Top: Medicine box beside Washington Irving’s deathbed
When you’re touring a historic home museum, keep an eye out for the little details which speak volumes about the people who lived there.
Sunnyside was the home of American author Washington Irving, who wrote most famously, the short stories The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and Rip Van Winkle. Irving was a renowned man of letters for the era, in fact it can be argued that he was the first successful American writer.
Next to Irving’s bed at Sunnyside is a curious wooden box, containing a number of vials. While it might be tempting to think that these were the medicines used during the author’s final sickness, due to the proximity to his deathbed, that’s not really true.
The box is actually Irving’s homeopathic medicine kit, returned to Sunnyside from another homeopathic believer, John D. Rockefeller, who also purchased Sunnyside from Irving’s heirs, before donating it to be opened as a museum.
Homeopathy was known from ancient times. Hippocrates wrote circa 400 B.C. that mandrake root, which caused mania, if given in a tiny dose, would lessen the effects of the condition. Paracelsus, the father of pharmacology first coined the phrase “what makes a person ill also cures him.” German physician Samuel Hahnemann gave homepathy its name, and a broad set of principals, most famously that like cures like. Considering the fact that bloodletting and the idea that when someone got ill it was a perfectly valid solution to give the patient a variety of solutions designed to make the patient poop the disease out, the treatment of disease was ready for a change.
In 1852, Irving went to a New Yorker, Dr. John C. Peters, respected clinical practioner and the editor of the North American Journal of Homeopath, complaining of dizziness. Later, Irving wrote in a letter to a friend, “I have found, in my own case, great relief from homeopathy, to which I had recourse almost accidentally; for I am rather slow at adopting new theories.” Irving claimed that the treatments cured the problems with his head, and allowed him to continue to write. And homeopathic practitioners have claimed him as one of their own ever since.
That this is a box for homeopathic medicines is easily seen by how small the vials are. Elsewhere at sunnyside, in the bedroom of his brother Ebeneezer, we find an assortment of patent medicines of the day. Note the difference in size of bottles, which reflected the different amount of medicines required. Patent medications made their profits through sales of the medicine, whereas homeopathic practitioners offered a service.
Mrs. D. F. Johnson worked for Washington Irving as a nurse, and gives us a sense of life at Irving’s Sunnyside: “Ebenezer was as funny a man as Washington Irving. He was so deaf that we had to yell into his ears to be heard. He spoke in a whisper, but he was always saying very smart things. He hardly ever opened his mouth without making us laugh. As Mr. Washington Irving was a match for his brother, or any one else, in his expression of fun, you can imagine what a cheerful and happy time they all had together.”
But judging from the medicine on Ebenezer’s table, he didn’t share his brother Washington’s belief in homeopathy. Ebenezer’s taste in cures seems to have been patent medicines, which came over time to be associated with quack remedies. But it wasn’t always so.
Patent medicines were essentially combinations of ingredients designed to combat various conditions and diseases, sometimes a number all at one, hence the term cure-all entering the lexicon. The bottle on Ebenezer’s dresser contained an elixer based on extract of Wild Cherry, and was used, according to the label, to cure everything from bronchitis, whooping cough and hoarseness, to influenza. Cough drops connoisseurs will instantly make the leap to Luden’s cough drops, that wild cherry taste treat that in most cases really don’t do much for a cough. And they’d be right to do so, as Luden’s wild cherry cough medicine got its start in the heydays of patent medicine, in 1879. Luden’s original product however was a honey-licorice mentholated throat drop, and a keen eye will note that these are three ingredients indicative of the candy trade. Which is correct, as Luden’s primary business was confections, and where he was most brilliant was in the marketing department. It’s no accident that the golden age of patent medicines coincided with the birth of advertising.
While not homeopathic in nature, Ebenezer’s wild cherry cough formula, was like Luden’s, based on natural ingredients. Even today, Luden’s in made from pectin, an ingredient in ripe fruits, and lots of sugar. It’s easy to see that even if not always terribly effective, patent medications solved the same need as a homepathic – avoiding bloodletters and purges through pharmacology. In fact, in the early days of patent medication, it has a fair amount of support in the medical profession.
Homeopathic remedies didn’t enjoy the same status. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the physician, lecturer and author was an admirer and friend of Washington Irving, and persuaded his homeopathic practitioner to discontinue his treatments for patent medications, as Holmes had a great distaste for the field. Instead he prescribed medicated cigarettes and Jonas Whitcomb’s Cough Remedy, based on a German recipe, which was a reliable addition at the time to most physician’s medicine bag.
The treatment went well for a few days, Irving showing great improvement, then the author was struck with a severe nervous attack, and Dr. Peters dropped the patent medication and Irving went back to homeopathics. Homes was philosophical about it, writing to Dr. Peters ‘I suppose we all do pretty much the same thing in cases like this … To speak more liberally, we all try, as you have done, all safe means which promise better than mere inactivity seems to provide.”
And that in a nutshell is an apt description of both homeopathic remedies, as well as patent medications. When dealing with a reputable practitioner, it was likely to cause no harm, and might even do a bit of good. Which is more than one can see from the application of leeches or force feeding of laxatives, at least in most cases.
Or to quote singer/musician Tim Minchin:
Alternative Medicine, I continue
Has either not been proved to work,
Or been proved not to work.
You know what they call alternative medicine
That’s been proved to work?