A Study Guide to Physiomedical Herbal Medicine

by Laurence Layne

Alternative medicine in America can be said to begin with Samuel Thomson in 1800; before that time, the Native American healers, and among the colonials, folk healers, regular doctors, root doctors, and midwives.

Thomson's system was "the people's medicine," practiced by families, lay practitioners, and professionals who were the first herbal doctors in America. His books and method of practice were patented and sold to the public at large–in direct contrast to the elite medicine offered by the "regulars," the doctors trained in European medicine.

Thomsonism (also called Thomsonianism) was a system of herbal cure that used a Materia medica of about seventy herbs and included numerous formulas, steam baths, and diverse herbal therapeutics (plasters, bitters, enemas, emesis, etc.).

Physiomedicalism was a 19th Century system of herbal healing that was both a successor to and competitor with the herbal medical practices developed by Samuel Thomson. Early physiomedical leaders included Alva Curtis, who sought to put the Thomsonian system on a professional basis and offer a reform alternative to the regular medicine that used drastic measures such as bleeding and mercury.

The physiomedical system used Thomson's original Materia medica of seventy herbs and his therapeutics, but also integrated concepts from the new science of physiology.

What was most unique about Physiomedicalism, though, is that the movement's practitioners developed a methodology of "opposites" similar to the ancient Greek humoral system of hot-cold, wet-dry. This was based on clinical observation of the contraction and relaxation of tissues and the metabolic therapeutics of stimulation and sedation. Other components of the system included new discoveries about the nervous system which was thought to be the mechanism that distributed vital forces to the organs and body parts.

This brings us to the question: why study Physiomedicalism?

There are several reasons that are worthy of consideration. Most herbal practitioners in the United States and Canada have learned a basic system of folk healing with herbs. The herbs, therapeutics, and products they work with are what were gleaned from the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s.

This was knowledge obtained by trying to reconstruct what had been lost due to the closing of the last herbal medicine colleges in the 1930s. The pursuit of what was "natural" in the countercultural era included health foods, herbs, and early bodywork. Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda had not crossed the ocean yet, so all that was present was the remnants of a lost Western tradition.

Physiomedicalism carries the knowledge and philosophy of a time when herbalists were doctors. Its study brings a deep knowledge of how herbs were actually used in a time before modern medicine had antibiotics, steroids, and MRIs. It integrates folk healing with modern physiology and has a pattern differentiation of contraries that resembles what is found in Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda.

Physiomedicalism additionally educates the student in what are called tissue states and gives a rationale for recommending herbs that is logical and clinically based, which are the strengths of the Eastern systems. The philosophy of Physiomedicalism is wholistic and maintains that the body's vital forces are the underlying mechanism of health and disease.

Finally, this system of herbal healing is what is studied in the rest of the English speaking world as it was taken to England in the 19th Century and survived even after it had died out in North America.

Below is a list of books for the practitioner and student to begin to understand the Physiomedical herbal healing system.


The People's Medicine: Samuel Thomson and the American Botanical Movement, John S. Haller, Jr.
Kindly Medicine: Physio-Medicalism in America, John S. Haller, Jr.
Medical Protestants: the Eclectics in American Medicine, John S. Haller, Jr.
America's Botanico-Medical Movements, Vox Populi, Alex Berman and Michael A. Flannery
Green Pharmacy: the History and Evolution of Western Herbal Medicine, Barbara Griggs
A Comparative Evaluation of Diagnostic Systems Used in Herbal Medicine (article), Michael Tierra
History of Physiomedicalism (article), Todd Caldecott

Practice and Philosophy:

The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism, Matthew Wood
Herbal Medication, Priest and Priest
Herbal Medicine: Keys to Physiomedicalism, Christopher Menzies-Trull
The Herbalist's Prescriber, Christopher Menzies-Trull
The New Holistic Herbal, David Hoffman
The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine, Simon Mills
The Philosophy of Physiomedicalism, J. M. Thurston

Materia medica:

The Physio-Medical Dispensatory, William H. Cook
Physio-Medical Therapeutics, Materia medica, and Pharmacy, T. J. Lyle and J. M. Thurston
Herbal Medicine: Keys to Physiomedicalism, Christopher Menzies-Trull
The Herbalist's Prescriber, Christopher Menzies-Trull
The New Holistic Herbal, David Hoffman

Other Good Books:

Culpepper's Medicine: A Practice of Western Holistic Medicine, Graeme Tobyn
The Western Herbal Tradition: 2000 Years of Medicinal Plant Knowledge, Graeme Tobyn
Culpper's Complete Herbal, Nicholas Culpepper
A Modern Herbal, Volumes 1 & 2, Margaret Grieve

Of course, there are other books worth reading, but these are the core of a beginning study of Physiomedicalism.

A journey along this path will not only make you a "real" herbalist, but will deepen your understanding of the traditional Western system and authentic American alternative medicine.

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