Empowering Women With Water

Announcing the 1850 birth of his daughter in the pages of the Water-Cure Journal, Thomas Nichols asserted that childbirth could be not only easy but nearly pain free for women. His declaration wasn’t the smug opinion of a man standing idly by while his wife labored for hours in the other room. His wife, in fact, fully agreed with him.

Mary Gove Nichols’s secret was hydropathy, a system of healing that relied on the power of cold, pure water to flush sickness from the body. Mary had suffered the agony of four successive stillbirths before submitting to its rigorous but healthful routine. Coming from anyone else, few Americans would likely believe their claim but Mary was one of the most influential and authoritative advocates of hydropathy in the nation.

Largely self-taught, Mary first made a name for herself in 1838 lecturing — a scandal in and of itself for a woman — on the shocking topics of women’s health and anatomy. Women’s health was a topic rarely, if ever, discussed at the time. Standards of female propriety meant that many women endured their sicknesses in silence to avoid being examined by a man.

Mary made it her mission to educate women….

Read the rest of Mary’s story at Biographile

Meet the New Book: Marketplace of the Marvelous

It’s been a busy week here at Marketplace of the Marvelous world headquarters (aka my treadmill desk in the guest room). My new book hit bookstores last Tuesday. I’ve been giving interviews and had my launch at A Room Of One’s Own in Madison Thursday. And perhaps most exciting of all, a section of the book on phrenology was excerpted in The Atlantic – read it here.

I love sharing this quirky medical history. There’s much more to come so stay tuned.



19th Century Health Resolutions for the New Year

Resolutions to be healthy and fit are among the most common this time of year. Only two days in to the new year, we’re all still winning our resolutions (good news!). In honor of my soon to be released book Marketplace of the Marvelous: The Strange Origins of Modern Medicine, here are some 19th century tips for living healthy and well:

1. Drink water, the colder the better. Nature’s purest drink was the health beverage of choice for hydropaths, who promoted the benefits of regular bathing, soaking, and imbibing at least eight (and often a lot more – one guy claimed 30 glasses before breakfast!) glasses of cold water a day to wash out disease.

2. Think positive. Phineas Parkhurst Quimby believed that the cause of all disease was wrong thoughts. Replacing bad thoughts with good thoughts led to happiness and health.

3. Go natural. Samuel Thomson was a self-taught American herbalist who believed that nature knew best. He devised his own system of healing known as Thomsonism that relied on remedies made from the plants growing out your backdoor.

4. Move. Outside, if possible. Between drinking water and bathing, hydropathic patients went on long walks in the woods. The fresh air, trees, and other plants made for particularly restorative forms of exercise. On rainy days, patients juggled, danced, or chopped wood – anything to move more.

5. Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and other spirituous substances. Homeopaths believed that certain foods and drinks inhibited healing. The movement’s founder, Samuel Hahnemann, even cautioned against drinking coffee, claiming it could lead to impotence, sterility, and mental and physical “degeneration.” But even Hahnemann couldn’t deny its pleasures, particularly in the morning: “In the first moments or quarters of an hour after waking, everyone who is not living completely in a rude state of nature, has a disagreeable feeling of not thoroughly awakened consciousness, of confusion, of laziness, and want of pliancy in the limbs,” Hahnemann wrote. Coffee “removes this disagreeable situation” and makes drinkers “completely alive” with each sip.

L0025612 R.T. Claridge, Hydropathy, or the cold water cure...


My new book is only days away from its release into the world (January 7th!). It’s about health and sickness and how Americans throughout the 19th century struggled and embraced a variety of ways to be well before we knew about things like germs. They even got a few things right.




A Wisconsin Chiropractic Tale

After spending several years researching alternative healing methods for my new book, I was surprised to only recently learn the story of chiropractor Clarence Gonstead. Even more so because I’ve driven by the modernist Gonstead clinic in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin, countless times.

Born in South Dakota in 1898, Gonstead grew up on a dairy farm in Primrose, Wisconsin, with an interest in automotive and tractor repair. Stricken with rheumatoid arthritis at 19, the bedridden Gonstead had exhausted nearly all of his medical options when he sought the services of a Madison chiropractor. The treatment worked. Gonstead was soon up and walking. This life changing experience led Gonstead to devote his life to chiropractic – a not uncommon conversion story in the annals of alternative medicine.

Source: Wikichiro

Source: Wikichiro

To save money for school, Gonstead worked as an automotive engineer. In 1923, he graduated from the Palmer School of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa (the Palmers had founded chiropractic in the 1890s), and a few years later, set up his own practice in Mt. Horeb.

Gonstead didn’t stick with the Palmer’s original theory. Rather than a vertebral bone causing nerve pressure (and thus disease) as founder D.D. Palmer and his son B.J. believed, Gonstead suggested that the vertebral disc caused nerve pressure. He developed his own method of spinal assessment to locate the spinal impingement, known as a subluxation in chiropractic.

“The principles of the Gonstead Method are the simple principles of chiropractic put to work; how to understand what causes nerve pressure, how to find it on the patient, how to achieve a corrective setting of the offending vertebra, and how to know when the chiropractor’s job is done, and nature’s begins,” explained Gonstead.

Neither D.D. nor B.J. Palmer took kindly to the ideas of others, even other chiropractors, so Gonstead likely received a chilly response to his technique.

Patients, on the other hand, loved Gonstead’s methods and they came from all over the country seeking his care. His clinic, a midcentury modern structure designed by Wisconsin architect John Steinmann, was one of the largest in the world with seating for 106 patients, a lab and research facilities, and seminar rooms. He even built a hotel, the Karakhal Inn, in 1965 to accommodate patients from out of town and other chiropractors seeking to learn his method. Business was so good that a regular limousine service traveled between the Madison airport and the Mt. Horeb clinic. Patients with their own private planes could land at Gonstead’s personal airstrip on the outskirts of town. For many years, the clinic was the largest chiropractic clinic in the world.

Gonstead also had a rather notable home. Herb Fritz, Jr., an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright, designed the private home on 55 acres in the late 1940s or early 50s. Unfortunately, the home burned down in 1992.

Gonstead died in 1978 and a nonprofit foundation now runs his clinic. His method has spawned followers and practitioners around the world.

Christmas Comes Early: My Advance Copies Have Arrived

My husband lifted two boxes inside the front door when he came from work on Friday. “Something for you,” he said. My mom had warned that she’d sent presents and not to open them so I paid little attention to the boxes and left them sitting by the door. Until the next morning when I happened to glance at the return address, fully expecting to see my mom’s name but instead saw: Beacon.

My books!!

The official publication date isn’t until January 7 but here’s some visual proof that this thing is real. At this time last year, I was tearing my hair out finishing the draft, rewriting, deleting, questioning everything, undoing that previous deletion, writing, deleting, repeat. Repeat.

This year is much better.


“Neuro” hype and 21st Century Phrenology


Is the brain the hottest organ in the body? That’s the argument made in a recent Slate story “The End of Neuro-Nonsense” that argues that brain hype reached its peak in 2008 and is now on the decline for a variety of reasons. Quoting from the new book Brainwashed that details the perils of brain-centrism: “Naïve media, slick neuroentrepreneurs, and even an occasional overzealous neuroscientist exaggerate the capacity of scans to reveal the contents of our minds, exalt brain physiology as inherently the most valuable level of explanation for understanding behavior, and rush to apply underdeveloped, if dazzling, science for commercial and forensic use.”

Maybe so.

But I’d argue that we’ve been living a “neurocentric,” to quote the term used in the article for our brain obsession, world for nearly 200 years. We just had a different name for it in the past: phrenology.

Phrenologists posited that the brain was made up of individual organs with specific functions and attributes. The size and shape of these organs, as read on the skull, revealed our character. Many argued that these organs – and thus our personalities – were changeable, improvable. With a little exercise, we could make ourselves better by strengthening positive traits and weakening others. With phrenology, doctors could easily determine not only how but why someone thought, felt, and coped with life in a particular way. It provided comfort and insight into our seemingly unknowable depths, a way to understand behavior and personality with seemingly scientific precision. Who wouldn’t like that?

Like the 19th century, many of us hope today, as the phrenologists did, that mapping the brain will reveal the secrets of our natures. And once known, this information will allow us to manipulate and transform ourselves into something better. We just call it “neuro” this and “neuro” that now, from neuromarketing to neuroeconomics, a transmutation of language strikingly similar to what occurred in the 19th century as phrenological terms (high brow, low brow, shrink, well rounded) passed from the lab to daily conversation. Colorful fMRI images of the brain on TV encourage us to think of almost everything through its effect on the brain, the modern equivalent of the phrenological charts that adorned the walls of pharmacies and general stores and were featured in the pages of magazines and books. Just as in the past, popular neuroscience suggests that the way to make us smarter, happier, and even more beautiful is through concentrated efforts to improve the brain regardless of how little we actually know about how the brain works. It seems to me that popular brain science is the phrenology of the 21st century, and we’re just as ravenous for that knowledge today as they were in the 19th century.

So maybe 2008 marks the most recent crest of a brain obsession with more than two centuries of history behind it that seems bound and determined to rise again.


“Mothers to the Motherless:” Policewomen in Chicago

Policewomen Agnes Walsh (from left), Anna Loucks, Theresa Johnson, Anna Sheridan, Lulu Burt, Mabel Rockwell, and Miss Clara B. Olsen.  Source: Chicago History Museum

Policewomen Agnes Walsh (from left), Anna Loucks, Theresa Johnson, Anna Sheridan, Lulu Burt, Mabel Rockwell, and Miss Clara B. Olsen.
Source: Chicago History Museum

On August 5, 1913, ten women were sworn in as officers – or “copettes” as one reporter called them – for the Chicago Police Department. The women, all trained as social workers, did not wear uniforms or carry revolvers but they did have a badge.

The fight for female officers had been raging for decades. Women’s groups had long argued that female detainees and juveniles needed protection from male officers and other male prisoners. Searched, interrogated, and detained in cells often beside or within sight of men, women detainees often suffered rape and sexual assault. Even outside of jails and courtrooms, advocates argued that women with police authority could keep better order and protect the morals of women and children at beaches, public parks, and other places of amusement than male officers. They could become, in effect, “mothers to the motherless.”

Few police departments and politicians supported the effort. Many labeled the crusade unnecessary and a waste of money. Others argued that women were physically incapable of being officers. Even after many cities passed ordinances authorizing the hiring of women officers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, few appropriations were made to actually make the hires.

Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison pushed the city council to hire female officers for the department in 1913. An order was passed, and Harrison appointed ten women. Police training consisted of a two hour lecture delivered by the terrifically named Chief McWeeny (especially fitting considering the pervasive belief that women were not strong enough to be officers) who told the new recruits to have compassion, not be “too strenuous,” “don’t be too nosy,” and to “present all cases fairly and squarely.” The women then received a police whistle, a book of rules, and badge.

Two days later, on August 7th, two of the female officers made their first arrest. It was of another woman, Nellie Cameron, for disorderly conduct. The novelty of women arresting women attracted a fair bit of media attention. Everyone was eager to see how women would handle a potentially physical interaction in making arrests. One officer claimed that female criminals would put up a bigger fight than normal for policewomen because they would not be afraid of another woman. Those opposed to policewomen jumped on every opportunity to show that women could not handle the work, though given the limited role and power (not to mention gear and a proper uniform) afforded these early women officers, the comparison of male and female officers could hardly be fair.

Concern about women’s physical strength led the police chief to assign a new batch of women officers to jujitsu instruction in 1914, a development that led to the New York Times to report, “Policewomen to Wrestle.”

Women’s path into police work and law enforcement was long and hard. In 1913, there were 38 in the U.S. By 1915, this number had risen to 70 in 26 cities. Most served in limited roles, mostly keeping order among women and children, in public places. It would be decades more before they earned a more equal place on the force. Even so, these early women forged a pioneering course.

There are few things in history that I love more than what I like to refer to as “women in unexpected places.” It’s usually a job or activity deemed “unwomanly” or dangerous to feminine virtue for one lame (and generally unconvincing, at least to me) reason or another. This is what draws me to policewomen and people like 19th century phrenologist, educator, and doctor Lydia Folger, who had her own medical practice (at a time when women struggled to even be educated and get adequate medical care) and wrote books and gave lectures on such taboo topics as the workings of the female body. Folger and other women like her were leaning in long before Sheryl Sandberg, and their stories have long energized and encouraged me. Really, they are the reason I do history.

Agitation for female police officers

A [Museum] Walk Through Medicine’s Past

Let me tell you about a wonderful place.

I spent the month of May abroad, touring – much of it on foot – in Ireland, Wales, and England. One of my best mornings was spent in London at the free museum and library of the Wellcome Trust (my history dorky-ness reigns unimpeded through work AND vacation times). I first discovered it online while doing research for my next book on the history of 19th century alternative health. The center is an amazing resource for understanding the history of medicine and science, and the connections between medicine, life, and art. Intriguing, right?

Even better for my little Wisconsin history heart, the foundation for the library came from the collections of Wisconsin-born pharmaceutical salesman Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853-1936). Wellcome ran a successful pharmaceutical business in London but devoted much of his time and resources to collecting books and objects related to medicine, health, alchemy, and even witchcraft from around the world.

Here’s three cool things I saw:

2013-05-29 11.11.09

1. Prosthetic limbs through time.

Prosthetic body parts have been used since at least the time of the Greeks and probably earlier (the Greeks left what is likely the first recorded use). None of these are quite that old but can you imagine wearing one of these? Near these limbs was a box of glass eyes.

2013-05-29 11.10.40

2. Phrenological Skull

In the late 18th and 19th centuries, phrenologists argued that the shape and size of various parts of the brain – these parts were known as organs – determined your personality. Your skull was supposedly a “faithful” cast of the brain encased within so rather than perform some risky operation to take a look at your brain, phrenologists could simply feel and measure the bumps on your head. Phrenology was very controversial in the medical community – and even among phrenologists themselves as this skull demonstrates. One half shows the organs as described by phrenology’s founder, Franz Joseph Gall, while the other half shows those of Gall’s disciple Johann Spurzheim.

2013-05-29 11.07.57


3. Charles Darwin’s Walking Stick

These are two of Darwin’s walking sticks, both intricately carved, one from ivory and one from whalebone. Darwin was a walker – he claimed to get many of his best ideas while walking. As a fervent walker myself, I loved to know that the clicking sound of Darwin’s walking stick hitting the ground became something of his calling card and signature sound.




Snake oil

You’ve heard of snake oil, right? It’s one of those phrases I heard and read for years without giving much thought. Snake oil means fake, fraudulent, bad – I took it in without really taking it in. I mean, what is snake oil exactly? And why snakes? Why not pig or frog oil? Fish oil? Now that’s a good oil. But snakes? That’s just bad medicine.

Popular lore equates patent medicines with snake oil. Most patent medicines did not literally contain this reptilian liquid. But some did.

Stanley's snake oilSource: Wikipedia

Stanley’s snake oil
Source: Wikipedia

Clark Stanley, better known as “The Rattlesnake King,” likely inspired the association with his “Snake Oil Liniment,” which cured everything from rheumatism and sciatica to lumbago, frostbite, and sore throat. Stanley claimed to have learned of snake oil’s healing powers from his years as a cowboy out west with the Hopi Indians in the 1870s and 1880s. He shared his discovery with the public at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago where he pulled live snakes out of a sack, slit them open, and plunged their bodies into boiling water. As the fat from the snakes rose to the top of the pot, Stanley skimmed it off, mixed it with his previously prepared oils, and sold his liniment freshly prepared to the crowd that gathered to watch the spectacle.

A few years later, in 1897, he published The Life and Adventures of the American Cowboy: True Life in the Far West by Clark Stanley, Better Known as the Rattlesnake King, which explained cowboy life, contained lyrics to cowboy songs, and of course, promoted the healing wonders of his snake oil liniment. Stanley’s liniment became so successful that a reporter who visited his office in Beverly, Massachusetts, found it filled with snakes, some more than seven feet long. He claimed to have killed 3,000 snakes in 1901 alone to meet demand for his product.

Stanley’s was not the only snake oil remedy on the market. Consumers could also find Tex Bailey’s Rattle Snake Oil, Tex Allen’s Rattlesnake Essential Oil Compound, and Monster Brand Snake Oil, among others, that capitalized on American fascination with cowboys, the Wild West, and Indians.

Snake oil itself had an even longer history in Chinese medicine where people had rubbed the fat of the Erabu sea snake, not rattlesnakes, on aching joints for centuries. Stanley may actually have learned about snake oil from Chinese laborers in the West rather than the Indians as he professed. [1]

Either way, Stanley (and others like him) made snake oil a popular fixture in both the pharmacy and our language.


[1] James Frank Dobie, Rattlesnakes (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982), 75-76; Dan Hurley, Natural Causes: Death, Lies and Politics in America’s Vitamin and Herbal Supplement Industry (New York: Broadway Books, 2006), 1-2; Gene Fowler, Mavericks: A Gallery of Texas Characters (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008), 97-100; Joe Schwarcz, “Why are snake-oil remedies so-called?” The Gazette [Montreal] (23 February 2008), http://tinyurl.com/d7tcfbc


History of the Apple in 10 Objects: Medicine Jar

Medical vase c. 1515 for storing herbs, roots, syrups, pills, ointments, and sweetmeats.
Source: Victoria and Albert Museum

Apples are good to eat and drink – but they could also heal. Long before we thought that “an apple a day kept the doctor away” (a relatively recent development), doctors and other healers used the fruit medicinally. A 14th century Italian medical book mentions that apples cure more effectively when served hot and sprinkled with sugar and other spices (medicinal apple pie, if you ask me). These roasted or baked apples were thought to ease digestion after a big meal. If you needed an excuse to eat pie, now you have an ancient medical justification for its benefits.

Cooked apples could also be found in the Arab pharmacopeia. Some of the first recipes for fruit pastes, sweets, and jams involving apples came from medical books not cookbooks. People in the Middle East pioneered the growing and refining of sugar on a large scale and more often used this sugar as medicine rather than as a tasty sweetener.

Raw apples also had their benefits. The fibrous apples kept English monks regular in the 14th and 15th centuries, and some believed that an apple at the start of the meal stimulated the stomach and heart. Eaten at the end of the meal, apples gave teeth a fairly good clean. While certainly not a substitute for a toothbrush, in the Middle Ages, this was pretty advanced preventative dentistry.

Apple pulp provided a vehicle for many medicines in the medieval pharmacy. Apple-based medicines were applied to the skin and some apples also appeared on ingredient lists for beauty products. The origin of the word pomade, the waxy substance used to style hair, traces its name to apple pulp.