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William Cook on vinegar tinctures

by Paul Bergner

Medical Herbalism 11(2):1,14-15

The Physio-Medical Dispensatory: A Treatise on Therapeutics, Materia Medica, and Pharmacy in Accordance with the Principles of Physiological Medication. William Cook, M.D. Cincinnati: 1869, published by the author.

In this issue we begin a series of columns on the materia medica and pharmacy methods of William Cook, described in his 1869 Physio-Medical Dispensatory. This materia medica of more than 440 plants contains the most complete description of the pharmacy of North American herbs in print. Cook was a hands-on clinical herbalist and herbal pharmacist, and the text carries the authority of first hand knowledge in both arenas. We are in the process of scanning the Dispensatory into web format, and hope to post the complete text at our web site at by the end of the year. In this issue, we cover Cook’s views on vinegar tinctures and other vinegar preparations.

Historical context

Thomsonian herbalism, founded by Samuel Thomson, and spreading to England via Albert Coffin, was a movement that was as much anti-medical as it was pro-herb. Its vigorous stance against mercurial poisons and bloodletting was as much responsible for its popularity as was its materia medica and methods of practice. Eventually a split developed in the movement over the issue of medical education for its practitioners. Samuel Thomson was against it, and against granting Thomsonian “licences” to physicians, while his lieutenant Alva Curtis supported such education. Curtis eventually left Thomson in 1839 to found the Literary and Botanico-Medical Institute in Ohio. Thus was born the Physio-medicalist movement, also called neo-Thomsonianism, independent Thomsonianism, and Botanico-medicalism. The chief difference between Thomsonianism and Physio-medicalism was the medical education advocated by the latter, and a greatly expanded materia medica. Physio- medicalism was always the smallest of the medical sects during the 1800s, never accounting for more than 2-3% of the practicing physicians. It was almost completely eliminated by the early twentieth century in North America by the combined opposition of the Eclectics, Homeopaths, and Regular physicians, who formed an alliance to demand licensing laws (but denying licenses to the Physio-medicalists). Physio- medicalism jumped the Atlantic, however, and strongly influenced the development of British medical herbalism.

After Alva Curtis, William Cook was the most prominent of the Physio-medicalists, especially as the author of The Physio-Medical Dispensatory (1869). The book served as the primary materia medica and pharmacy text for the sect until the demise of the last Physio-medicalist school in 1915. During the period from about 1840-1860, all the medical sects, including the Physio- medicalists were exploring methods to extract active constituents from plants. This may seem surprising today, with contemporary herbalists generally opposed to standardized extracts of plants or to drugs. This movement in plant pharmacy was driven by the emerging pharmaceutical industry, which arose to meet the demands of physicians for medicines that were easier to dispense and powerful in their action. Eclectic medical physicians during the 1850s and 1860s tended to use these potent plant extracts in the same manner that their Regular physician counterparts used powerful heroic mineral medicines. With this type of practice, Eclectic medicine almost died out, reaching its lowest ebb in 1861. By 1870, John Scudder helped revive Eclecticism with the publication of his Specific Medication, which related the specific actions and physiological indications of a wide number of plants. Much of the material, including the extensive materia medica, was derived from Physio-medicalist and other herbal practice rather than prior Eclectic works, and the publication of Cook’s Dispensatory the year before, in the same town that Scudder practiced, undoubtedly influenced the work. The Eclectic movement toward specific medication advocated the use of single remedies for specific physiological indications. John Uri Lloyd eventually developed the pharmacy side of specific medication by devising sophisticated extraction methods to concentrate certain constituents in alcohol tinctures while excluding others. His commercial Specific Medicines, the main medicines dispensed by the Eclectics after the 1890s, were thus hybrids between traditional tinctures and the concentrated constituent extracts of the 1850s.

Cook’s Dispensatory, with its extensive sections on the pharmacy of some plants, thus provides a historical snapshot of plant pharmacy in transition. He describes traditional forms such as infusions, decoctions, and simple tinctures (all of which he prefers over the more concentrated forms). He also describes how to make solid extracts, ether extracts, resinoids, alkaloid constituent extracts, and many more forms which had been popular in previous decades. He critically compares the different forms, saying which will extract the medicinal properties of the plant better than others.

The Dispensatory also makes a strong and clear stand for vitalism as posed to the allopathic methods used by the Regulars and many of the Eclectics of the time. It remains perhaps the most eloquent herbal text in print in Western herbalism for the clarity of its advocacy of vitalist herbalism:

Probably in no field of investigation is there so much proneness to loose observation, and exaggerated statements as in that of medicine. The study is made complex by the fact of two forces there always operating in connection – the direct force of the agents, and the responsive actions of the life power. And the many organs used by the life power, and the diverse manners in which it may act through each one of these organs, greatly increase the intricacy of such a study. The physician is in continuous temptation either to attribute all action to the agent, and thus throw out the important part enacted by the life power; or else, noticing the wonderful influences and works of this power, to connect all the results with it, and allow nothing whatever to the agents. Either method is an error; and is of such common occurrence that large classes of physicians are in the habit of adopting one or the other.

Vinegar Extracts

Cook discusses vinegar extracts in general, and specifically gives methods for vinegar extractions of several herbs. He describes the properties of vinegar itself, and generally limits his vinegar preparations to herbs with similar actions to the vinegar medium.

    Promotes the secretions of the kidneys

    Promotes the secretions of the throat and respiratory tract membranes

    Mixed with sweetened water makes a pleasant drink in febrile and inflammatory cases.

    Promotes perspiration when drunk warm in large quantities, in a patient well covered     in bed.

    Daily use for scurvy and for looseness of the bowels and feverishness that arise from     scorbutic conditions.

    Vapor may be inhaled for sore throat

    Fomentations for sprains, bruises, and pains in thebowels.

Cook states that the action of vinegar tinctures are mostly restricted to the respiratory passages and stomach. Here is his description of the production and use of vinegar infusion of capsicum:

Mix vinegar, 2 ounces; capsicum 10 grains, and common salt, two drachms.     Stimulating and antiseptic gargle for sore throat. Take every hour or two. A flannel around the neck may be kept moistened with the same. Arrests vomiting in cholera.

Other gargles in vinegar infusion that Cook describes are made with myrica,     xanthoxylum, cornus, hydrastis, and sanguinaria.
  Copyright 2001 Paul Bergner    

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