Thomas Jefferson was skeptical of medicine as known and practiced in his time. In a lengthy letter to his good friend, Dr. Caspar Wistar, he apologized for "venturing so far out of my depth" but proceeded, nevertheless, to outline his observations of medicine versus the natural healing powers in nature. He believed that each human body was so unique and illness so varied that it was near impossible to suggest remedies for any other than a few well-recognized diseases. Thus, it was often better to let nature heal the body. Medicines should be introduced only if the disease was recognized and the medicine known to speed the natural process of healing.1
Yet Jefferson did use medicine. On display at Monticello is a wooden medicine box that once belonged to Jefferson. The box contains empty glass vials, some of which have small amounts of remaining residue. An analysis of this residue might be a clue to medicines that Jefferson used, except that the box eventually went out of the family after Jefferson's death and was not returned to Monticello until purchased at auction by a donor in 1940.2 Thus, it would be impossible to determine if any of the residue remaining in the vials belonged to Thomas Jefferson or to a subsequent owner. Jefferson's correspondence, however, does make some references, not only to his views of medicine in general, but to specific medicines and treatments that he used.
Despite his skepticism of many medical treatments, Jefferson was an early advocate of smallpox inoculation. Smallpox epidemics caused many deaths in the American colonies. In 1766 at age twenty-three, Jefferson made a special visit to Philadelphia in order to be inoculated for smallpox. In later years, he would have his daughters, grandchildren, and slaves inoculated as well.
From his student days at the College of William and Mary through much of his adult life, Jefferson was plagued by severe headaches.3 His "periodical" headaches were worse during the daylight hours and so one remedy was "to be shut up in a dark room from early in the forenoon till night."4 A medicine that he relied on during these instances was Peruvian bark (quinine); however, it apparently failed him during an especially lengthy headache that began the first of May 1790 and continued for several weeks.5 Entries in his memorandum books during this same period show several purchases of this "bark,"6 but he admitted in a letter of mid-June that it was "the first time the bark had ever failed to remove my complaint very speedily."7 He made another reference in 1807 to the use of bark and calomel but noted that neither made the least impression on the headache. He found one cure when he escaped government duties and traveled with friend James Madison through upstate New York and New England. He wrote his daughter, Martha, that "... the relaxation it gave me from business has freed me from the almost constant headach with which I had been persecuted thro the whole winter and spring. Having been entirely clear of it while travelling proves it to have been occasioned by the drudgery of business."8 Jefferson had discovered the connection between stress and health.
As he grew older and retired from public life, Jefferson's headaches abated, but he began to be bothered increasingly by rheumatism. In August of 1818, he traveled to the warm springs in western Virginia to test the medicinal waters, which seemed to help the rheumatism, but while at the springs he picked up an infection that resulted in boils and abscesses erupting on his body. The medicine prescribed as treatment, "unctions of mercury & sulphur," he believed brought him to death's door, but "on ceasing to use them I recovered immediately." Once again he believed nature and not medicine brought about the ultimate cure.9
An illness that Jefferson battled through the last twenty-five years of his life, and one that was significant in the cause of his death, was diarrhea. Always looking for a cure, he came across one that he felt helped him significantly — to ride a trotting horse. He wrote that he began to ride regularly two or three hours every day, and though it took some time for it to take effect, he felt it did strengthen the bowels and he recommended the cure.10
As the years passed by and the diarrhea become more persistent, Jefferson would resort to medication but without conviction. In 1819 he wrote that his recovery from a recent bout had been delayed by "a dose of calomel & Jalap."11 In his final years, he agreed to the treatment prescribed by Dr. Robley Dunglison and found that laudanum, a tincture of opium, allowed him to resume activities, and so he accepted its regular use. He wrote in November 1825, "The day before yesterday I rode about my garden in a walk half an hour, without any inconvenience at that time or since ... I suppose therefore that with care and laudanum I may consider myself in what is to be my habitual state."12
Jefferson continued this medication until the day before his death when, according to his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, he advised Dr. Dunglison that he wished no more of the laudanum: "No Doctor, nothing more."13 He must have accepted that the time for medication was past. According to those at his bedside, Jefferson's mind was clear in his last moments of consciousness; he was calm and composed and died quietly, shortly before one o'clock, July 4, 1826.14
1. Jefferson to Caspar Wistar, June 21, 1807, Privately Owned. Transcription available at Founders Online. See also Jefferson to Dr. John Crawford, January 2, 1812, in PTJ:RS, 4:394. Transcription available at Founders Online.
3. Jefferson to William Fleming, March 20, 1764, in PTJ, 1:15-16. Transcription available at Founders Online. See also Jefferson to Dr. Vine Utley, March 21, 1819, in PTJ:RS, 14:156-58. Transcription available at Founders Online.
4. Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, March 20, 1807, Papers of Albert Gallatin, New-York Historical Society. Transcription available at Founders Online.
5. Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph, May 16, 1790, in PTJ, 16:429 (transcription available at Founders Online); Jefferson to Maria Jefferson, May 23, 1790, in PTJ, 16:435 (transcription available at Founders Online); Jefferson to Peter Carr, June 13, 1790, in PTJ, 16:487 (transcription available at Founders Online); Jefferson to Meriwether Smith, November 2, 1790, in PTJ, 17:672 (transcription available at Founders Online). He referred to this lengthy headache again in a letter to Thomas Cooper of October 27, 1808, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Transcription available at Founders Online.
7. Jefferson to George Buchanan, June 13, 1790, in PTJ, 16:487. Transcription available at Founders Online.
8. Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph, June 23, 1791, in PTJ, 20:568. Transcription available at Founders Online.
9. Jefferson to Henry Dearborn, July 5, 1819, in PTJ:RS, 14:502-04. Transcription available at Founders Online.
10. Jefferson to Henry Fry, June 17, 1804, in PTJ, 43:611. Transcription available at Founders Online.
11. Jefferson to William Short, October 31, 1819, William Short Papers, Earl Gregg Swem Library, College of William and Mary. Transcription available at Founders Online. The Oxford English Dictionary defines calomel as a mercurous chloride, or proto-chloride of mercury, much used as a purgative, and defines jalap as a purgative drug obtained from the tuberous roots of a Mexican climbing plant, Exogonium Purga.