea). A biennial European herb of the figwort family. The powdered leaves strengthen heart contractions. Also sedative, narcotic, diuretic; induces vomiting, promotes urination, and reduces sexual desire. Used to treat rapid, feeble heartbeat; poor circulation; kidney disease; dropsy (edema); pneumonia; scarlet fever, etc.

Eupatoria. Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum). A North American perennial herb of the daisy family. Stimulant, tonic; induces sweating and vomiting; relieves spasms. Used to treat rheumatism, influenza, bronchitis, snakebite, typhoid, malaria.

Hydrastis. Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis). A small North American perennial herb of the buttercup family. Bitter tonic that increases appetite, gastric secretions, and bile flow. Constricts blood vessels, reduces muscle spasms; slightly sedative, strongly antibacterial. Used to treat chronic dyspepsia, cystitis, constipation, bronchitis, jaundice, gonorrhea, hemorrhoids, fissured nipples, etc.

Lobelia. Indian tobacco (Lobelia inflata). A North American annual herb of the lobelia family. Narcotic, purgative, nerve tonic; stimulates respiration and discharge of phlegm; induces vomiting and sweating; reduces inflammation; promotes urination. Used to treat asthma, croup, whooping cough, constipation.

Podophyllum. Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum). A low-growing North American perennial herb of the barberry family. Slow-acting laxative, irritant. ­In­creases intestinal secretions, bile flow, ­induces vomiting. Has been called “vegetable calomel” for its action on the liver. Used to treat constipation, torpid liver, diarrhea, jaundice, syphilis, etc.

Veratrum. False or American hellebore (Veratrum viride). A tall, leafy North American perennial herb of the lily family. Sedative, irritant. Induces vomiting and sweating, slows heart rate, lowers blood pressure, paralyzes the spine. Used to treat heart disease, typhoid, pneumonia, spinal spasms.

Viburnum. Black haw (Viburnum prunifolium). A small North American tree of the honeysuckle family. Nerve tonic, astringent. Promotes urination, relieves spasms. Used to treat threatened miscarriage, nervous diseases of pregnancy, abnormally profuse menstrual flow, pain following childbirth, asthma, hysteria.

Additional reading

Lyons, Albert S., and R. Joseph Petrucelli, II. Medicine: An Illustrated History, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1978. Warner, John Harley. The Therapeutic Perspective: Medical Practice, Knowledge, and Identity in America, 1820-1885. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1986. Right: Dr. Torrey’s medical kit and notes speak between the lines about the role of herbs in nineteenth-century medicine.

Linda Ligon is the former editorial director of  Herbs for Health. Dr. Torrey is the great-grand­father of the magazine’s former technical editor, ­Elizabeth Strauch, who generously shared family memorabilia.

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