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  • Writer's pictureSteve Bartholomew

The Cottage Physician

The Cottage Physician

a sort of book review

Umberto Eco once said that if you want to know what people were really up to in a previous era, look at what was against the law. He might have added that you can also read their user's manuals.

I have been perusing a book titled the Cottage Physician, by Thomas Faulkner, PhD, M.D., etc etc, published in 1885. You can download the complete book for free from

“How to retain health, Eradicate Disease, and Lengthen Life.” An impressive promise. Furthermore, this was not written by some fly-by-night quack snake oil salesman. Faulkner was a legitimate credentialed physician known to London and Boston. In 1885 America, doctors were not always easy to find or to get to in a hurry. We were still largely a rural country; a sick individual often must travel for hours by horseback or wagon to reach the nearest physician. Obviously there must have been a ready made market for books like The Cottage Physician.

Reading this book I am often shocked or amazed. Some parts of it seem quite modern in approach: there is an excellent set of anatomical illustrations. Other parts are outdated, odd, or just weird. There is, for example, an entire section on homeopathic remedies as well as a short lesson in the “science” of phrenology. What this is doing in a book about medical practice is beyond me. At the end of the book there are even some prescription blanks – I must assume so that the reader may do his own Rx if he so wishes. Dr. Faulkner often recommends the use of leeches to draw blood, in cases of inflammation. I have heard this practice has been going through a revival of sorts.

Doctors of the time had no idea about vitamins. The symptoms of scurvy were well known, but Dr. Faulkner had no clue as to its real cause. Here is his explanation:

Causes. Indolence, confinement, want of exercise, neglect of cleanliness, sadness, salt or putrified food, and foul water, or the prevalence of cold and moisture. It is sometimes produced by over-fatigue. In some persons it is constitutional, or hereditary.

The recommended treatment is too complicated to list here, involving such substances as tapioca, rice, meat, saltpetre, muriatic acid and white vinegar among others. Fortunately he also included fresh fruit, vegetables and lemon juice, so Faulkner's treatment was probably effective despite itself.

There is also some good common sense advice about how to set broken bones, treat wounds and wrap bandages. Bear in mind this book was written for the average home maker. Faulkner provides a long list of diseases and their treatments; some of these maladies I have never heard of, such as “tetters,” “fleshworms,” or “the Green sickness.”

The author expends a great number of words in moralizing, especially about sexual matters. He emphasizes the usual Victorian cautions against “the crime of self abuse,” which may lead to the madhouse, “or worse, the brothels.” (If you want to know what people were really up to, look at what was against the law.) He includes these warnings under “Observations on the youth of both sexes.” One passage makes me wonder if Faulkner was aware of the disease of anorexia:

A writer of great judgment and experience on this subject, asserts that one of the most frequent causes of disease about the age of puberty is starvation.

Faulkner in this refers specifically to young women. His treatment however includes no psychological counseling, but rather recommendations for fresh, healthy food, outdoor exercise—and deep breathing! In fact he seems to believe good posture and deep breathing are a cure for many ills, including what was called consumption. Today we call this TB. Back in the day, it was the number one cause of death in the U.S.

On the other hand, some things never change. Faulkner deplores those who resist the practice of vaccination. He points out that among the unvaccinated, one out of every five will contract smallpox. Among the vaccinated the rate was one out of 450. But try convincing people with mere logic and reason!

I believe Faulkner was an honest physician doing his best with the knowledge he had at the time. He probably helped more people than he harmed. People were self reliant in those days because they had to be. In some ways we have made great progress since 1885. In other ways, maybe not so much.

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