Samuel Thomson Meets Lobelia

By Samuel Thomson

(With a little help from Laurence Layne)

An excerpt from A Narrative of the Life and Medical Discoveries of Samuel Thomson:

"Some time in the summer, after I was four year old, being out in the fields in search of the cows, I discovered a plant which had a singular branch and pods that I had never before seen; and I had the curiosity to pick some of the pods and chew them, the taste and operation produced. was so remarkable that I never forgot it. I afterwards used to induce other boys to chew it, merely by way of sport to see them vomit. I tried this herb in this way for nearly twenty years, without knowing anything of its medical virtues. This plant is what I have called the Emetic Herb, and is the most important article I make use of in my practice."

"It is very common in most parts of this country, and may be prepared and used in almost any manner. It is a certain counter poison, having never been known to fail to counteract the effects of the most deadly poison even when taken in large quantities for self-destruction. There is no danger to be apprehended from its use, as it is perfectly harmless in its operation, even when a large quantity is taken, it operates as an emetic, cleanses the stomach from all improper ailment, promotes an internal heat, which is immediately felt at the extremities, and produces perspiration."

"The exclusive right of using this plant for medical purposes is secured to me by patent, and my right to the discovery has never been disputed; though the doctors have done everything they could to destroy the credit of it, by false statements, representing it to be a deadly poison, and at the same time they knew to the contrary, for they have made use of it themselves for several years, and have tried to defraud me of the discovery. I feel perfectly convinced from nearly thirty years’ experience of its medical properties that the discovery is of incalculable importance; and if properly understood by the people, will be more useful in curing the disease incident to this climate, than the medicines sold by all the apothecaries in the country."

The Emetic Herb was none other than Lobelia inflata. He described a further turning point in his thinking due to one particular episode:

"The herb which I had discovered when four years old, I had often met with; but it had never occurred to me that it was of any value as a medicine, until about this time‚ when mowing in a field with a number of men one day, I cut-a sprig of it, and gave to the man next me, who eat it; when we had got to the end of the piece, which was about six rods, he said that he believed what I had given him would kill him, for he never felt so in his life. I looked at him and saw that he was in a most profuse perspiration, being as wet all over as he could be; he trembled very much, and there was no more colour in him than a corpse. I told him to go to the spring and drink some water; he attempted to go, and got as far as the wall, but was unable to get over it, and laid down on the ground and vomited several times. He said he thought he threw off his stomach two quarts. I then helped him into the house, and in about two hours he ate a very hearty dinner, and in the afternoon was able to do a good half day's labour. He afterwards told me that he never had anything do him so much good in his life; his appetite was remarkably good, and he felt better than he had for a long time. This circumstance gave me the first idea of the medicinal virtues of this valuable plant, which I have since found, by twenty years’ experience, (in which time I have made use of it in every disease I have met with, to great advantage,) to be a discovery of the greatest importance."

Most herbalists know about lobelia for asthma, bronchial spasm, and for its use as an antispasmodic. Modern herbalists tend not to use lobelia as an emetic, which is how Dr. Thomson treated many serious cases of asthma. The herbal teacher and author William Cook wrote of the properties of lobelia in his 1869 Physiomedical Dispensatory:

  • Increases flow of saliva and mucous
  • Equalizes the circulation (relaxes arterial tension)
  • Relieves inflammation and fever (once again by relaxation of nerves and blood vessels)
  • Pacifies excited nervous disorders
  • Removes blockages to normal secretion of organs and skin

Lobelia opposes contraction in tissues and the nervous system so is not used for relaxed states where there is an excess of liquidity, sweat, mucous, secretions, or flaccidity.

Samuel Thomson began to discover lobelia's uses before 1800. That's over 200 years of continuous use by thousands of herbal healers!

Thank you, Dr. Thomson, for giving us this safe and efficacious herb that has dozens of uses.

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