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.
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.
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