Lobelia: The London criminal trials

by Paul Bergner

Medical Herbalism 10(1-2):32

Nineteenth century authors Hale, Cook, Stille, Wood, and Griggs all relate a flurry of courtroom charges in London during the early 1850s against practitioners who used lobelia. At one point hearings led by a Dr. Letheby were held, at which he alleged that at least thirteen deaths caused by lobelia had occurred over the period of several years (Stille;Cook). Letheby cited as evidence his discovery of lobelia leaves or seeds in the digestive tracts of the patients on autopsy.

Historian Barbara Griggs states that the lobelia-death charges of the time were part of a pattern of prosecution of lay herbalists in London, who had learned the use of lobelia from one Albert Coffin, a Thomsonian practitioner who had moved to England during the 1930s and attained great popularity and prominence as a medical reformer. According to the British common law, then as today, anyone may practice herbalism freely, unless a death at their hands could be proven. A cholera epidemic was raging in London during the early 1850s, and many cholera patients died, regardless of the medical or herbal treatment they received. According to Griggs, the conventional physicians, including Letheby, attempted to prosecute the herbalists by laying the cause of death of the cholera patients on lobelia rather than on the natural course of the disease. Stille, Cook, and Griggs all concur that only a single conviction resulted, indicating that either coroner’s juries or trial juries determined that the deaths had been due to cholera and not to lobelia. Cook and Griggs both state that the single conviction was for practicing as an “apothecary” without a license, that is dispensing herbs without being a member of the apothecaries’ guild, and not for murder or manslaughter.

Cook, in 1868, goes to great length to rebut the charges made about lobelia in the Letheby hearings. He notes first that at that time there was no chemical test to identify lobelia powder or to distinguish it from other substances. Thus it could not be identified on autopsy, and could not be distinguished from other herbs such as tobacco. He also reports that during the hearings it was testified that some of the deaths had been due to tobacco being prescribed in the place of lobelia. It seems a conventional physician was prescribing lobelia, but the conventional pharmacists had none in stock. Thinking that lobelia and tobacco were equivalent medicines — a rumor spread by the conventional doctors — the pharmacists filled some prescriptions with tobacco instead of lobelia, contributing to some patients deaths. Cook says no charges were filed as a result of the hearings, against either the prescribing physician or the apothecary

Most remarkable about the Letheby accusations is that so many occurred in England, and in so short a time. Lobelia was at that time being used in unrestricted doses by perhaps 20% of the American population (Griggs; Thomson, 1825), yet no fatalities are recorded or alleged in the U.S. except the case of Lovett in 1808, and perhaps one patient in the New York case during the 1830s. Lobelia had also been in use in England for ten years prior to the Letheby hearings, and would be used for more than a century afterwards, with no other recorded deaths. It would seem from these facts that the lobelia “deaths” in the early 1850s were a product of the biased opinions of the medical doctors of the day, and not of actual medical facts.
Copyright 2001 Paul Bergner    

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