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Guest Blogger: Eleanor Sullivan: Herbalism: Scientific or Sorcery?

Ever wonder what people used to cure old-fashioned ills? Before penicillin?

Plants, that’s what.




Recently, I had the opportunity to meet a practicing herbalist in Minneapolis, a young woman with a quick smile and quicker wit. Lise Wolff opened my eyes to a different health care world. (For those who don’t know, I’m a nurse turned author.)

From pre-historic times to today, herbal remedies have been used to treat human ills. Often they were the only treatments available. Our existence is testament to their effectiveness. Scoffed at by medical men (yes, they were all men), herbalists and their close cousins, homeopaths, nevertheless persisted. What was known as mainstream medicine at that time, however, would be unrecognizable by today’s practitioners. Purging, puking, and bleeding as well as dosing with heavy metals, such as mercury, harmed more often than cured, their unwary patients. (See Medical Care in the 19th Century-Part One and Part Two for more on this era’s archaic practices.)




Herbal Remedies

Herbs can be collected in the wild or cultivated in gardens. Most remedies are derived from the leaves that are harvested at the peak of their effectiveness, but sometimes the stems, roots, or early shoots prove more useful. Leaves may be dried and used in teas or combined with starch or lard for poultices. Plant parts may be soaked in water or oil, and the solutions used in tinctures, decoctions, essential oils, salves, or ointments. I watched Lise melt beeswax and combine it with St. John’s wort solution that she poured into metal cups, left to solidify and use as an ointment to treat burns, sores, and cracked lips.

In the 19th century women, often midwives, treated ill family members and neighbors with herbs, a practice passed down through generations. Realism meets fiction as Adelaide, the protagonist in my Singular Village Mystery series, works as both a midwife and herbalist in 1830s Zoar, Ohio.

Doctrine of Signatures

After famously burning classic medical texts, 16th century German physician Paracelsus declared that plants resembling human body parts could cure ails in that organ, a concept that became known as the doctrine of signatures. Thus, “like treats like.” For example, St. John’s wort doelike shape renders it perfect for treating skin wounds.


Similarly, Samuel Hahneman, a 19th century German physician, agreed that like treated like but took treatments one step further, diluting substances over and over until it appeared that nothing of the original substance remained. These dilute substances, however, proved remarkably effective. The practice became known as homeopathy.

In fact, homeopathy was practiced in 19th century Zoar. Here’s a photo of a medicine box of homeopathic remedies found in Zoar’s historic artifacts.

The medical community today would argue that neither herbal remedies nor homeopathy are scientifically proven to be effective. Regardless, patients dissatisfied with mainstream medicine, often turn to alternative practitioners, such as herbalists. Medical practice is continually evolving as new remedies and treatments emerge and others decline. Might chemotherapy be deemed archaic 200 years from now?

Eleanor Sullivan:

Watch as Adelaide confronts problem illnesses and birthings (along with solving a murder!) in the next Singular Village Mystery: Graven Images, due September 1st!


Graven Images cover.indd


Guest Blogger: Eleanor Sullivan: 19th Century Medicine, Part 2

I want to welcome back Eleanor Sullivan with the second of her two-part series on the state of medical care in the 19th Century.


Medical Care in the 19th Century-Part Two


Previously I blogged about the illnesses that 19th century people suffered along with what they thought caused them to become sick. This blog will reveal the treatments they endured.

Because illness was believed to result in internal weakness (or sin) or that the external environment had invaded the body, aggressive treatment was designed to rid the body of its noxious incursions. Blood-letting, purging, and puking were the preferred treatments.

Blood letting, Purging, and Puking

Blood letting relieved excess blood and returned the flow to normal, it was thought. This was such an accepted belief that the reason women were believed to have fewer illnesses is because they bled regularly. To relieve pressure in the blood, the doctor lanced a blood vessel and often used glass cup to produce a vacuum to draw the blood out. Blood-sucking leeches might also be used. Often the patient would faint from the blood loss, assuring the patient and the doctor that the treatment was indeed successful.

The goal of purging was to evacuate the bowels, another way of ridding the body of unwelcome invaders. If a cathartic, using such body-damaging medicines as mercury (called calomel), wasn’t successful, enemas would be given until the body had been flushed of all contaminants.

Puking was induced by several means. Ipecacuanha root (known today as ipecac) crushed into a powder or lobelia bark, also powdered, were administered in a tincture. If nothing else was available, warm salt water could induce vomiting. Again, every bit of disease must be eliminated from the body.

Medicines and Pain

Powerful medicines were believed to be necessary to combat powerful illnesses. Mercury again was a favorite. Producing dramatic effects, such as headaches, tremors, and loosened teeth, patients were certain that they were receiving potent care. Mercury poisoning was not unusual. In fact, Louisa May Alcott is believed to have died in 1888 of mercury poisoning from the mercury she’d received for a bout of typhoid in 1863.

Pain was another sign that the medicine was potent. Patients persisted in downing medicines even realizing they suffered from its ill effects. Thank goodness for opium! Opium, and its form in a tincture, laudanum, was commonly and legally available. Opium masked symptoms so patients felt grateful relief.

Opium and alcohol were also the basis of patented medicines, promoted to cure every ailment, including venereal diseases, tuberculosis, or “female complaints.” It wasn’t until 1906 when Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, forcing manufacturers of patent medicines to reveal their ingredients and discontinue false advertising claims, that the widespread use of patent medicines ceased.

Herbs and Homeopaths

Medical treatment in the unsettled parts of America (and most of the country was unsettled in the early 19th century) was especially arduous, albeit they were often spared the rigorous administrations of medical doctors (licensed as early as 1811 in Ohio). Care often fell to a local midwife who administered herbal substances. Recipes were handed down through families and communities and often helped. My character, Adelaide, is a midwife and herbalist in 1830s Ohio.

Homeopaths also treated 19th century patients. Homeopathy was promoted by a German physician, Samuel Hahnemann in the 18th century. Hahnemann observed that cinchona bark, used to treat malaria, induced symptoms of malaria. Thus, he surmised that inducing symptoms with highly diluted preparations would cause the patient’s own vital force to expel the disease. He called this the law of similars. There is no scientific evidence that the treatment was effective. Again, patients were spared energetic medical treatments and may have recovered on their own. The leader of Zoar, Joseph Bimeler, who appears in my stories, was trained in homeopathy in Germany before emigrating to America.

Surgery, Anesthetics, and Antiseptics

Surgery in the early 19th century was crudely done (usually by a barber), often unsuccessful (that is, the patient died), and excruciatingly painful. As the century progressed, however, use of anesthetics emerged to sedate the patient during the operation, carbolic acid was used as an antiseptic to prevent infection, and German surgeons used steam heat to sterilize instruments. Surgery continued to advance as the 20th century dawned.

In the end, the people who survived were sturdy stock. Many of us owe our good health to our robust ancestors.

Eleanor Sullivan is the award-winning author of books for nurses, the Monika Everhardt mystery series, and her latest, Cover Her Body, A Singular Village Mystery.


Guest Blogger: Eleanor Sullivan: 19th Century Medicine, Part 1

I want to welcome Eleanor Sullivan to The Writers Forensics Blog. She will post a two-part series on the state of medical care in the 19th Century.

Medical Care in the 19th Century—Part One

As a nurse for more than 25 years, I’ve seen my share of changes in medical care. From starched white uniforms, paper files, and long hospital stays to casual scrub suits, electronic records, and one-day surgeries, change has characterized the medical and nursing professions. But, as I began my quest to learn about 19th century medicine, nothing prepared me for the difference between then and now.

Let’s start with what diseases were called. You might not recognize these today. According to a mortality schedule, the causes of death in Tuscarawas County, Ohio in 1850 included dropsy, flux, canker, apoplexy, spasms and my favorite, “no opening.” Other than the last one (I can only guess at that!), here’s what we call those diseases today:

Dropsy—edema, usually from cardiac failure

Flux—diarrhea caused by dysentery

Canker—inflammation caused by infection (remember, no antibiotics existed then)

Apoplexy—unconsciousness caused by a stroke



So we’ve come a long way. Now we have diagnoses confirmed by symptoms, lab tests, x-rays, CT scans, and MRIs. We know what causes most diseases, how to prevent many (vaccines anyone?), and how to treat most others. We’re not perfect. Cancer, heart disease, and strokes still kill.

But we think we’re pretty smart. Just knowing the cause directs researchers to the cure. Back then people thought they knew what caused illness, too.

Internal Causes

The cause of disease, it was believed, was inside the person. Those who became ill were weak. Or unclean. Or they sinned and God brought on their illness to punish them. Remember Job of the Bible? God tested him. With that example in mind, religious folks admonished the sick to admit their sins and ask God for forgiveness. But what if they didn’t get well? I guess God wasn’t satisfied with their confession.

External Causes

The outdoors brought on many illnesses, according to 19th century Americans. The night air was filled with miasmas, poisonous, foul-smelling, dark-colored vapors that held malevolent power. Mists rose from the ground (or more likely, stagnant water) like wicked sprites to creep over the land and threaten the populace with their toxic fumes.

Nineteenth century Americans lived in fear of the miasmas. The solution was to keep inside with tightly-closed windows no matter how hot it was. (I wonder how many died of heat stroke instead.) Miasmas weren’t everywhere, though. Some locales were known for them and travelers were admonished to take care to avoid any place where they saw fog.

What illness did they fear miasmas brought? Everything! Any illness after exposure to night air was thought caused by it.  What 19th century people didn’t believe was that illness traveled from person to person. It rose up out of their surroundings instead.

But they were wrong.

Though not entirely. Germ theory evolved during the late 19th century but antisepsis to prevent diseases from germs lagged behind. Florence Nightingale, the founder of contemporary nursing, insisted on cleanliness, especially rigorous hand washing, when caring for the wounded during the Crimean War in 1854. Her patients improved but still it would be years until the medical community would be confined that they could prevent the spread of disease by something as simple as washing their hands. (This problem still exists today in modern hospitals where lack of adequate hand washing, among other safety problems, causes thousands of deaths each year, according to the Institute of Medicine.)

But don’t be too quick to dismiss 19th century beliefs. Blame the victim is still true today. If he hadn’t smoked, drank, overate,  etc., he wouldn’t have cancer, cirrhosis, or heart disease. That’s not entirely wrong but, remember, even people who never smoked, exercise, and eat healthy still die. There’s no getting out of it.

You think what you’ve read so far is bad? This is the first part of a two-part blog on medical care in the 19th century. Come back next month to hear how they treated illness. Then you’ll be exceedingly glad to be living in the 21st century!


Eleanor Sullivan is the award-winning author of books for nurses, the Monika Everhardt mystery series, and her latest, Cover Her Body, A Singular Village Mystery.



Posted by on October 9, 2011 in Medical History

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