A few months ago, I published my first poem. Co-authored, I should say, with my creative husband. It was a medical poem, and it was published not in some literary magazine but in the journal Neurology. That’s right, a medical journal with a humanities section.
Medical poetry has a long history, it turns out (and I’m not talking about the poetic musings of patients on their illnesses and suffering, though that probably has an even longer history). In the 19th century, a botanical medical movement known as Thomsonianism, after its founder Samuel Thomson, created a vast library of medical poetry related to their beliefs. Unlike most 19th century poetry which was penned by women, the majority of Thomsonian poems were composed by men for medical purposes rather than for any moral or ethical objectives. Some poems provided medical instruction, teaching people how to monitor sickness and to administer medicines.
Samuel Thomson himself, the movement’s founder, wrote many poems decrying the professionalization of medicine and the pretensions of the university educated. Thomson believed that every man could be his own physician and sought to demystify medicine by making it easy to understand and use. He advocated for natural remedies made of plants, roots, and barks, rather than the mineral and chemical-based medicines used by regular doctors. Disease for Thomson was caused by a lack of heat that needed to be restored through scrubbing and warming agents. Thomson’s poems reflected his democratic leanings, carrying anti-elitist messages and simplified explanations of his medical system.
Thomson and his followers wrote poems that stretched from the epic to the patriotic, satirical, and romantic. Most contained some element of ridicule aimed at regular doctors, gaining friends and followers through wit and calculated reason.
Here’s an 1840 poem written by Thomson that captures the significance of heat and the numbered system in his course of remedies.
ODE ON HEALTH
If you desire a length of days,
Then follow Wisdom’s pleasant ways:
Beware you shun the tempting lures
Of poisonous bait and death.
Health is a blessing all must prize,
True wealth in it, tho’ hidden lies,
We must beware of quack’ry’s cries,
Or else resign our breath.
Our nature’s may be understood,–
The wise, the blest, the truly good,
Have all combined to ease life’s load
Of poisons, kin to earth.
Shall laws make inroads on our peace?
Shall crafty Doctors never cease?
Shall stern oppression mar our ease?
Oh, no! we’ve rights by birth.
Is heat the friend of life in man?–
Then Thomson’s is the wisest plan
To lengthen out life’s feeble span,
And walk in nature’s truth.
If numbers, one to six be used,
Nor natural sent’nels be abused;
Then health with you shall ne’er be loos’d,
While heat you hold enough.
I’m not sure our poem was witty or as mission-driven as the Thomsonian works. But it’s still nice to know that poetry has long had a place at the bedside.