Today we’re taking a peek into the medically and scientifically obsolete. As home to many scientifically minded faculty and students throughout the nineteenth century, Amherst College acquired a significant collection of literature from now defunct practices.

MesmerismFascinationMesmerism and animal magnetism were based on the premise that the body contained a magnetic fluid flowing throughout it that could be influenced by the movement of magnets or the laying on of hands. This could produce an altered state with a wide range of possibilities for treating disease (including pain-free surgery, yikes!) Hypnotism as a practice and theory developed slightly later and is still in use in some contexts.

Clairvoyant Medicine, Homeopathy, and the Movement-cure

clairvoyants family physician

This charming book contains a full listing of treatments for every illness conceivable – all dictated by Mrs. Lucina Tuttle while in a clairvoyant state!

homeopathyHomeopathy has been battling for legitimacy for a long time now.

movement cureThe movement-cure, applicable to “every chronic disease”, entails the vigorous shaking, rubbing or kneading of the patient by a practitioner.

Galvanism or Medical Electricity

etherieal physicianMedical electricity wins my prize for the most dubious of the “sciences” preserved in our collections. In the nineteenth century though, it made a certain amount of sense. People knew that the body used electricity and had discovered that electrical current applied to the body correctly caused movement, clearly indicating a powerful medical tool to the scientists of the day. As with many of the other theories, what was presented as a cure-all and applied indiscriminately in the nineteenth century still has application in modern medicine, but in much more defined situations and doses.

etherieal physician illus

A better look at the Electrical Machine.


And from 1802, the “theory and practice of medical electricity; and demonstrated to be an infallible cure of fever, inflammation and many other diseases”.

Hydropathy or the Water-Cure

cataract bath
Illustration from The Domestic Practice of Hydropathy by Edward Johnson, 1856.

Hydropathy was a remarkably benign form of treatment, although it required a significant investment of time and energy. The patient was subject to series of baths, showers and rubdowns of varying temperatures and intensities, often many times a day. Water-cure practitioners claimed that their treatment could cure nearly everything, and water-cure establishments were wildly popular for quite a long time; they often functioned as upper class spas or retreats. The students and faculty of Amherst College would have had ready access to hydropathic treatment, as nearby Northampton and Florence had water-cure establishments as early as 1845.

Also charming (although so surprisingly reasonable in content as to be almost unsuitable for this post), is the Hydropathic Cookbook, containing the sort of healthful recipes that people who bathe multiple times a day might desire.

hydropathic cookbook

Compound Oxygen Treatment
compound oxygen treatmentThis treatment, which consists of breathing a mixture oxygen and nitrogen, also can claim the saving grace of being relatively harmless. The course of treatment seems to have been devised and published on by on G. R. Starkey of Philadelphia, but not taken up by many others. Starkey’s full text on the method can be found on the Internet Archive.

breath of life illusIn a similar vein, The Breath of Life, or mal-Respiration, and its effects upon the enjoyments & life of man, by George Catlin, 1864, sets out to cure all the ills of humanity by convincing everyone to breath through their noses. Catlin wades into the dubious waters of early anthropology, claiming that native peoples sleep with their mouths closed and by this virtue are healthy, attractive and have good teeth.


new physiognomy
New Physiognomy or, Signs of Character by Samuel R. Well, 1867.

Phrenology is where we really hit the pseudoscience motherlode. As explored in the post on President Hitchcock’s head examination, phrenology was the practice of deducing information about a person’s character and habits from their head shape and topography (physiognomy focuses on the face as the locus of information). While the individual application often proved a harmless enough diversion, the theory was used to codify social prejudice around race, gender and class.

Fowler and Wells Publishers

The Amherst archives’ large holdings of books on phrenology and water-cure are thanks largely to Orson Squire Fowler, class of 1834, who was a well known practicing phrenologist and one third of the publishing partnership of Fowler & Wells. Fowler & Wells published hundreds of books on phrenology, water-cure and other topics that would now be found in the “wellness” or “lifestyle” section of the book store. The Amherst College library holds some 90 of these titles.

fowler and wells works

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