Monday, September 1, 2008

Excursions in Medical History: Shaker Medicine

On my most recent visit to the Canterbury Shaker Village (which I have visited, by now, several times for its beauty and tranquility), I was struck by how many lasting contributions the Shaker communities made to the "outside world" despite their brief existence. If they are known at all by us worldly folks, they are likely seen as an unusual religious sect in which dance and other ecstatic expressions of fervor were a part of daily worship; celibacy, pacifism, and living in community were considered essential practices; and hard work was one of the highest ideals, a way to build heaven on earth. But they were pioneers, too, in many ways, both in their approach to daily living and in their products. "The Shaker goal was for the individual to be freed from the insecurities of wage slavery and competition but also to enjoy the benefits of a successful economy...This attitude set the Shakers apart from many utopian thinkers..."*

The Shakers were diligent, harmonious, exceedingly orderly, resourceful, inventive, joyous in their spirituality, and very, very practical. An example of the latter is the way they decided to recycle their tomb stones, at least in the Canterbury community. Because the absence of descendants led them to foresee that few people would care to visit their marked graves after their passing, the Shakers removed grave markers, brought them home, and made use of them in other ways, for example as places to rest hot irons.

Because work was so important to the Shakers, they embraced technology, innovation, experimentation, and new trends in commerce, which allowed their communities to prosper and complete their work with maximal efficiency. Their deep respect for customers and reverence for order made them pay meticulous attention to the quality of anything they made, from furniture to herbal medicines. "The Shaker name stood for quality and reliability from the 1820s...The Shakers can be credited with establishing the word 'Shaker' as one of the first brand names in United States business history. The first products to approach national recognition were Shaker seeds and medicines in the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s."*

In fact, they were the first to sell seeds in small packets rather than in bulk. They developed the first flat (rather than cylindrical) brooms, tilting tips for chair legs, an apple peeler, a revolving oven, an industrial washing machine, and the circular saw. Their expertise in herbal medicine, state of the art at the time, was led by Dr. Thomas Corbett in Canterbury, NH, Dr. Eliab Harlow in New Lebanon, NY, and Elisha Myrick in Harvard, MA. Many communities devoted facilities to the harvesting, drying, and pulverizing of medicinal herbs and to the distillation of syrups. Their home remedies includied highly efficacious cough drops and Corbett's Shakers' Compound Concentrated Syrup of Sarsaparilla; Shaker Hair Restorer; Shaker Vegetable Family Pills; The Shaker Asthma Cure, which may have contained plant-derived atropine, stramonium, or henbane; and Pain King (“Orders pain out of doors and sees that the command is obeyed!”).

I think what I appreciate most about Shaker medicine is its emphasis on healing through comfort - much like the holistic medicine advocated in complementary and alternative medicine today. Although they were interested in new developments and kept in touch with outside physicians, especially for surgery (one of the Shaker sisters, Matilda Tatterton, once required amputation of her arm at the shoulder!), they rejected other invasive practices from contemporary academic medicine, such as leeching and bleeding, in favor of herbal treatments and gentler methods such as therapeutic touch, attention to ambient natural light, and other comfort measures, even going so far as to construct an adult cradle to rock patients in the infirmary at Canterbury. As much satisfaction as I get out of using sharp objects to make a difference - an arterial line to monitor blood pressure, IVs to give helpful drugs - I believe gentleness can go a long way.

Top Ten Shaker Lessons for Anesthesiologists

10. Live humbly and simply.
9. Heal gently.
8. Waste little, including your own effort.
7. Serve abundantly.
6. Work hard and conscientiously, and always strive for perfection.
5. Be practical, organized, and efficient.
4. Pay careful attention to detail.
3. Prepare well.
2. Help one another.

and the Number One Lesson from Shaker Life for Anyone Who Works in the Operating Room:

1. “If you are obliged to sneeze or cough, don’t bespatter the victuals.”
(from a plaque enumerating "Shaker Table Manners.")

Photo credit: Sorensen ether-suction anesthesia machine (c. 1925) found among medical artifacts at Canterbury Shaker Village, uploaded here.

"Shaker Herbs," an online article by Rita Buchanan
lectures by tour guides at Canterbury Shaker Village, Canterbury, NH

For my foodie friends out there: I cannot say enough great things about The Shaker Table, the restaurant at Canterbury Shaker Village. I think it is my absolute favorite restaurant. It offers everything that I would expect from a Shaker eatery - fresh ingredients, well-prepared, delicious meals, and a simple, beautiful, but unpretentious ambience. I went there for lunch with a friend, then for brunch with my family, and had

butternut squash bread

a mouth-watering spinach salad with candied pecans, blueberries, red onions, and honey-poppyseed vinaigrette

yummy potato croquettes

and the most amazing crème brûlée challah French toast ever.

If you're ever in New Hampshire, this is the place to enjoy a wonderful meal!

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