Lobelia, the herb that carried more cultural weight than marijuana.
Before there was marijuana, there was lobelia. This blue, summer wildflower was the most controversial plant in the United States prior to the Civil War, as it came to symbolize a cultural divide in perhaps the nation’s first cultural upheaval, pitting the wealthy elite against the Jacksonian “common man.”
By the close of the eighteenth century, American medicine was in a state of crisis. According to medical historian John S. Haller, many patients and physicians alike had come to believe that the medical system to which they had committed years of education and practice had lost its ability to cure. Relying on theories that stretched back to ancient Rome, doctors prescribed puking, purging, bleeding, and perspiring in order to balance the bodily secretions—blood, sweat, yellow bile, black bile. In order to induce these bodily actions, they relied on powerful substances such as camphor, mercury, opium, ipecac, all of which was imported from England.
Many doctors and physicians lost faith in this system, not only because they found it ineffective but also because they were influenced by the cultural currents swirling around the expanding United States.
Here’s where lobelia comes into the story. Lobelia syphilitica, or blue cardinal flower, had been marketed in Europe as a treatment for syphilis since the early eighteenth century, when legendary Indian agent William Johnson learned of its uses among the Iroquois. But in the 1820s, a self-taught, son of an illiterate farmer named Samuel Thomson championed the use of lobelia inflata, or Indian Tobacco, to treat many different ailments. Thomson first gained local fame as an herbal healer around his New Hampshire farming community in the 1790s. It was there that he claimed to have discovered—all by himself, although he probably learned it from a local woman—the healing properties of lobelia. He found that it was a powerful emetic and could be used to cleanse the stomach, “overpower” a cold, and “promote free perspiration.”
In the early 1820s, Thomson became his own salesman, selling so-called ‘patents,’ or rights to use his system, to people across the country. Although his system included uses for a variety of wild plants, lobelia inflata remained central to it, “the most important article made use of in my system.” He pitched his system as an empowering tool for common folk. Because his remedies could be found growing wild around the farm or purchased easily at the local store, he told people they could “be your own physician.” Lobelia, for example, could be found “wherever the land is fertile enough to yield support for its inhabitants.” And people responded. By the 1840s, an estimated 3 million people were using his system and ingesting lobelia tinctures for fevers, stomachaches, and many other ailments.
Thomson’s system was so popular because it channeled the populist sentiment that came to dominate the 1820s political discourse. Thomsonian salesmen drew heavily on the anti-elitist rhetoric and faith in the ability of the “common man” that propelled self-educated Andrew Jackson to the presidency. The age of Jackson (1820-1840) witnessed the democratization of politics and some of the earliest stirrings of labor unrest and anti-trust agitation. It also witnessed the birth of our first modern political parties. On a local level, particularly in the South and West, Jacksonian Democrats were typically poor and middling farmers and workers, while the Whigs were among those elites who favored industrialization and modernization. Medicine was one of the many areas of disagreement between the two parties.
As lobelia became the emblem of growing angst among the rural population directed at the elites, it also became the target of sharp criticism from cultural elites. Medical “regulars,” most of whom paid large tuitions to private schools for their medical authority, waged a public relations onslaught against the Thomsonians, labeling them quacks and pretenders. While the splintered medical community disagreed on many fronts, they all questioned, on some level, Thomson’s use of lobelia.
The debate over lobelia’s efficacy raged through the 1840s. One physician complained that “The Thomsonians use it almost indiscriminately, in almost all the complaints to which the human frame is liable.” South Carolina medical botanist Constantine Rafinesque admitted that lobelia was effective at treating “spasmodic asthma, bronchial cough, tetanus or lockjaw, and strangulated hernia,” he asserted that the “practice of Thomson to use it in every thing, fevers, consumption, measles, jaundice, &c. is preposterous.” The sharpest critics called it an “unnatural and homicidal treatment.” They claimed the plant had killed numerous patients.
Indeed, lobelia was a cultural wedge, not unlike marijuana in the twentieth century. At the height of both Thomson’s and Jackson’s popularity, lobelia was arguably the most politicized plant in the United States. The word itself was charged with meaning. To a sizeable number of rural dwellers, it symbolized the freedom from centralized institutions that they demanded of American democracy, the ability of the common man to control his own health. To the members of the fledgling medical profession, however, it represented a threat to their own medical authority and a threat to social hierarchy.