A Cure for All Ills – Even Death by Lightning

03 August 2015

This week sees the publication of Popular Medicine in America, 1800-1900, documenting the rise of self-help healthcare for the general public during the nineteenth century.

Faricum Tonic - For the Cure of Diptheria, Sore Throat, Croup, Catarrh. Image © the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

To celebrate, I wanted to share one of my favourite quotes from one of many printed books within the resource, most of which were written with the intent of educating the ordinary person about medical matters in order to save them a few cents on their doctor’s bill. How thoughtful and democratic, I hear you cry! Indeed, anyone who has ever Googled their symptoms and narrowed the options down to either mad cow disease or an allergic reaction to chocolate Hobnobs will appreciate how important it is to feel in control of one’s health and have good access to information and treatments. Even if the advice is somewhat dubious on occasion. So hoorah for the pioneering nineteenth century authors who started this glorious facility.

The author of my favourite quote is Virginia plantation owner and trained doctor James Ewell, who wrote The Planter’s and Mariner’s Medical Companion in 1807. It was modelled upon Scotsman William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine (published in 1769 and probably the most successful healthcare manual of its day) and turned out to be a triumph with American audiences. Ewell offers some splendid advice, such as brushing one’s teeth with charcoal to stave off toothache, and suspending the testicles in a bandage to help cure gonorrhoea. But the best advice of all is given to those “apparently killed by lightning or noxious vapours”.


“Instantly throw cold water with some force in large quantities on the face and head, which should be often repeated for some time, and if convenient the whole body may be plunged into cold water.”

The Planter's and Mariner's Medical Companion. Image © the Library Company of Philadelphia. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Hint: perhaps don’t try this at home.

This is just one of many weird and wonderful remedies you’ll find within Popular Medicine in America. The resource is available now, with full access restricted to authenticated academic institutions who have purchased a licence. Shake well before use.

About the Author

Harriet Brunsdon Jones

Harriet Brunsdon Jones

I’ve been working at Adam Matthew since March 2013, following several years in magazine and journals publishing. Projects I’ve worked on include Shakespeare in Performance, Popular Medicine in America, Global Commodities, and China, America and the Pacific – all assisted by copious quantities of tea.