The more things change: Popular medicine movements in early America and ancient Rome

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Lately I’ve been reading Joan Burbick’s Healing the Republic: The Language of Health and the Culture of Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century America, which I picked up for a few bucks at the local used bookstore. I’ve found Burbick’s methodology very useful for my own research (no surprise), but I’ve also been enjoying tracking down and flipping through some of the primary sources she uses.


So far the one I’ve found the most interesting is John C. Gunn’s Domestic Medicine, first published in 1830. Though a physician himself, Gunn advocated a common-sense popular medicine informed by folk cures and midwifery as well as professional medicine. Reading through his book, I was struck by how similar it was to the medical books of Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis.


Both Pliny and Gunn were informed by a religious understanding of nature as bountiful, and both thought that the best medicines were found in nature, in contrast to typically expensive, often imported compound medicines.

Here’s Gunn:

God in the infinitude of his mercy, has stored our mountains, fields and meadows, with simples for healing our diseases, and for furnishing us with medicines of our own, without the use of foreign articles; and the discoveries of each succeeding day convinces us, that He has graciously furnished man with the means of curing his own diseases, in all the different countries and climates of which he is an inhabitant. There is not a day, a month, a year, which does not exhibit to us the surprising cures made by roots, herbs and simples, found in our kingdom of nature, when all foreign articles, have utterly failed; and the day will come, when calomel and mercurial medicines will be used no longer, and when we will be independent of foreign medicines, which are often difficult to be obtained, frequently adulterated, and always command a price which the poor are unable to pay. (Domestic Medicine, p. xi)

And here’s Pliny, from W.H.S. Jones’ translation:

Hence [from simple plants] sprang the art of medicine. Such things alone had Nature decreed should be our remedies, provided everywhere, easy to discover and costing nothing — the things in fact that support our life. Later on the deceit of men and cunning profiteering led to the invention of the quack laboratories, in which each customer is promised a new lease of his own life at a price. At once compound prescriptions and mysterious mixtures are glibly repeated, Arabia and India are judged to be storehouses of remedies, and a small sore is charged with the cost of a medicine from the Red Sea, although the genuine remedies form the daily dinner of even the poorest. But if remedies were to be sought in the kitchen-garden, or a plant or a shrub were to be procured thence, none of the arts would become cheaper than medicine. (HN, XXIV.I.4-5)


Both viewed professional medicine as breeding ground for fraud, and bemoaned what they considered an over-reliance on foreign practitioners and materials:


There are many drugs that come from abroad, that are made good for nothing, by adulterations or mixture before they reach us, or lose their virtues by long standing and exposure; and any professed druggist, if he will tell you the truth, will tell you the same; and these among many others, are the reasons why I mean to be very particular in showing you, as respects the plants and roots, &c. of this country, not only how great are our resources, but how easily we can evade roguery and imposition, and obtain pure and unadulterated materials in medicine, if we will be industrious in developing the real resources of this country. (Domestic Medicine, p. 114)


Medicine changes every day, being furbished up again and again, and we are swept along on the puffs of the clever brains of Greece. It is obvious that anyone among them who acquires power of speaking at once assumes supreme command over our life and slaughter, just as if thousands of peoples do not live without physicians, though not without medicaments, as the Roman people have done for more than six hundred years… (HN, XXIV.V.11)

More Gunn:

Professional pride, and native cupidity, contrary to the true spirit of justice and christianity, have, in all ages and countries, from sentiments of self interest and want of liberty, delighted in concealing the divine art of healing disease, under complicated names, and difficult or unmeaning technical phrases. Why make a mystery of things, which relieve the diseases and sufferings of our fellow beings? (Domestic Medicine, p. xii)

More Pliny:

…The medical profession is the only one in which anybody professing to be a physician is at once trusted, although nowhere else is an untruth more dangerous. We pay however no attention to the danger, so great for each of us is the seductive sweetness of wishful thinking. Besides this, there is no law to punish criminal ignorance, no instance of retribution. Physicians acquire their knowledge from our dangers, making experiments at the cost of our lives. Only a physician can commit homicide with complete impunity. Nay, the victim, not the criminal, is abused; his is the blame for want of self-control, and it is actually the dead who are brought to account… We deserve it all, so long as not one of us cares to know what is necessary for his own good health. We walk with the feet of others, we recognize our acquaintances with the eyes of others, rely on others’ memories to make our salutations, and put into the hands of others our very lives; the precious things of nature, which support life, we have quite lost. (HN XXIX.VIII.18-20)

And both thought that people should wrest authority over their own bodies back from professional doctors by educating themselves in the field about medicinal plants.


If our education consisted more in a knowledge of things, and less in a knowledge of mere words than it does, and if the great mass of the people knew how much pains were taken by scientific men, to throw dust in their eyes by the use of ridiculous and high sounding terms, which mean very little if any thing, the learned professors of science would soon lose much of their mocked dignity, and mankind would soon be undeceived, as to the little difference that really exists between themselves and the very learned portion of the community… [T]he really valuable materials in medicine, and those which are the most powerful in the cure of diseases, are few and simple, and very easily to be procured in all countries. (Domestic Medicine p.113)


Little by little, [Nature,] the most efficient teacher of all things, and in particular of medicine, degenerated into words and mere talk. For it was more pleasant to sit in a lecture-room engaged in listening, than to go out into the wilds and search for the various plants at their proper season of the year. (HN XXVI.VI.11)

More Pliny:

The reason why more herbs are not familiar is because experience of them is confined to illiterate country-folk, who form the only class living among them [sc. the herbs]; moreover, nobody cares to look for them when crowds of medical men are to be met everywhere… The most disgraceful reason for this scanty knowledge is that even those who possess it refuse to teach it, just as though they would themselves lose what they have imparted to others. (HN XXV.VI.16)

There are striking parallels in Gunn and Pliny’s attitudes, but the two wrote in very different political systems. This is evident enough in the objects of the two writers’ dedications: where Gunn dedicated Domestic Medicine to the radically democratic Andrew Jackson, Pliny’s Historia Naturalis is dedicated to the emperor Titus. Titus came from a military family that had only in the last generation broken into the ranks of the senate, and he’d proven his leadership chops with a military career. But he was still an emperor, and he was an emperor who ascended to the imperial throne because he happened to be the son of the previous emperor, Vespasian — not the most populist rise to power.


How do we reconcile these very similar appeals for citizens to learn how to keep themselves healthy with the two very different political climates they appear in? The simplest answer I can think of is the intended audience: while Gunn explicitly addresses average citizens, especially those who live out on the frontiers, away from city doctors, Pliny’s audience was most likely limited by literacy and access to books to well-off men, who were already in positions of authority over large households of families and slaves. By calling in physicians, Roman heads of household not only gave up authority over their own bodies; they also temporarily gave up authority over their wives’, slaves’, and children’s bodies.


There’s also a difference in the dynamic between nature and professional medicine here. In Pliny’s case, the folk medicine he admires is native Roman, and the doctors are largely immigrants from the Greek east– an educated group of people, but at a social disadvantage in Rome. In Gunn’s case, however, the plants and folk remedies are native to North America, and are often quite different from European plants and folk medicine. The doctors that Gunn rails against are doctors of the old European kind, part of the antiquated hierarchical culture that early American politicians like Andrew Jackson despised.


Even in light of all these cultural differences, the two texts are really similar, which is giving me a lot to think about. Although Gunn never cites Pliny, it would be no surprise if he’d read Historia Naturalis at some point in his education — could that explain the similarities? And if so, did Gunn read a radically democratic message into Pliny’s text?

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