Thomas Jefferson Treats Himself

A fascinating and compelling look at an everyday aspect of one of the world's best-known historical personalities. The author offers a new approach to understanding Jefferson: by way of an ordinary (rather than extraordinary) aspect of his life. With careful research, John Holmes documents a Jefferson mistrustful of the medical practices of his time, fully prepared to grow and prescribe his own medications, and actually achieving through his self-treatment, a long and relatively healthy life. The reader will see Jefferson engaged in the fight for good health, and under such conditions as the modern man can hardly envision. Jefferson lived in a time when medicine was practiced in the most literal sense of the word. A doctor's training, even for those graduated from the finest European medical schools, consisted almost exclusively of theory. Very little was known or understood about the complexities of the human body. As a consequence, patients, rich and poor alike, believed that they could treat themselves as well as (or better than) the doctor by using medicines obtained from woodland plants or herbs grown in the home garden. Like his contemporaries, Jefferson followed this traditional approach to home health care. At Monticello he cultivated many varieties of herbs and plants that held therapeutic properties. Together, these herbs and plants comprised Jefferson's mountain-top pharmacy. Jefferson also developed an understanding of preventive health maintenance. Combining exercise, diet, and learning, he devised a holistic regimen of daily health care. He was determined to stay physically and mentally healthy and, as much as possible, away from the doctor. Violent purgatives as therapy for diarrhea . . . draining of blood from an already-weak or dying patient . . . doses of extracts from wild plants that often aggravated the condition . . . this was medicine in the time of Thomas Jefferson. Rich or poor, all were subject to the medical theories of the day—to treatments administered by doctors who, though perhaps graduated from fine medical schools, had a murky understanding of how the human body works. In desperation and ignorance, and fear of the doctor, the battle was waged—for effective cures for the many medical woes attending the rough life led by Americans in the early nineteenth century. Nature provided a storehouse of materia medica for the resourceful to use in an effort to return to good health when medical problems struck. Thomas Jefferson was self reliant and independent in his philosophy, his religion, his politics. And this applied to his use of medicine, too. He treated himself. Trusting in the recuperative powers of nature, aided by patent medicines of the day and home-made concoctions, he consulted a doctor only as a last resort. Safeguarding his health and being in command of his own care were responsibilities that Thomas Jefferson took seriously and acted upon as he saw fit. The Washington Post said: “The Thomas Jefferson drawn in this attractive book is a model of skepticism and self-reliance” (June 24, 1997

Excerpt . . .

Jefferson believed in the infallibility of nature. He reasoned that nature, if left alone, would restore the natural balance which had been undone by disease. Doctors, he felt, interfered with this restorative process. Their slavish devotion to purging, emetics and bleeding served only to torment the patient. In Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson complained of hospitals where “the sick, the dying and the dead are crammed together in the same rooms, and often in the same beds” and that doctors most often failed to save them. However, among people eschewing the physician and self-treating at home “nature and kind nursing save a much greater proportion . . . and with less abuse.” This short sentence summarizes Jefferson's stance on medicine. Nature was a more reliable and gentler healer than any doctor. When all was said and done, Jefferson “trusted most vis medicatrix naturae.” In a later expression of this same feeling Jefferson, in a letter to Dr. Caspar Wistar dated June 21, 1807, remarked, “she [nature] brings on a crisis, by stools, vomiting, sweat, urine, expectoration, bleeding, and [etc.], which, for the most part ends in the restoration of healthy action.” Physicians, on the other hand, he told Wistar, were a danger to life itself. “I believe we may safely affirm, that the inexperienced and presumptuous band of medical tyros let loose upon the world,” he wrote, “destroys more of human life in one year, than all the Robinhoods, Cartouches, and Macheaths do in a century.” Here again, he pronounced faith in nature's healing power and his scorn for then existent medicine. Clearly, in Jefferson's mind, the Grim Reaper bore a sickle in one hand and a black medical bag in the other.

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by John M. Holmes