Popular Medicine

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries most medicine was practiced not by professionals in doctors’ offices but by ordinary people in their own homes. Because formally educated medical practitioners were too far away, too expensive, or both, people relied on their own experiences and printed texts to inform their treatment of themselves and family members. Works of “popular” medicine included alternative treatment approaches such as homoeopathy, Thomsonian (botanic) medicine, and hydropathy (water cure methods). More general treatises on the body, such as A Lecture to Young Men on Chastity by Sylvester Graham (of cracker fame) and Mary Gove Nichol’s proto-feminist Lectures to Ladies on Anatomy and Physiologyaddressed subjects from eating and sexual habits to proper modes of dress and comportment. Along with legitimate practitioners of nineteenth-century popular medicine came the enterprising sorts peddling countless patent medicines to a public as vulnerable to modern advertising as to medical maladies.

Our holdings of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century popular medicine are some of the strongest in the country, thanks in large part to generous donations by the eminent historian of science Charles Rosenberg, and the renowned collector of patent (“quack”) medicine items, William H. Helfand. Much of our collection is represented in the Hoolihan bibliography of the Edward C. Atwater collection, and much of it goes beyond the Atwater holdings. An in-house database of the more than 7,000 William H. Helfand medical trade card collection is available through the Print & Photograph Department. A selection of this trade card collection can be seen online.


Christopher Hoolihan. An Annotated Catalogue of the Edward C. Atwater Collection of American Popular Medicine and Health Reform (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2001-04). 2 vols.