Life, liberty, and the natural pursuit of good health

Today is the start of the long Independence Day holiday weekend. And it’s a fitting time to remind you that natural medicine–and the freedom to choose it–is as American as baseball, barbeque, apple pie, and even mom. I’ll also take the opportunity today to remind you of our forefathers’ keen interest in natural approaches to achieving good health.

Let’s start with the founder of them all–Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was an 18th century natural and social philosopher fascinated by the forces of Nature. He famously experimented with kites in lightning storms. (Actually, he sent his son out into the storms.) Franklin wanted to understand the vital forces that animate life and the universe. Whereas Edison and Tesla, who came later, wanted to capture electricity. Franklin knew there was something more to “energy” than what we later came to see as a simple electrical utility.

As you may recall, Franklin represented the fledging United States in the court of Louis XVI in that slipstream of history just after the American Revolution of July 4, 1776, and just before the French Revolution. During this time in France, he studied the “magnetic healing” of Franz Anton Mesmer. The work of Franklin, Mesmer and others led to more than a century of “magnetic therapies” that harnessed vital energy to heal during the 19th to early 20th centuries. Eventually, their work yielded many effective therapies and electro-magnetic devices used today for pain and other medical conditions. (I’ll tell you more in the July 14 Daily Dispatch.)

George Washington famously practiced the art of “mindfulness” meditation during the long winter at Valley Forge during the Revolutionary War. He believed in “being mindful” during the “times that tried men’s souls.” He also believed in the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption, making his own wines and whiskeys at Mt. Vernon, Virginia. Of course, Washington died because his own physicians would not use newer medical techniques. The older doctors didn’t want to be accused of “experimenting” with the former President. Washington died in December 1799, in the twilight of the 18th century, as the consummate man of that century.

John Adams went further as a student of mindfulness meditation. He subscribed to the publications of the “Asiatik” and “Hindoo” Societies that were already translating into the English formative works of Buddhist and Hindu medicine and meditation.

Thomas Jefferson subscribed to the same translations, which were in his personal library when he later donated them to start the Library of Congress. In addition, Jefferson was an agronomist who grew healthy plant crops and developed healthy, new food sources for North America. He believed in growing your own foods (and medicines), physical activity, and recreation. He also encouraged his fellow citizens to stay close to the land as part of his vision of “agrarian democracy.” This man of books and research stated, “Exercise and recreation are as necessary as reading; I will say rather more necessary because health is more than learning.” Adams and Jefferson lived long and productive lives, both dying on July 4, 1825, within hours, and each believing that the other had survived him.

On July 4, 1850, President Zachary Taylor collapsed after presiding over a long, hot dedication of the new Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. (following the original in Baltimore). Earlier in the day, he ate an entire bowl of cherries, arguably for his rheumatism. Indeed, cherries are an effective, natural remedy for joint pain. But evidently, the cherries had not been properly washed, and Taylor developed cholera morbus and died within two days. About 150 years later, I met with some of Taylor’s direct descendants, one of whom I knew very well as a practicing acupuncturist, as well as forensic scientists, regarding his exhumation to determine the actual cause of his rapid death. It was determined that poisoning with heavy metals was not the cause.

In 1860, just 10 years after Taylor’s death, Abraham Lincoln became President. As a frontiersman, Lincoln was familiar with the use of herbal remedies out where there were no doctors. Dr. John Tennent wrote the most popular “herbal” book of the time. He hailed from Spotsylvania County, Virginia, near where Lincoln’s family originated. Lincoln also made use of homeopathy, which he once wryly described as “soup made from the shadow of the wing of a pigeon passing overhead.” Homeopathy, with its emphasis on the condition of the host patient, worked better during epidemics of cholera, typhus and typhoid fever common in the Civil War era.

Theodore Roosevelt, the fourth President resident on Mt. Rushmore, was a strong believer in the Nature Cure during the later 19th century. Philadelphia neurologist (and novelist) Silas Weir Mitchell formally developed the Nature Cure. And many mainstream physicians at the time prescribed it to urban dwellers as the Rest Cure and even the “West Cure.” Roosevelt took the cure literally by going west into the natural wilderness of the Dakotas. He cured himself of his childhood asthma and other respiratory and physical disabilities. Ultimately, he became one of our most vigorous presidents. After he became President, Roosevelt continued to focus on the importance of Nature. He met with John Muir and worked with Gifford Pinchot to establish Redwood and secure Yellowstone National Parks and the U.S. National Forest System, so others would have access to all the benefits of natural wilderness.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously developed polio as an adult at the age of 39 during a trip to the family cottage at Campobello Island. He kept the seriousness of his disability hidden from most of the American public for his entire career. As a key part of his therapy, he regularly “took the waters” at Warm Springs, Georgia, one of the country’s most famous therapeutic spas. President Roosevelt first rehabilitated himself from an attack of polio at Warm Springs in 1924. He returned to soak in the mineral-rich pools at Warm Springs almost every year until his death in 1945. Washington, Jefferson and others also took the “water cure” at natural springs in western Virginia, which remain popular health resorts to this day.

On July 4, we thank our founding fathers who supported many effective, natural approaches to healing. Thanks in part to their sponsorship, you and I can still use many of these techniques today. We should also thank the founders for giving us the liberty to choose–before the government takes it all away.

For more background, read my book with Donald McCown, New World Mindfulness: From the Founding Fathers, to Emerson, to Thoreau, to Your Daily Practice.