Medicine by faith

My brother sent me an old book called The Northwest Coast, or Three Years Residence in Washington Territory, by James G. Swan, an immigrant from the east. Upon arriving at Shoal-water Bay, in November, 1852, Swan quickly learned about medicine-by-faith:

Russell… introduced me to these savages as a celebrated doctor, a fable which my utter ignorance of their language prevented my denying. However, by the aid of a medicine-chest of his, containing a few simple drugs, I went to work, and soon effected some wonderful cures. The most celebrated and potent medicine was a mixture of aqua ammoniae and whale oil, prepared in the form of a liniment. This was effectual in curing headaches and rheumatic affections [sic] of various kinds. The patient was first required to smell the medicine, which was afterward rubbed on the afflicted part, and then faith was expected to finish the cure…. my stock in trade was on a par with my stock of information; but great faith on the part of the Indians, with their most excellent constitutions, enabled me to perform my duties to the great satisfaction of all parties.

[pp 34-35]

Later he had to deal with smallpox, and that didn’t work out so well, but his innocent application of the placebo effect remains instructive. His patients believed in him, or anyway believed in the efficacy of his foul-smelling medicines, and therefore he and his medicines were able to effect cures, seemingly. One wonders how many medicines really do much good in and of themselves, and how many are dependent upon this same effect. It may be that much of our modern medicine closely resembles aqua ammoniae (whatever that may be) and whale oil, effective primarily for those who believe in it.

Something as powerful as faith — wouldn’t you think we would study how to use it more effectively?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *