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Medicine

Who were some other self-taught healers of the North?

Among the self-taught healers of this period who had little medical background were John P. Reynolds, David Ruggles, and William Wells Brown. They “helped many and harmed few.” Reynolds gained his knowledge in the late 1820s from an “Indian physician” and built a thriving practice in Zanesville, Ohio, and later in Vincennes, Indiana. He was held in high esteem, became quite wealthy, and had considerable local influence. He belonged to a group called the “eclectic” school of medicine, which comprised physicians in colonial America and those among the Native Americans. Like slave healers, they believed in native remedies such as in plants and herbs. They formed an organization in 1840, which became known as the Eclectic Medical Association; it existed for about thirty years.

One of the best-recognized names among self-taught healers of this period was David Ruggles (1810–1849), who became an ardent abolitionist. He was the first known black bookseller and sold anti-slavery works, among other items. Ruggles was born in Norwich, Connecticut, the son of free parents, and educated in schools founded by emancipation societies. He worked extremely hard as an abolitionist, but by age thirty-five his health began to fail. So impressed was Ruggles with German-born Robert Wesselhoeft, a hydrotherapist in Cambridge, that he decided to become a hydropathic doctor himself. Aided by some friends, in 1846 Ruggles opened a hydrotherapeutic institution in Northampton. Although he lacked a license and a medical degree, he became a highly successful practitioner. His business, “Dr. Ruggles’ Water-Cure Establishment,” attracted doctors, clergy, artisans, and abolitionists who sought his treatment. Among his clients was anti-slavery leader William Lloyd Garrison. Another abolitionist-turned medical practitioner was William Wells Brown (1814–1884), who is perhaps best known as the first black novelist. In 1853 his novel, Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, was published in England. Brown was born near Lexington, Kentucky, to slave parents. In 1816 he was taken to St. Louis where he was exposed to the rudiments of medicine. When he was eighteen years old, he escaped to Ohio and became active in the abolitionist movement as an agent of the Underground Railroad, and as lecturer and writer. His work took him to England in 1849, where he became friendly with distinguished ophthalmologist and anti-slavery advocate John Bishop Estlin. Estlin urged Brown to resume his study of medicine, and he did so when he returned to Boston. In 1865 he opened his office and established his practice. He, too, was a member of the “eclectic” school of medicine, but apparently never had a large or successful practice.



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