‘The People Their Own Physicians’: Huddersfield and the great medical botany debate




Janette Martin considers how the popularity of alternative and quack medical ideas and therapies in the 1840s throws light on wider radical concerns and movements in England’s industrial north.

In 1838 the American herbalist, Dr Albert Isaiah Coffin (1790/91–1866) arrived in Britain and toured the towns of northern England, including Huddersfield, Brighouse, Halifax, Leeds and Manchester. His revolutionary message chimed with the democratic age.  Instead of paying the extortionate costs of conventional doctors (whose remedies were often ineffectual and dangerous) by learning the secrets of medical botany every man could be his own doctor. In the north of England, Coffin delivered lectures to working people and set up medical botany societies where people could meet to learn this new form of medicine and share their problems and successes.  In the 1840s one of the most vibrant of these was the Huddersfield Botanical Society

Coffin also sold cheap tracts, at a penny a piece, describing his medical system or as he billed it the Triumph of Truth, or a Common Sense Vindication of the Laws of Nature. The system relied on the healing properties of various plants, most notably cayenne pepper and lobelia. His lectures and tract were later extended into the book The Botanic Guide to Health (1845),which went through numerous editions in the nineteenth century. Coffin wrotefor the lay practitioner and his Guide was simple enough for almost anyone to understand, the idea being that the male householder could see to the health of themselves and their families without the need for costly, conventional medicine. Dr Coffin’s tracts and books were inexpensive and thus within reach of educated artisans or frequenters of mechanics institutes.  This was one of the key attractions of medical botany.  But of equal importance was the democratic potential of Coffinism. It drew the attention of Chartist, Owenites and other radicals because of its anti-establishment message. It can be no coincidence that the 1840s, the peak years of the Chartist movement, was also the heyday for practitioners of medical botany.  Dr Coffin himself was sympathetically reported (at least initially) by the Chartist newspaper the Northern Star, and praised for his support for the cooperative societies, another key self-help movement of the period.

My own interest in medical botany arose from research into a Chartist lecturer call David Ross (date unknown). Ross was a talented speaker, poet and polemicist who had a deep interest in alternative medicine. As Chartism waned, Ross supplemented his earning from political agitation with practical lectures on sanitation and his pet topic, hydropathy.  Ross, in the 1850s, wrote a book on the water cure and set up a short-lived hydropathy establishment in Manchester. He also invented his own form of water cure or atmopathy as he called it.   On paper, Ross would be exactly the sort of person attracted to the democratic promise of medical botany. Yet this was not the case. Indeed Ross was an ardent opponent of the nonsense surrounding cayenne pepper and the ‘cabbaging botanist’ himself. In 1845 Ross traded insults with Dr Coffin and the Huddersfield Botanical Society which came to a head in the threat of a court case. 



A sample of the public argument between Ross and Dr Coffin

Northern Star 10 May 1845


Although the case was never heard this very public spat between David Ross and the Huddersfield Botanical Society and their partisan supporters offers a window into the democratic desire for working men to have control over health and medicine in the run up to the 1858 Medical Act. It demonstrates the range of both folk medicine and quackery on offer and the ways in which working people took self-education and the acquisition of useful knowledge seriously. Indeed this was the period which saw the first issues of the popular household manual, Enquire Within Upon Everything, which besides advice on child rearing, recipes and laundry included many entries on common ailments and their cures.   The popularity of medical botany in Huddersfield also shows a doughty independence of spirit perhaps typical of northern radical culture. Decades later the anti-vaccination movement was also strong in Huddersfield and voiced similar sentiments which demonstrated deep suspicion of the medical establishment and a desire for medical decisions to be taken by the male head of the household.

This is very much work in progress, and the focus may shift away from medical botany itself to look at self-help and democratic medicine more generally, but as I’ve promised the Huddersfield Local History Society a chapter for a book on popular medicine and nineteenth century radical culture I shall certainly be engaging more with the ‘hero of Cayenne Pepper’ and his critics



Title page of David Ross’s book with an engraving of his patented atmopathic treat


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