Kentucky Rising: Democracy, Slavery, and Culture from the Early Republic to the Civil War

By James A. Ramage; Andrea S. Watkins | Go to book overview

10
Calomel, Cholera, and Science
1825–1865

Thomas Jefferson charged that medical science had not advanced since ancient Greece and Rome—he contended that “time had stood still” and that it was dangerous to come under the treatment of a physician. He wrote to physician Caspar Wistar on June 21, 1807, that a revolution was needed because a physician would propose “some fanciful theory” and declare that it was a new key to understanding that gave him unique insight into all nature’s secrets. He wrote that he had seen systems come and go “like the shifting figures of a magic lantern” and that the patient “sometimes gets well in spite of the medicine.” On the other hand, Jefferson realized that the best physicians had dissected human bodies and had knowledge of anatomy. Having lost his wife in childbirth, when his daughter Maria was preparing to deliver, he advised her to alert a physician and be ready to call him “on the first alarm.” Ephraim McDowell taught his apprentices that the all-purpose laxative calomel and other drugs were quackery and did more harm than good. Surgery, he said, was the only branch of the healing art that was reliable.1

The revolution Jefferson demanded would not come until the discovery of bacteria generations later, and one wishes for a time machine to travel back to the early nineteenth century to dispel the darkness with the discoveries of modern science. Jefferson and early Kentuckians lived in a time, beginning about 1750, when medical science was divided into two extremes. Extreme empiricists emphasized sense impressions and mistrusted all intuition and theories, while extreme rationalists developed elaborate theories of disease and treatment based on theories. Influenced by scientific breakthroughs in mathematics, physics, and other fields, doctors following both

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