Medicine or magic?

The medical community has relied on the natural world to cure injury and disease for thousands of years. Despite the technological advancements found in today’s society, we continue to use plants and other natural resources to treat a variety of medical issues.

DMU’s historical book collection, housed in the University Library’s Kendall Reed Rare Book Room, includes two well-known examples of early American materia medica. American Medical Botany by Jacob Bigelow and Vegetable Materia Medica of the United States by William P.C. Barton were standard texts in the early 19th century. Each set contains beautiful hand-colored and aqua-tinted drawings of dozens of American plants with detailed descriptions – some featured here – of their appearance, scientific qualities and medicinal usefulness.

In these 195-year-old texts, the two authors – both medical doctors – wrote about their personal experiences with many of the plants, often using themselves as test subjects as they chewed, heated or otherwise tested each specimen. The volumes also debate the opinions of their contemporaries, as some doctors thrust hefty medicinal claims on particular plants. For the most part, Drs. Barton and Bigelow present the information but allow the reader to decide how to incorporate each specimen into their pharmaceutical arsenal.

Common Erythronium

Common Erythronium

Erythronium Americanum

“This vegetable possesses the power of acting on the stomach as an emetic [vomit-inducer].”
– American Medical Botany by Jacob Bigelow, 1817

Sweetscented Water Lily

Nymphaea Ororata

“The roots of the water lily are kept by most of our apothecaries, and are much used by the common people in the composition of poultices [moist masses applied on the body].”
– American Medical Botany

American Rose Bay

Rhododendron Maximum

“Medicinally considered, I think it must be ranked among the astringents, a place which both its sensible and chemical properties entitle it to hold.”
– American Medical Botany

Starry Anise

Illicium Floridanum

“In some parts of the East Indies the natives and Dutch mix it with their tea and sherbet. It is also burnt as incense before their idols by some of the oriental nations, and carefully kept as an antidote to various poisons.”
– American Medical Botany

Common Juniper

Juniperus Communis

“The berries of the Juniper have long been employed for the purposes of a diuretic, particularly in dropsy [edema].”
– American Medical Botany
Blue Gentian

Blue Gentian

Gentiana Catesbaei

“It is said to increase the appetite, prevent the acidification of the food, and to enable the stomach to bear and digest articles of diet, which before produced oppression and dejection of spirits.”
– American Medical Botany

Blood Root

Sanguinaria Canadensis

“Dr. Ives thinks highly of its use in influenza, in phthisis, and particularly in hooping cough. He also states, that given in large doses, sufficient to produce full vomiting, it often removes the Croup, if administered in the first stages.”
– American Medical Botany

American Centaury

Sabbatia Angularis

“On the whole, Centaury may be confidently recommended, for its pure bitter, tonic and stomachic virtues. It ought to have a place in all the apothecaries’ shops of our country.”
– Vegetable Materia Medica of the United States by William P.C. Barton, 1817

Lindsey Smith, M.A., is an avid DMU archive buff and historian. You can enjoy the DMU Library exhibits Monday-Friday, 7:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., and explore the Kendall Reed Rare Book Room Monday-Friday, 12:30-4:30 p.m.

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