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The American Body: Medicine, Malady & Morality in Nineteenth-Century Print
Summer, 2014

An exhibit of rare books from the Special Collections department of James E. Walker Library

A fascinating combination of tradition, superstition and science characterizes the medical profession in the fledgling years of this country.

In nineteenth-century America, the body was the focal point of diverse and often competing notions of medicine and health. There were “professionals”—doctors, trained in medical schools or apprenticeships, whose knowledge typically consisted of some anatomy and rather more received wisdom, and whose pills and purgatives often did more harm than good. The 1830s saw the rise of what has been described as the “popular health movement,” which involved a rejection of professional authority and, instead, emphasized that anyone could minister to the needs of the sick by acquiring a knowledge of curative roots and herbs.

Within these margins of practice, there were other, more or less influential medical developments. There was the herb-based “Thomsonian system,” so named after its chief proponent, Samuel Thomson, a New Hampshire farmer. There was “Eclectic Medicine,” which augmented professional medical training in anatomy and physiology with instruction in traditional herbal remedies. And across all these developments, among the public and the professional practitioners, there was an unquestioned belief in a connection between medicine and morality: good health was the result of good living and it could be sustained or restored by rejecting luxury, excess, and sin.

Notions of health and healing based on assertion and tradition, rather than scientific evidence, characterized much of nineteenth-century American medical thinking. It is not surprising, then, that outright quackery, bizarre but useless medical technology, and ineffective and often toxic patent medicines flourished. Yet it was also a time of growing awareness about sanitation, hygiene, and other measures to improve public health, which arose from repeated experiences with epidemics and from the Civil War—a war in which mortality was more often due to infection and disease than combat. Meanwhile, in Europe and North America, scientists and physicians began acquiring a rudimentary understanding of pathology, bacteriology, antisepsis, and anesthesia. Their efforts laid the foundation for the medical discoveries of the 20th century.