Herbal Diplomats: The Contribution of Early American Nurses (1830-1860) to Nineteenth-Century Health Care Reform and the Botanical Medical Movement By Martha M. Libster West Lafayette, IN: Golden Apple Publications, 2004) (386 pages; $37.00 cloth)
Herbal Diplomats is a social and cultural history that describes the role of women in the botanical medical movement in the United States during the mid-nineteenth century. The book is based on well-researched primary sources such as journals, diaries, letters, receipt books, and instruction books. Colorful diagrams and descriptions of major medicinal herbs and plants used in early nursing are provided. A glossary of terms also is helpful. The book consists of three parts, each tided according to herb harvest processes: "Gathering In," "Sifting and Sorting," and "Processing." The harvest process also implies the author's method of "preparing this history and uncovering the stories of women nurses' contribution to the Botanical Medical Movement" (p. 25).
Although the role of women nurses in herbal therapies is the books main focus, Libster provides context by describing the mid-nineteenth-century democratic culture that allowed multiple groups to practice. Physicians known as the "Regulars" were mainstream orthodox physicians. These practitioners worked toward curing the sick by applying "heroic" (p. 28) treatments such as purging and bloodletting. However, the confusion of the medical licensing system led to a medical system that featured not only regular practitioners but also "empirics," or medical sects that opposed the Regulars and their harsh treatments. Among the latter group, Thomsonism was the most prominent, particularly for women in the domestic sphere, because the Thomsonians promoted self-care with herbs.
Thus, this history helps the reader to understand that patients of the time had a choice in seeking the means of health improvement, be it through Regular physicians, medical sects, or self-care using healing herbs. The author argues that in the mid-nine-teenth century, medical knowledge was not highly sophisticated. In this environment, then, it is understandable that patients valued self-care, and lay practitioners thrived.
In "Gathering In," the author provides a general social and health care history of the mid-nineteenth century that includes a description of herbal therapies used at the time. The author also provides a thorough discussion of the "advice movement" (p. 61) in which multiple groups participated but which was especially led by women. In this way, the book deepens our understandings of nurses' work, particularly in the home, where women not only nursed their families during sickness but also promoted their health. "Self care, taking care of oneself and one's family," the author argues, "was an expression of the pioneer spirit that was part of American character" (p. …