Skip to Main Content

The Town & the City: Lowell before and after The Civil War

Originally created to be a digital archive for Lowell documents from 1826 to 1861, this website has grown to cover many periods and events in Lowell's history.

Physicians and medicine in early Lowell

Part 7 - “there is a wide-spread skepticism” (Click for pdf download)

This is Part 7 of "The capital of the poor man" - The History of Public Health in Lowell

“there is a wide-spread skepticism”

1832 – 1861

I am stating only what everybody knows to be true, when I say that the general confidence which has heretofore existed in the science and art of medicine, as this science has been studied, and as this art has been practiced, has within the last few years been violently shaken and disturbed, and is now greatly lessened and impaired. The hold which medicine has so long had upon the popular mind is loosened: there is a wide-spread skepticism as to its power of curing diseases, and men are everywhere to be found who deny its pretensions as a science, and reject the benefits and blessings which it proffers them as an art.

Elisha Bartlett, 1848 (Mayor of Lowell, 1836 – 1838, and physician in Lowell, 1827 - 1841)


The democratic interregnum of the nineteenth century was a period of transition, when the traditional forms of mystification had broken down and the modern fortress of objectivity had not yet been built.

             Paul Starr, 1982, The Social Transformation of American Medicine

A people accustomed to govern themselves, and boasting of their intelligence, are impatient of restraint. They want no protection but freedom of inquiry and freedom of action.

Sen. John B. Scott (ca. 1789 –1854) New York State Legislature, 1844

Thus, did Jacksonian Democrats proclaim their inalienable rights to life, liberty, and quackery.

Richard H. Shryock, 1960


While the last section focused on the health of the operatives controversy between 1837 and 1850, it did not describe the types of health care practitioners in Lowell during this period. As this period is an interesting one in the history of medicine and of Lowell, the current section will discuss the treatment options available in Lowell from 1836 to 1861. While there is chronological overlap with the previous section, the focus and subject matter is different.

There were two major shifts taking place during this period in the United States that are relevant to the current subject; a sociopolitical shift and a sociomedical shift. The Sociopolitical shift was in how people thought about politics, power, economics, and social structure. This was the Jacksonian Era (1828 – 1854) where government regulation was seen as elitist and unrepublican, while independence, common sense, and self-reliance were valued over authority and privilege.

The Sociomedical shift was a shift in how people thought about medicine. There was an increasing and well-deserved skepticism about heroic medical procedures. They were painful and uncomfortable, ineffective at best and even harmful or fatal. Orthodox medicine was treating symptoms as if they were the disease and not even looking for causes beyond miasma and humoral imbalance. As skepticism about heroic medical procedures and the recognition of the lack of effective therapeutics increased, some patients turned to the growing variety of alternatives, leading to the rise of new sects outside of the orthodoxy. At the same time, undoing of state licensing laws during the Jacksonian Era opened up opportunities for practitioners of “irregular” medicine.     

During this period, Lowell had “regular” physicians who were “Members of Massachusetts Medical and Middlesex District Medical Societies.” The physicians who staffed the Lowell Dispensary, the Superintendent of the Corporation Hospital, and the City Physician were all members of these societies.

Some of the other schools of thought that were available at the same time included Thomsonism, eclectic medicine, botanic medicine, physo-medicine (also physio-medicine), homeopathy, Indian medicine, and others. In addition, practices within many of these groups were by no means standard with each practitioner adding his or her own treatments to the mix. Other available “treatments” included leeches, patent medicines, botanic medicines, and electric machines. In summary, Lowell residents had quite an array of choices with little science to guide them.

Why were so many choices available? The main reasons were that there was very little scientific basis for the medical practices, there were very few clinical trials of the various practices, and there was no government regulation. This led to regular clashes between different theories of the causes of illness and how to treat them.

While medical science was not advancing rapidly, there were advancements in the other sciences such as chemistry and physics. These sciences offered new conceptual models that were applied to medicine. Advances in anatomy, physiology, zoology, and botany were also contributing to new understandings. In addition, there were increasing numbers of Americans who studied medicine in Europe and returned with new ideas and practices, which were more empirically-based and less mired in unproven theory.


The term “biology” was introduced between 1799 and 1802, but was rarely used. The term came into its modern use in the 1840s and its use increased in the 1860s. This opened up areas for the investigation of disease and allowed for connections to be made between investigations. The Google Ngram below shows the beginning of the use of the word biology around 1840 and the rapid rise of the word over the ensuing decades. The words chemistry and physics are included for comparison.


My emphasis on the use of the word “biology” as a metric might seem misapplied as people were making important observations and discoveries about the human body and the life sciences before the word came into use. As examples, microorganisms were first seen with a microscope by van Leeuwenhoek (1632 – 1723) in 1676, and William Harvey (1578 – 1657) described the circulation through the heart in the 17th century. However, these were demonstrations; they described what was going on but not why. Also, these observations were not being unified into any “-ology” and applied to solve problems like treating illnesses. The pushback from orthodox practitioners and others kept these discoveries from developing, and their compartmentalization by those in power kept them from informing and building on each other. Unscientific practices based on traditions and false beliefs continued unabated.

Returning to the mid-1800s, the belief in the old system based on humors was waning and other systems were appearing. The newer systems becoming available to were no less effective and were usually less dangerous than treatments such as bloodletting and calomel. There were multiple wars of words between, and within, the various camps, unfortunately there was little science at this point to either back up or refute the words. The application of scientific thinking to medicine was just beginning, clinical trials were rare, and government regulation was far off into the future. This left it up to the public to make its own decisions.

That said, there were discoveries being made in biology during this time that were not being dismissed or ignored by the establishment. Those making the discoveries were also informing each other and building on each other’s work through journals, books, lectures, and laboratory experiments. Appendix A has a chronological listing of some of the discoveries in science and medicine that added to the growing body of knowledge that would eventually lead to the end of heroic medical practices and usher in new ways of looking at health and disease.

The choices in Lowell

In order to get an idea about the options an ailing resident of Lowell had during this period, I consulted the city directories, which were available for 1832, 1833, 1834, 1835, 1836 (2 versions), 1837, 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842, 1844, 1845, 1847, 1849, 1851, 1853, 1855, 1858, 1859, and 1861. There were no official government registries for health practitioners at this time. The members of the Massachusetts Medical and Middlesex District Medical Societies are listed separately in some of the directories. Also, we can assume that most, but not all, irregular practitioners are listed in them. Although inconsistencies and inaccuracies occur in addition to omissions, they give us an idea of the options available. Even though I am reporting numbers in this section, it is better to consider this a qualitative report and not use the numbers too specifically, such as comparing small changes year to year.

 There is also a methodological problem in putting the practitioners into specific categories. There are sometimes differences between lists in the Business Directory sections and the listings in the General Directory sections, which include addresses and occupations. There was also a fluidity between practices and beliefs, name changes over time for some of the schools of thought, and a lack of specific definitions. However, despite those, the categorization still gives us a picture of medical practices in this period.

A broad way of categorizing the medical practices of the era would be to group them as regulars and irregulars. I use the term irregulars not to be disparaging but just to mean that their practices were contrary to the rules that are normal or established. Sometimes in the literature these practitioners are called sectarians.

Practitioners 1832 to 1844

In 1832, Lowell population was 10,254. The Directory for that year named 17 physicians. The list of “Physicians and Surgeons” on page 69 lists 14 names; one of the names (Robert Darrah) is listed as a “surgeon dentist” and another (John W. Graves) is listed as “surgeon of the reg’t.” In the general Directory, which lists occupations and addresses, Robert Darrah is listed only as a “dentist” and John W. Graves is listed only as a “physician,” so I did not include Robert Darrah in the number of physicians, but I included John W. Graves. A search of the entire Directory adds three physicians who are in the general Directory but not in the list. They are Jesse Fox, John Lambright, and Charles Hubbard, who is in the “Omissions” section. John C. Dalton is not mentioned as a surgeon in the list but is a “physician and surgeon” in the general Directory.


From the 1832 “town” Directory. Physicians’ names are listed in the order in which they began practicing in Lowell.


This is a good place for a brief word about dentistry during this period of history. Robert Darrah was possibly the first and certainly one of the first dentists in Lowell. The number of dentists grew steadily in antebellum Lowell. We see a rapid and steady growth of the number of dentists in Lowell from one in 1832 to thirteen in 1861. One of the reasons for this is that the state of the art and science of dentistry was developing rapidly in the United States. While American medical practice was stuck in humors and miasma, surgeon dentists in America were even outpacing their counterparts in Europe.

At the same time, though the history of the development of anesthesia is long and complex, it’s development was arguably America’s chief contribution to medicine in the 19th century. It was W. T. G. Morton, a dentist, who first demonstrated the use of ether as an anesthetic in what is now called the “Ether Dome” at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1846. Also, we can see from the advertisement below that dentists were also recognized for their ability to replace missing or problem teeth in addition to filling and extracting them. There was still no asepsis and antisepsis, but dental patients were fortunate that infections were not as likely or dangerous as the infections in medical surgery. In sum, dentists were promoting health and well-being and relieving pain, when there were not many effective treatment or cures for other ailments available.


            From the 1861 Lowell City Directory

The 1832 Directory contains only two listings of irregular physicians. One is N. Gale who is listed as a “vegetable doctor,” and the other is Michael L. Priest, a “vegetable physician.” Another relevant resident was William H. Metcalf who is listed as “a student at Dr. Lambright’s” so I am thinking he was probably a medical student, which likely means that he was serving an apprenticeship to become a physician. Apprentices at this time might have or might not have attended a medical school.

The list of physicians includes names of people who would become long term residents of Lowell and would hold other important positions in the city. Elisha Bartlett would become the first Mayor of the City of Lowell in 1836. Elisha Huntington would later serve multiple non-consecutive terms as Lowell’s Mayor. Gilman Kimball went on to be the first and long-serving Superintendent of the Corporation Hospital. John O. Green served on the School Committee, Board of Health, and was first president of the Old Residents' Historical Association. These men and others on the list served as the City Physician and worked at the Lowell Dispensary.


Dr. Elisha Bartlett

Lowell’s population in 1833 was 12,363, about a 20% increase from the previous year. Using the Directory for that year, I estimate that Lowell had 16 physicians. The “Physicians and Surgeons” list in the Directory had 15 names including two surgeon dentists. John W. Graves was described as “surgeon’s mate of the regiment” in the list and as a “physician” in the general Directory. Three physicians (John Barnes, Jesse Fox, and J. W. B. Gilman) are not on the list, but appear in the general Directory as physicians.

One difference between 1832 and 1833 that is worth mentioning is that seven of the physicians on the list of 16 in 1833 were described as “physician and surgeon” in the general Directory as opposed to only one in the 1832 book. In addition, the one “physician and surgeon” in the 1832 book, John C. Dalton, is only a “physician” in the 1833 publication. While there were distinct boundaries in England between physicians (considered a profession), surgeons (considered a craft because they used their hands), and apothecaries and druggists (considered a trade), these boundaries and distinctions became less important in the United States.

There are three medical students listed in the 1833 book, and no irregulars such as the vegetable doctor and vegetable physician that were in the 1832 edition. Also, the 1833 listing for Gilman Kimball mentions an “eye and ear infirmary, over Lowell bank”; however, I have not yet found any other references to this infirmary in Lowell. The 1833 printing also has John O. Green listed as Charles O. Green. I am sure this is an error in the typesetting (it is amazing how few of these there are).

            In 1834, using the same method of counting as above, there are 23 physicians listed, five of whom are also mentioned as surgeons as well. This Directory also lists a “botanic physician,” Samuel L. Sprague, though no other irregulars. There were also four medical students apprenticing with physicians in Lowell in 1834.

A similar pattern reoccurs from 1835 to 1842 with some variations year to year. In terms of population, Lowell went from 17,633 in 1836 to 25,163 in 1844. To estimate population growth from 1835 to 1842, I will use 15,000 for the 1835 number and 23,000 for the 1842 number. In these years the numbers of physicians and surgeons according to my Directory method of counting stayed between a low of 24 in 1835 and a high of 34 in 1841, fluctuating year-to-year: 30 in 1836, 26 in 1837, 29 in 1838, 26 in 1839, 31 in 1840, 34 in 1841, and 31 in 1842.

            For the irregulars, there were two botanic physicians in 1835 and 1836, one in 1837, and two botanics and one vegetable doctor in 1838 and 1839. In 1840, there were four botanics, one vegetable doctor, and one Indian doctor. There were three botanics in 1841, and five botanics (two of them specified as Thomsonian), three phrenologists, and one Indian doctress in 1842.

            There was no Directory published for 1843. In 1844, Lowell’s population had risen to 25,163. The number of physicians counted by the Directory method was 35. More noticeably, the variety of irregulars increased though the numbers in each category are still small. This year, there were five botanic physicians (one specifically labeled Thomsonian), two sellers of “botanic medicines,” two phrenologists, one mesmeric physician, one Indian doctress, and two homeopathic physicians.

            The 1844 Directory had a list only of physicians, not physicians and surgeons, which in past years included surgeon dentists. There was no separate list of surgeon dentists either in this edition though there are some listed in the general Directory. There is also a listing for a Geo. Mansfield who is labeled as a MD and dentist.



Part 2

Practitioners 1845 to 1861

          There was a major shift in 1845 that speaks volumes about the history of medicine at this point in history. This is the first Directory where we see two separate list for physicians; one for those who were Members of the Massachusetts Medical Society, and one for those who were not. The Massachusetts Medical Society was established in 1781, but it is interesting to note that members were not recognized as such in the earlier directories. What changed since 1842?

           The Middlesex District Medical Society was incorporated in October of 1844 and in order to join physicians had to be members of the Massachusetts Medical Society. The 1845 Directory also has an entry with the heading “Middlesex District Medical Society,” which lists the officers of the Society. Under the heading, we find the statement “The Society was incorporated in 1844. Its objects are the mutual improvement of Medical Science among its members and the diffusion of correct Medical intelligence.” In the list of officers for that year we can see that Lowell was well represented.


From the 1845 Directory, page 25


From page 26 of the 1845 Directory

          Here we see a concerted attempt by the regulars to differentiate themselves from the irregulars, and from those calling themselves physicians but did not qualify for membership in these societies. In a similar attempt. the American Medical Association was founded in 1847. These attempts at professionalization were a reaction to the irregulars and the physicians coming from the diploma mills at the time that required fees but offered very little education. Of course, the irregulars were offering therapies that were no less ineffective an often less harmful that the regulars. And, the education of the regulars, though longer and more stringent, still offered little in the way of scientifically-based medicine.

          Many of the citizenry at the time would have seen these attempts as more examples of elitism and monopolistic behavior rather than a move toward more credibility and professionalism. In the    17 years between 1845 and 1861, there were nine Directories published. Using the Directory method to count practitioners for these years, some interesting trends emerge. From 1845 to 1861, Lowell’s population grew from an estimated 27,000 to an estimated 37,000 in 1861 (the population was 36,827 in 1860), a 37% increase. In the seven years where the member physician numbers were reported separately, the total stays fairly consistent at around 30. The low of 24 was in 1845 when the population was the lowest of the seven years, the only number above 30 was in 1853 when it was 33. (See Table 1 – Practitioners (Name & Type) appearing in the Lowell Directory in 1853.)

          The number of nonmember physicians stayed consistent at around 18 until increasing to 22 in 1858, 28 in 1859, and 30 in 1861. Another increase we see is in the number of female physicians and that trend will be examined in more detail later.

          There is a lot of fluctuation in the numbers and types of irregulars. There are a number of reasons for this variability, which makes counting difficult, but they tell us a lot about medicine during these years. Practitioners could put their own label on their approach to treatment. For the irregulars there were no boards of registry or licensing boards, or laws to tell them what they could or could not claim to be. There were attempts at establishing schools and qualifications for some of the sectarians such as eclectics and homeopaths that succeeded and persisted for decades, but at this point people defined their own designation and expertise.

          Some practitioners appeared in different categories in the same Directory, some changed categories one year to the next, and some put themselves in two categories in the same listing. An example of the first category from 1855 is Marshall E. Thompson. In the list, Marshall Thompson appears under “Physo-medical Physicians” while in the general Directory, he is labeled a “botanic physician.” An



Marshall E. Thompson appears as a Physo-medical Physician and a “botanic physician” in the same Directory

example of the second category is John Dowse who is listed in the general Directory as a “botanic physician” in 1840 and a “physician” in 1841. An example of the third category is J. S. Manchester whose listing in the 1851 general Directory has him as a “mesmeric and botanical physician.”


          Samuel Thomson (1769 – 1843) developed a system eponymously called Thomsonism, which was practiced in the United States in the early to middle 19th Century. Thomson was born in New Hampshire and learned some herbalism as a boy from a local woman folk healer. He also did his own exploration and experimentation. He was frustrated by regular doctors’ inability to help his mother and other family members, so he tried his own methods and those of other herbalists and found that their cures seemed to work when those used by the regulars did not. While the therapeutics were all botanical, the theory behind Thomsonism was basically that that the body is made up of four elements (earth, air, fire, and water; the solid parts being earth and water and the fluids, air and fire), and heat was life and cold was death. By 1860, many of his methods had been adopted by the “eclectics” and Thomsonism was no longer widely practiced under that name.

          There are four mentions of Thomsonian physicians in the Directories of this period. There are two listings in 1842 (Samuel L. Sprague and A. P. Holt) in addition to an advertisement. The 1844 and 1845 Directories both have a listing for A. P. Holt. Samuel L. Sprague is listed is a number of previous Directories as a botanic physician without the Thomsonian designation.


Advertisement in the 1842 Directory

          Plants of all kinds and all the parts of plants (i.e., fruits, flowers, leaves, roots, bark, etc.) have been used by humans for millennia to maintain health and treat disease. In 19th century America, botanic medicine took on new meanings, not just medical, but social, political, and economic as well. The history of botanic medicine needs volumes to chronicle, but there are three important points that need to be made here. One is that, at this period in history, the rise of botanics had as much to do with the decline of heroic medicine as it had to do with any success of botanics. Secondly, the theory of botanics in the period was more than just certain plants treat or cure certain diseases. The underlying theory for many botanics was that there is a vital power in the human body and its systems, the free operation of this power is health, its obstruction is disease, and removal of obstructions requires the use of external agents. Thirdly, some botanics still used depletive techniques such as emetics, though they were using plants instead of minerals.

          Using the Directories, below is a list with the year of the Directory with the number of listings for botanics for that year in parentheses:

1845 (5),

1847 (8),

1849 (13),

1851 (18),

1853 (16; including one botanic electrician),

1855 (8; including one botanic electrician),

1858 (11),

1859 (3),

1861 (8).

          In addition, it is important to note that there are some listings in these Directories for “botanic medicines.” Also, the many of the fluctuations in numbers are likely attributable to the changes nomenclature and my Directory method of categorization.

          Although not listed in any Directories of the period, I did want to mention a notice in the Lowell Advertiser of August 28, 1849. It states “Mrs. Amelia Young, formerly from the New Lebanon Shaker Village, as we learn from her advertisements,) the celebrated “root and herb” doctor is ready to administer to all opponents of calomel. She has taken an office upon Central st., corner of Tyler street.” The Shakers were well-known in the 19th Century as growers and suppliers of medicinal herbs.

           Eclectic medicine used botanics in addition to other substances and methods. The term eclectic is from the Greek word eklego, meaning “to choose from.” Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1784 - 1841) was the first to use this word to describe practitioners who borrowed from different systems and used what they thought worked. In the Directories from this period, there were two eclectics listed in in 1853, two in 1855, and seven in 1858. The 1858 Directory also has an ad for a Dr. A. Jackson who is described in the ad as an eclectic physician and surgeon, but is not on the list of eclectics, so the number for 1858 could be considered eight.

           Physo-medical (also physio-medical) is sometimes described as neo-Thomsonism, which has an emphasis on “innocent medication” (for example a less aggressive use of lobelia), and the use of any natural remedy that is thought to be effective. While breaking with the Thomsonians in many ways, they maintained the same antipathy toward regular orthodox medicine. The animosity went both ways. For example, an article in the New-York Medical Gazette in 1850 proclaimed “‘and still they come,’ Yet another pathy! Physo-pathy . . . this new name being substituted for ‘Botanical or Thompsonian’ [sic] hitherto the cognomen of the ‘root and yarb doctors’.”

          There are nine physo-medical physicians listed in the Directories for the years 1851, 1853, and 1855. Two of the listings under Physo-medical Physicians in the 1853 Directory (V. H. Fitch and James Miles) have “eclectic” in parentheses next to their names.

          Homeopathy was created in 1796 by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann (1755 – 1843) based on the doctrine of “like cures like.” This means that a substance that causes the symptom of a disease in healthy people will cure a similar symptom in a sick person if given in a highly diluted state. Homeopathy was practiced through the 19th and 20th Centuries and is still practiced today as an “alternative” or “complementary” medicine.

          There were two homeopaths in the Directory in 1845 and 1855, and one in 1847, 1849, 1851, 1858, and 1861. In a book chapter available on the web titled Homœopathy in Massachusetts by Thomas Lindsley Bradford, M. D., the author discusses the first two homeopaths in Lowell.  According to Dr. Bradford, Christian Frederic Geist was the “pioneer homœopath” in Lowell. Geist was born in Germany in 1805, and first became interested in homeopathy in 1831. He came to America in 1835 and in 1836 he went to Allentown to study at the Allentown Academy. After that he practiced in Boston from 1840 to 1843.

He was then induced to go to Lowell, where he found a strong prejudice against homœopathy. Although he labored under difficulties, he made some brilliant cures. One was a Mrs. Clark, wife of the agent of the Merrimac mills, who had been a great sufferer for years and could hardly move about. She had taken much allopathic medicine, but without relief. After two months treatment under Geist, she was so much improved that she was able to attend a ball. Of course this made many friends for homœopathy. Dr. Geist did not remain long in Lowell, but in 1845 returned to Boston, where he made his home until his death, August 27, 1872.

          It is interesting that Geist found a strong prejudice against homeopathy in Lowell. One reason might be that this was still early in the history of homeopathy in America. Another might be that homeopathy achieved the quickest acceptance with German-Americans in the United States (nearly one million Germans immigrated to America in the 1850s) and Lowell did not have many German-Americans. There was a significant increase in the number of homeopaths in Lowell in the years after the Civil War.

          Dr. Daniel Holt (1810 – 1883) began his homeopathic practice in Lowell in October of 1845. Dr. Holt studied at the Yale scientific school, graduated from the New Haven Medical School in 1835, and practiced in medicine for ten years in Glastonbury, Connecticut. He was asked to write a paper for the Connecticut Medical Society and he chose “Homœopathy” as his subject expecting to point out its absurdities. However, after studying the subject and applying its principles in practice his ideas changed and the paper was published as “Views of Homœopathy, or reasons for examining and admitting it as a Principle in Medicine.” After its publication in 1845, the Connecticut Medical Society expelled Dr. Holt. As a result, he moved to Lowell and began practice as a homeopath.

          Interestingly, he was admitted to the Massachusetts Medical Society in 1846 and remained a member for the rest of his life. He also had an article published in the June 12, 1856 edition of The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal titled “The Pathology of Zymotic Diseases.” Dr. Holt died in 1883 at the age of 73 and is buried in the Lowell Cemetery.


Ad from the 1859 Directory


Ad from the 1853 Directory

           Indian physicians were botanics who claimed to use remedies discovered by American Indians. Other irregulars and even regulars also prescribed some medicines used by the Indians (Elisha Bartlett called Thomsonism’s therapeutics “a compound of Indian and Yankee empiricism”). Why were these accepted while at the same time the Indians’ way of life, worldview, culture, and ontology were entirely rejected? Quoting from the A. W. Montcalm advertisement above, “If you are afflicted with Disease, God has provided a Remedy, growing in the woods and open fields.” This was the belief of many Europeans and Americans at that time. So, if God provides remedies and the Indians have been here for longer the Europeans, they might have found the remedies already. This is similar to how the early settlers learned agricultural practices from the Indians while still believing themselves to be superior in other ways. It is likely also the case that some of the medicines worked either biochemically, by the placebo effect, or seemed to work because of the self-limiting nature of some diseases.   

          In the Directories, there was one Indian physician in 1845, three including one Indian doctress in 1853, three in 1855, 1858, 1861, and two in 1859. One of the Indian physicians, Joseph Alex Masta, appeared in many Directories before and after the war. He was born in St. Francis, Quebec, Canada in 1819, the son of Ignace Masta and Catherine Vassall, and was part Abenaki, though I will not attempt a complete genealogy. There are references available on the web to Dr. Masta being a student at the Moor's Indian Charity School and an Indian student at Dartmouth College. I could not find a reference for where he earned his M.D. There are notices of his office hours in the Saint Johnsbury Caledonian (Vermont) in 1847 in addition to ads for Masta’s Genuine Indian Vegetable Purgative Pills.

           Joseph A. Masta first appeared in the 1853 Directory as an Indian physician and also appeared in the Directories in 1855, 1858, 1859, and 1861. In the 1861 Directory, he was an Indian physician in the listing and a botanic physician in the list. There is a full-page ad for his Masta’s Indian Pulmonic Balsam in the 1859 Directory (pictured above).

          Dr, Masta died on January 28, 1894 at age 79. His obituary in the Lowell Sun stated that “He had been a resident of this city for about 50 years, having come here from Barton, Vt. He acquired considerable reputation as a botanic physician.” He is buried at the Edson Cemetery with his wife Lucinda B. Masta who died October 2 1888 at age 68.

          The attempts to use electricity to treat disease flows naturally from the studies by Luigi Galvani in the 1790s; however, in this era when the old therapies were breaking down and there was nothing with proven benefits to put in their place, it seems inevitable that electricity would emerge as a purported therapeutic or even a panacea. Similar to the animal magnetism of mesmerism, electricity had a mix of science and mysticism that could capture the public imagination, and at least had all the characteristics of a good placebo.

          In the 1851 Directory, there is Benjamin F. Hatch who is an electric physician in the listing and is a physo-medical physician in the list. Hatch also was the editor and proprietor of the Boston Domestic Journal of Medicine, which was published in 1852 to 1853. A. Swan’s name appears as an electropathic physician in the listing and a physician in the list of physicians in the 1851 Directory.

          The 1853 Directory lists Samuel M. Trevett as a botanic electrician who is also on the Botantic physician list. The word electrician is interesting here as it had a very different meaning than it does today. In this context, it is likely used to indicate that he considers himself a scientist concerned with electricity. It is interesting to think about what a botanic electrician did in 1853.  His appearance on the botanic physician list indicates that he was a practitioner and not solely engaged in research.

          Samuel M. Trevett appears again in the 1855 Directory as a Botanic electrician in the listing as a Botanic physician in the list.  In this Directory, Andrew M. Smith appears as an Electric physician in the listing and in the list of Physo-medical physicians with “eclectic” in parentheses next to his name. I wonder if the listing had a typo and should have said eclectic, as he is listed as a botanic in the 1853 Directory. His name does not appear in any subsequent Directories.

          Lowell’s most lasting contribution to electric medicine from this era were magneto-electric machines. I say that because many of these machines are still around. They aren’t currently in hospitals or clinics, but they are in museum collections, private collections, and on online auction sites from time to time. In addition to medical uses it seems that they were used in college physics labs at the time. They had a variety of names as the patent was bought and sold. As examples, two of the names were “A. Davis’ Compound Magneto Electric Machines” and “Davis & Kidder’s, Burnap Improved, Friction Roll, and Spring Magneto-Electric Machines.”


A magneto-electric machine with Asahel Davis’s name and Lowell Mass. on the label

`          I want to discuss the strong Lowell connections with these devices, but I will not pretend that I can give a full and accurate their history here, nor will I even try. (A website with some good pictures and information is I first saw a magneto-electric machine in a glass case at the Museum of Medical History and Innovation in Boston, which is affiliated with Massachusetts General Hospital. Basically, the patient held a metal electrode in each hand while someone else turned the crank, which produced an electrical current. When I first saw it there was a bit of déjà vu, and I eventually remembered that I had seen an ad for the machine in a Lowell City Directory.

          I am including images from ads from the 1859 Lowell Directory below because they are quite detailed and tell a lot of the story. I will add a purposely fragmentary account of the background of these machines, not because it isn’t interesting, but because a complete account would take us away from the Lowell focus of this project.

          Daniel Jr., Ari, and Asahel Davis, three brothers originally from Princeton Massachusetts, were talented mechanically and were also very willing to put a lot of work into their machines and inventions. All three had Lowell connections at some point in their lives; however, Asahel (1817 – 1898) was a long-time resident of Lowell while Ari (1811 – 1885) and Daniel (1813 - 1887) were in the city for much briefer periods.

          The Davis brothers made changes to magneto-electric machines, which led to an “improved machine” that was patented by Ari Davis in 1854. Then they packaged it in a well-made wooden box that increased its utility and portability and enhanced its appearance. Ari Davis sold his patent on the improved machine to Dr. Walter Kidder M.D. (1823 – 1872) of Lowell. Dr. Kidder sold the patent to his brother-in-law William Henry Burnap (1827 - 1905) of Lowell who marketed it and promoted it.

          It may be that the success of this particular machine was the convergence of a magneto-electric machine with a really nice high-quality wooden box, which along with good marketing led to approval by many in the scientific and medical communities and public acceptance. It is interesting that while these machines had little or no more than a placebo effect at the time and was certainly not “a remedy for all diseases dependent on a faulty action of the nervous system,” electricity is currently being used effectively in specific applications in medicine.


From the 1859 Lowell Directory


Also from the 1859 Lowell Directory

          Franz Anton Mesmer (1734 – 1815) was a German physician who theorized that a natural energy takes place between all animate and inanimate objects, which he called “animal magnetism” later called “mesmerism.” Animal magnetism generated a great deal of popular interest and attracted a wide following from about 1780 to 1850, and continued to generate interest until the end of the 19th Century. Hypnotism grew out of mesmerism, dropping the pseudoscience of animal magnetism and focusing on the psychological and physiological responses.

          Mesmerism was a hot topic in New England during this period of history. It attracted public interest and gave the people hope that there were ways to control things that up to this point seemed beyond human control. In addition, there is an interesting history of Mesmerism in Lowell (see

           It is impossible to determine how many Mesmerists made a temporary stop in Lowell, either to help or entertain. For Mesmeric physicians who resided in Lowell and were listed in Directories, there was one in 1844, a different one in 1847, and a different one in 1849. The Mesmeric in 1849, Job S. Manchester, appeared again in the 1851 Directory as a Mesmeric and botanic physician in the listings and on the list of Botanic physicians without any additional designation.

          Phrenology was also a hot topic during this period of history. It attracted learned people looking for scientific explanations, it also attracted the interest of the public. Some men and women in the scientific fields of that period did not just see phrenology as a way to categorize people into boxes that they cannot ever get out of. It was a way of pointing out strengths that could be positively exploited, and weaknesses that could be strengthened. So those bumps were not your destiny, but indicators of areas that could be worked on and improved.

          Like Mesmerism, phrenology also has an interesting history in Lowell (see the website Also, like with Mesmerists, some of the phrenologists passed through the city and went on to other places. There is an advertisement for

          J. R. Healy, Practical Phrenologist in the Annual Advertiser section of the 1842 Directory, but he does not appear in the listings in that Directory. Two phrenologists took up residence in Lowell but just short-term appearing only in the 1844 Directory. Both of these have an address for where they were boarding, but neither has a business address.

          Other practitioners who appear in Lowell Directories during this period are one French Physician (1849), one Analytic Physician (1849), and one accoucheur (1859) who was also a physician and surgeon who gave “special attention to the Diseases of Females.”

From the 1859 Directory

            Another interesting ad in the 1859 was for a traveling chiropodist, Dr. J Briggs. It looks a little like the announcement of a circus coming to town.


From the 1959 Directory

           Leeches will always be an archetype of pre-scientific medicine. Bloodletting with leeches was used for the same reasons lancets were used; to get rid of the “excess” blood that was causing the humoral imbalance. Both methods had risks and neither had any benefits, but I am sure there was discussion at the time about which method was better, just as there were discussions about where the blood should be drawn from and how much to draw.

          Mrs. Ann Gibby’s name appears in the 1844 and 1851 Directories specifically as someone who applied leeches, or more specifically German leeches. European leeches could ingest several times more blood than American leeches, so they must have been preferable. In 1856, the Annual Report of the Receipts and Expenditures of the City of Lowell lists in the Paupers account for $3.00 paid to Ann Libby for “applying leeches.” No other details are given.


From the 1844 Directory

          Another therapy that was popular during this period was hydropathy or more simply baths. Lowell had between one and two bath houses at a time in these years so there was a presence, but not a large one. Joseph V. Besse operated bathing rooms or a bath house on Market Street and Henry Emery operated baths at the Merrimac House.

          It is interesting to note that during a cholera epidemic in Lowell in 1849, the Lowell Advertiser had a brief notice, not an ad, on September 11 stating, “Warm baths which can be obtained at Dr J. V. Besse’s Market st., at all times, are said to be a sure remedy for the Cholera, Dysentery and Diarrhea. A word to the wise is sufficient.” This notice and an ad in the 1851 Directory are the only times I see J. V. Besse appear with the title “Dr.”.  He is also not on any of the physician lists in the Directories. Even if the baths didn’t cure cholera, I am sure it was nice to be clean for a while. (A later, separate section will discuss the 1949 Cholera epidemic in Lowell.)

Part 3

Female Physicians in Early Lowell

          A small number of female practitioners appear in the pre-1855 Directories of this period. There is an Indian doctress Betsey Cox in 1843, a doctress Mary Dunn in 1845, and a female physician Mrs. Patience Boyd in 1847. There is also a “root and herb” doctress Mrs. Amelia Young mentioned in a notice in the Lowell Advertiser in 1849, but does not appear in any Directories of the period. Then in 1855, beneath the list of physicians in the Business Directory, there is a subheading of “Female Physicians” with a list of the names of five women. Betsey Cox is listed in the general Directory as an “Indian doctress” as she was in the previous Directory. Mrs. Hannah P. McDowell, Mrs. Martha N. Thurston, and Mrs. Mary P. Wright are listed as physicians and Sophronia Fletcher has “physician’s office” in their listings in the general Directory.

            Seven years earlier, in 1848, the American Medical Education Society was formed in Boston to provide for the medical education of women, and in 1850 the name was changed to the Female Medical Education Society. In 1848, the society's first classes were offered under the name of the Boston Female Medical School, and in 1852 the name of the school was changed to the New England Female Medical College (NEFMC). The Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania received its formal charter a month before the NEFMC, but did not begin instruction until 1850. As the NEFMC began offering classes in 1848, the NEFMC is considered the first medical college in the United States to offer medical education exclusively to women.

          In 1874, after having granted medical degrees to 98 women, the NEFMC merged with Boston University to become the co-educational Boston University School of Medicine. The NEFMC’s mission was to train midwives and physicians to treat women and children. Looking at the requirements to earn a degree at the NEFMC, they were more in-depth and stringent than at many or most of the male-only medical schools at that time.

            In 1854 and 1855, NEFMC awarded its first Doctor of Medicine degrees to six women, two of whom were listed as residents of Lowell; Sophronia Fletcher and Martha N. Thurston. According to the sixth annual report of the society and the college, the subject of Sophronia Fletcher’s thesis was “Insanity” and the subject of Martha N. Thurston’s thesis was “Cholera Infantum.”

            In addition to Lowell having two of the first six graduates from NEFMC, there is another very important connection between this pioneering college and the city of Lowell. A number of Lowell’s citizens were early donors and supporters of the NEFMC. Oliver M. Whipple and Dr. Royal Call are both listed as Life-Members in the 1850 Report of the Female Education Society, which was the first report issued by the society. Oliver Whipple donated $30 and Dr. Call donated $25 at the very beginning of the venture. Twenty-six citizens of Lowell including Whipple and Call paid a fee and affixed their names to the society’s Constitution. John Nesmith of Lowell also became a Life Patron of the society.

          Sophronia Fletcher (1806 – 1906), one of six women in the first graduating class of NEFMC, was born in Alstead, New Hampshire. She is listed as a resident of Lowell in NEFMC publications and in the one Directory (1855) She has strong family connections in Lowell, but seems to have only practiced in Lowell for about a year. She attended the Fletcher Family Reunion in Lowell in 1878 where she is listed in the program as a resident of Claremont, New Hampshire.

          Dr. Fletcher was the first woman to practice medicine in Boston and the first female physician and physiology instructor at Mount Holyoke Seminary. She was also the attendant physician of the New England Female Moral Reform Association for nine years. In 1874 she petitioned the Massachusetts Legislature to allow women physicians to be employed to attend women in public institutions such as asylums and prisons. The bill was passed by the Legislature, She is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the Martin Plot on Halesia Path. According to, there is no tombstone and the grave is unmarked.

          Martha Nichols Thurston was the other Lowell resident who was among the first six graduates of NEFMC. She, like Dr. Fletcher, appears as a physician only in the 1855 Lowell Directory. Dr. Thurston was married to a physician, and a year and a half after receiving her MD she was practicing medicine with her husband in San Francisco. One reference refers to her as the first woman physician in California and another says that she was one of the first woman physicians in San Francisco. A local paper at the time has advertisements stating that she and her husband had offices at the Hillman’s Temperance House. No. 80 Davis Street in San Francisco where she is a “Physician for Women and Children.”

          Dr. Rachel Humphrey Allyn (1810 – 1903) was listed as a student and a Lowell resident in two of the society’s reports. I could not find evidence that she graduated from NEFMC though some reports say she graduated from the college in 1857, so it may be that she finished her degree at another medical college after beginning her studies at NEFMC. She practiced nursing in Lowell for 10 years before getting a medical degree then practiced medicine in Lowell for over 25 years.         

             She was a pupil at Newbury Seminary in Vermont from 1837 to 1840. In a History of Newbury Vermont published in 1902, there is an interesting story involving “Miss Allyn, now Dr. Rachel Allyn.” During her time at the school “a colored girl presented herself for admission”:

Her coming made some sensation and there were those who advised her exclusion from the school, and the steward was inclined to refuse her a place at the boarding-house, But the preceptress insisted that she should come, and gave her a seat next to her own at the table, to the great disgust of some, who predicted the ruin of the school. Miss Allyn, now Dr. Rachel Allyn, who furnishes this reminiscence, shared her room with the colored young lady, and no calamity came upon the institution for this action.

          Dr. Allyn is buried in Bly Cemetery in Charleston Vermont. The inscription on her gravestone reads “Rachel Humphrey Allyn, M.D., dau of Abner and Anna, born in Charleston Apr 25 1810. Graduated at Boston Mass June 17, 1857. Died July 11, 1903, aged 93 years, 2 mos 18 days.”

            Other female physicians in Lowell during this period (listed with the years of the Directories in which their names appear) were Sarah H. Young (1859, 1861), Hannah P. McDowell (1855, 1858, 1859, 1861), Mary P. Wright (1855, 1858, 1859, 1861), Esther C. Wileman (1858, 1859), and Eleanor Merrill (1859).


            Lowell provides an excellent case study of medicine in the United States in the three decades before the Civil War.  This was a period of transition where the old methods were being questioned and rejected while new methods, most as dubious as the old, were being invented and tried. Lowell also attracted and hosted some of the most interesting and innovative practitioners of the period, both regular and irregular. Lowell also played an important role in the entry of women into the medical profession. Some good things were happening in medicine, but there was still a long way to go before medicine could be considered a science.

Appendix A

Below are some of the discoveries in science and medicine that added to the growing body of knowledge that would eventually lead to the end of heroic medical practices and usher in new ways of looking at health and disease.

1835 – Jacob Bigelow (1787 – 1879) wrote Discourse on Self-Limited Diseases attacking physicians' use of heroic medicine.

1836 – Theodor Schwann (1810 – 1882) discovered pepsin in the stomach lining, which was the first isolation of an enzyme.

1837 – Theodor Schwann (1810 – 1882) showed that heating air prevents putrefaction.

1838 – Matthias Jakob Schleiden (1804 – 1881) proposed that all plants are composed of cells.

1839 – Theodor Schwann (1810 – 1882) proposed that all animal tissues are composed of cells.

1842 – Crawford Long (1815 – 1878) performed the first surgical operation using ether.

1842 - Edwin Chadwick’s (1800 – 1890) Report on The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain was published.

1845 – John Hughes Bennett (1812 – 1875) described leukemia as a blood disorder.

1847 – Ignaz Semmelweis (1818 – 1865) discovered how to prevent puerperal (childbed) fever.

1856 – Louis Pasteur (1822 – 1895) stated that microorganisms produce fermentation.

1858 – Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) proposed the theory of evolution by natural selection.

1858 – Rudolf Virchow (1821 – 1902) proposed that cells can only arise from pre-existing cells (Omnis cellula e cellula - "All cells come from cells"), which ended humoral theory. 

1854 - John Snow (1813 – 1858) traced the source of a cholera outbreak in London to a well in Soho.

1854 - Florence Nightingale (1820 – 1910) introduces hygiene and other improvements in the treatment of wounded soldiers during the Crimean War.

1855 - Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809 – 1894) published an updated version of an earlier (1843) essay titled Puerperal Fever as a Private Pestilence. Holmes proposed many reforms in medicine and was skeptical and critical of both regular medical practices of the day as well as “quackeries.”

1860 - Thomas Inman (1820 – 1876) wrote the phrase “First, do no harm” in English and Latin (primum non nocere) in a book that was reviewed in the American Journal of Medical Science.


Table 1 – Practitioners (Name & Type) appearing in the Lowell Directory in 1853



John Allen

Botanic physician

Nathan Allen

*Member physician

Aaron Andrew       


Abel Astle


Benjamin Astle

Medicine manufacturer

Jeremiah Blake

*Member physician

John H. Blake

*Member physician

Amos R. Boynton

*Member physician

William H. Bradley


Francis Brooke

Botanic physician

Nehemiah Bryant

Physician in Dir., Botanic physician in list

Walter Burnham

Physo-medical physician

Zebulon P. Burnham

Physo-medical physician

Patrick P. Campbell

*Member physician

George W Churchill

Physo-medical physician

E. Lyman Cole

Botanic physician

James S. Coleman


Betsey Cox

Indian doctress

James Craigue

Botanic physician

Mrs. Lavina F. Curtis

Botanic physician

William W. Curtis

Botanic physician

John C. Dalton

*Member physician & Consulting physician Dispensary

Chas. Davis

*Member physician

Hanover Dickey

*Member physician

Amos W. Dows

Botanic medicines in Dir. Botanic physician in list

John Dowse

Botanic medicines

Vine H. Fitch

Eclectic physician in Dir., Physo-medical physician in list

Thomas Fitzsimon


John W. Graves

*Member physician

John O. Green

*Member physician & Consulting physician Dispensary

Lorenzo Hamblet


James M. Harmon


Daniel Holt

*Member physician

H. M. Hooke


Elisha Huntington

*Member physician

L. Wellman Jenness

Physo-medical physician

Jeremiah P. Jewett

*Member physician

Hugh Kelsey

Botanic medicines

Moses Kidder

*Member physician

Gilman Kimball

*Member physician & Superintendent of Hospital

F. G. Kittredge

*Member physician

J. T. G. Leach

*Member physician

Geo. Mansfield

*Member physician

Joseph A. Masta

Indian Physician

F. A. McDowell

Physo-medical physician

Joshua Melvin

Botanic physician

Sidney Merrill

*Member Physician

James Miles

Eclectic physician in Dir., Physo-medical (eclectic) in list

Anthony W. Montcalm

Botanic physician, Indian physician in ad

L. B. Morse

*Member physician & Northern District Dispensary

Ira L. Moore

*Member physician

Frederick Morrill


Daniel Mowe

*Member physician

Jas. S. Olcott

Botanic physician in Dir. & list Physo-medical physician in list

Hiram Parker

*Member physician

Otis Perham

*Member physician

John W. Person


George Pierce

*Member physician

Harlin Pillsbury

*Member physician

John D. Pillsbury

Physician and surgeon

Charles H. Pierce


E. K. Sanborn

*Member physician

Charles A. Savory

*Member physician

Isaac W. Scribner

* Physician and apothecary

Benjamin Skelton

*Member physician

Andrew M. Smith

Botanic physician

_____ Smith


Joel Spalding

*City physician & Superintendent of Burials

Joseph S. B. Stevens

Botanic physician

Saul B. Stevens

*Member physician

George U. Stone


George H. Taylor


J. H. Tebbetts


Marshall E. Thompson

Botanic physician in Dir., Physo-medical physician in list

Nathaniel Thurston


Charles Toothaker


Samuel Trevett

Botanic electrician in Dir., Botanic Physician in list

Andrew Weeks


David Wells

*Member physician

Henry Whiting

*Member physician & Southern District Dispensary

Daniel K. Winn

Botanic medicines

S. D. York


* Massachusetts Medical and Middlesex District Medical Societies