A botanist for the US Department of Agriculture, Alice Henkel wrote authoritative pamphlets about medicinal plants, best-sellers among the department’s publications.
Alice Henkel’s career serves as a reminder of both the limitations placed on talented women of her time and the ways they found of dealing with those limitations. She came from a family of doctors, druggists, and botanists; her father was an Ohio pharmacist who moved his family to Washington to work for the government. There Alice studied stenography and typing and, after working for a newspaper, took a civil service exam and began her career at the USDA as a stenographer. Her knowledge of pharmacy and her competence in transcribing scientific documents attracted the attention of Charles W. Dabney, Assistant Secretary of Agriculture under Grover Cleveland. According to a 1915 profile published in The Pharmaceutical Era, Dabney “urged her to give up stenography and study some scientific subject.”
For three years, Alice Henkel studied medical botany at the National College of Pharmacy, which later became part of George Washington University. In 1898 she was transferred to the USDA Division of Botany, working under chief botanist Frederick Vernon Coville, who with Henry Hurd Rusby and others had recently completed a medicinal plant survey for the Smithsonian Institution.
In 1901, Coville put Henkel in charge of the medicinal plants to be cultivated in the USDA test gardens, working in the newly organized Bureau of Plant Industry. Her first pamphlet, Weeds Used in Medicine, was published in 1904. In it, she suggested that farmers might make “pests sources of profit,” collecting and curing drug plants that they had heretofore regarded as weeds. “The prices paid for crude drugs,” she admitted, “would rarely tempt anyone to pursue this line of work as a business. Yet, if in ridding the farm of weeds and thus raising the value of the land the farmer can at the same time make these pests the source of a small income instead of a dead loss, something is gained.” She offered advice about collecting and curing plant material, distinguished between methods for processing roots, leaves, flowers, and barks, and recommended sending samples to commission merchants, general stores, and drug stores. The plants described included burdock, dandelion, yellow dock, foxglove, pokeweed, and yarrow. In later publications, Henkel offered advice on plants with established markets, such as goldenseal and peppermint.
In 1905, the work of investigating medicinal plants became an independent office, and Alice Henkel was transferred there, though her pamphlets continued to be published as Bureau of Plant Industry Bulletins. She was working in the USDA’s Office of Economic and Systematic Botany as of 1915, the year before her death.
The Department of Agriculture continued to offer advice about medicinal plants to farmers, including both cultivation and processing instruction and analysis of commercial prospects, in its Farmers’ Bulletins, such as #663, Drug Plants Under Cultivation (1920) and #1231, Drying Crude Drugs (1921). In 1930, A.F. Sievers, senior biochemist at the Office of Drug and Related Plants, Bureau of Plant Industry, compiled Alice Henkel’s pamphlets into USDA Miscellaneous Publication #77, American Medicinal Plants of Commercial Importance, eliminating some plants she had described and adding some new ones. It was commercially reprinted in the 1970s as The Herb Growers Guide.
Both a Medicine Woman of the Mohegan people and an academically trained anthropologist, Gladys Tantaquidgeon is important to the history of herbal medicine for her ethnographic studies of Native American medicinal plant use. From an early age, she was encouraged to bridge two cultures: chosen as a small child for traditional training by three respected woman elders, she was also educated at a New London, Connecticut grade school where she was the only Indian child.
Tantaquidgeon was still a toddler when she first met anthropologist Frank Speck, who had become friends with some young Mohegan men while an undergraduate at Columbia University. As a student of the famous Columbia anthropologist Franz Boas, Speck wrote his masters thesis on the Mohegan people. His interviews with Gladys’s great-aunt Fidelia Fielding launched his career; Fielding is said to have been the last fluent speaker of the Mohegan language, and was one of the three elders who trained Gladys. Speck studied an Oklahoma tribe for his PhD., and eventually became the most prominent anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania. The Tantaquidgeon family cared for the Speck children when their parents were away doing field research, and often joined the Specks at their summer house in Cape Ann, Massachusetts, where Gladys spent her teenage summers and met many leaders from other North American tribes.
At age 20, Gladys Tantaquidgeon went to live with Speck and his family in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, along with her brother and another Mohegan boy. She became the first Native American person to attend classes at the University of Pennsylvania, her tuition waived as a member of Speck’s household. Although the School of Arts and Sciences did not yet accept women, she was admitted to its classes, and she served as Speck’s collaborator, secretary, teaching assistant, and cultural intermediary for fourteen years, accompanying him on field trips among eastern tribes and working together on many published pieces. Melissa Jane Fawcett, her biographer and great-niece, also trained in both tribal traditions and academic ones, comments on the difficulty of those years in Medicine Trail: The Life and Lessons of Gladys Tantaquidgeon. Among other students, Gladys was treated as a curiosity; among other anthropologists, she was often aware of her colleagues’ narrow-minded analysis of her people.
Gladys Tantaquidgeon studied with elders and healers from many tribal groups related to her own, including some tribes that had migrated to Canada and Oklahoma in the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1928, Speck published her article on “Mohegan Medicinal Practices, Weather-Lore and Superstition” in the annual report of the Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethnology. The medicinal section is a list of remedies, both native plants and naturalized European ones such as burdock and elecampane. In 1931, Tantaquidgeon published a “Report on Delaware Ethnobotanical Investigations,” which recorded the teachings of a Delaware healer from an Oklahoma tribe related to hers, who lived in Philadelphia for some months in 1930 as an informant for Speck and his students. Ten years later, she expanded this work into a book,A Study of Delaware Indian Medicine Practice and Folk Beliefs; it was republished in 1972 as Folk Medicine of the Delaware and Related Algonkian Indians, along with a revision and expansion of her 1928 article. Her published work reflects her respect for traditional rituals and beliefs, her skills as an anthropologist, and her conviction that academic audiences should be educated about the relationship between the spiritual and physical aspects of healing. Much unpublished ethnographic material may be found in her personal papers.
In 1934, Gladys Tantaquidgeon was hired by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to survey New England tribal nations and, later, to do social work among Sioux families on South Dakota reservations. From 1938 to 1947, she promoted Indian art for the Federal Indian Arts and Crafts Board in the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming, organizing cooperatives and studying traditional Indian artistic techniques.
She returned to Connecticut in 1947. With her father and brother, she had founded the Tantaquidgeon Indian Museum in Uncasville in 1931, collecting and interpreting Mohegan artifacts as well as ones that the Tantaquidgeons and Specks had collected from other tribes. For sixty years until she died at 106, she served as curator of the museum, Medicine Woman for her tribe, and Vice Chair of the Tribal Council. Her personal papers, now archived at the museum, served her people in their successful petition to restore tribal status in 1994.
Gladys Tantaquidgeon, “Mohegan Medicinal Practices, Weather-Lore and Superstition, in Frank G. Speck, Native Tribes and Dialects of Connecticut (Extract from the 43rd Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office, 1928)
“Indian Stories: Gladys Tantaquidgeon and Frank Speck” in Margaret M. Bruchac, Savage Kin: Indigenous Informants and American Anthropologists (University of Arizona Press, 2018)
This botanist and pharmacist, plant prospector and explorer, university dean and organizational stalwart began his career collecting plants for the Smithsonian in the American Southwest, and in South America for Parke, Davis and Company. Later he taught at the Columbia University School of Pharmacy and served many years as dean. Rusby collected about 60,000 specimens representing more than 4,000 species, including nearly a thousand new ones. He is cited as the author of 49 taxon names.
At 21, Rusby won first prize at the Philadelphia Centenntial Exhibition for an herbarium of plants from his native Essex County, New Jersey. This brought him to the attention of leading botanists and, while a medical student at New York University, he spent 18 months collecting plants in Texas and New Mexico on behalf of the Smithsonian Institution. A few years later, in 1883, he returned to the Southwest to study and collect medicinal plants of Arizona for Parke, Davis & Company, which had purchased his prizewinning herbarium.
Soon after the anesthetic properties of cocaine were discovered in 1884, Parke, Davis sent Rusby on an expedition to Bolivia. His instructions were to secure a large quantity of coca and ship it to the United States; to locate and collect supplies of several other medicinal plants, especially cinchona bark; to go into the interior prospecting for new drugs; and to make botanical collections. To use today’s jargon, Rusby was bioprospecting for Parke-Davis, but his heart was in botanizing, following the collecting traditions of the 19th century. When his shipment of 20,000 pounds of coca leaf went missing during a political revolution and the company cabled him to return home, he set off instead on his own, for what became a two-year journey. He explored remote regions in Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil, collecting 45,000 botanical specimens representing 4,000 taxa, about a fifth of them new to science. Rusby published articles about his discoveries in both pharmaceutical and botanical journals.
He returned to distinguish himself in a more conventional career. For more than forty years, from about 1888 until 1930, he was Professor of Botany, Physiology, and Materia Medica at the College of Pharmacy at Columbia University, and served as Dean of the Faculty for 26 years. During that time he pursued a wide range of professional interests and made several more trips to South America.
For about a year starting in April, 1906, Rusby published a monthly column on the wild foods of the United States in the elite magazine Country Life in America; each focused on what was available that month, so the July article, for example, provided an exhaustive discussion of berries, distinguishing among numerous varieties of blackberries, huckleberries, and even cactus fruits.
Rusby was active in botanical and pharmaceutical organizations. He served as an expert on drug products in the US Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Chemistry. He is considered one of the founders of the New York Botanical Garden, serving on its board of managers and influential in promoting the study of economic botany. For seven years, he was the president of the Torrey Botanical Club, the oldest botanical society in the Americas; concurrently during one of those years, he served as president of the American Pharmaceutical Association.
In 1921, at age 66 and not in the best health, Rusby led the Mulford Biological Exploration of the Amazon Basin, perhaps the most ambitious and best equipped scientific expedition to South America up to that time. It was sponsored by the H.K. Mulford Company, a Philadelphia pharmaceutical company that produced digitalis from foxglove plants. The trip proved too rigorous for Rusby, who was forced to return early. His official diary of the expedition is among his papers at the New York Botanical Garden. Expedition quartermaster and photographer Gordon MacCreagh described Rusby and his fellow professors in a derogatory account of the trip, White Waters and Black(1926), which the New York Times described as “a tale of thrilling adventure well-salted with humor.” Rusby is introduced there as “The Director, slow of movement and thought.”
Although he returned from South America quite ill, Rusby survived to do significant professional work, especially regarding revisions of the United States Pharmacopoeia. Despite his own medical degree, he championed pharmacists, as opposed to physicians, insisting that pharmacists had superior knowledge about plant drug quality, adulteration, and standardization. In 1933, he published Jungle Memories, a memoir of the original Parke-Davis expedition fifty years earlier, perhaps written in response to MacCreagh’s book. The book is in equal parts a tale of hazards, adventures, and rafting stories, and a catalog of exotic plants and birds.
Lydia Pinkham was a local healer in Lynn, Massachusetts, whose sons turned her herbal medicine for women into a global commodity, using her name and face as its trademark. Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound was one of the most popular medicinal preparations in history, for decades the leading patent medicine for menstrual and menopausal symptoms. The company, founded in 1875, eventually ran factories in Canada, Mexico, Spain, and France as well as in Lynn. The business was still worth $3 million in 1937 and the family controlled the company until 1968. The Pinkham archives, which went to the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America when the company closed in 1973, offer the most complete records we have for any patent medicine company. A product called Lydia Pinkham Herbal Liquid Supplement is still on the market, but its seven herbs include only two of the original five.
At first Lydia Pinkham made all the company’s medicine, and even after her sons took over manufacturing, she continued to tend to women patients. A notebook in the archives indicates that she had considerable experience with many plants besides those in the Compound. In these pages of case histories and remedy ideas, she mentions dozens of barks, roots, leaves, flowers, seeds, and resins, as well as non-herbal ingredients such as borax, alum, and cream of tartar. Besides the Vegetable Compound, she formulated – and the company produced – other remedies including blood purifier, liver pills, and a douche.
The original recipe, containing plants well known as women’s herbs, can be found in Lydia Pinkham’s handwriting, between a remedy for dyspepsia and a comment about a South Boston woman’s swollen bowels. The note reads: “12 F. G. [fenugreek], 8 U. R, [unicorn root], 6 L. R. [life root], 6 P. R. [pleurisy root], 6 B. C. [black cohosh]”.
There is no way of knowing where Lydia Pinkham heard about fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graceum), her Vegetable Compound’s most abundant ingredient. It does not appear in mid-nineteenth century American medical textbooks, but the seeds have been used for millennia in Greece, India, China, and the Middle East, variously for inducing childbirth, stimulating lactation, menstrual pain and cervical cancer. Fenugreek has a strong and distinctive flavor, which must have stood out in the Compound.
Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) is now the most studied of the Pinkham formula’s plants, widely used by contemporary herbalists to treat menopausal symptoms. Also called bugbane and black snakeroot, it is an American native, at one time abundant east of the Mississippi, and still common enough in West Virginia to be harvested for sale. American botanists of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries all described it, including Benjamin Smith Barton, who wrote in 1803 that Indians called it squawroot.
Life root, Senecio, (usually S. aureus or S. gracilis), is another indigenous American plant that grows in wet places throughout the northern and western states. One of its many common names is “squaw weed,” and the earliest English colonists, familiar with a European senecio, used the American species as a female tonic. Senecio is still recognized by herbalists like David Hoffman, who mentions its use for leucorrhoea, a common condition that Pinkham advertising called “the whites” and that American women now usually attribute to yeast or vaginal infection.
Two different plants are called unicorn root — Aletris farinosa and Chamaelirium luteum – and various sources call both of them both “false” and “true” unicorn. They were generally confused with each other in nineteenth century trade, though they do not look alike. The Pinkham company ordered by common names in its early years, and Lydia’s version of the formula offers no hint of which unicorn she used, or if she knew the difference. Eventually the company decided to use equal parts of both. C. luteum, however, is more generally considered a women’s tonic.
Assuming the correct unicorn root, then, four of the Compound’s five herbs were well-known remedies for women’s ailments. Pleurisy root, Asclepius tuberosa, was the only plant ingredient in the Compound with no such tradition. As its common name suggests, it has respiratory uses, and is best known as a diaphoretic, increasing perspiration.
The five herbs were macerated for a week or two in alcohol and water, in two-gallon stone jars, then moved to percolators. The alcohol extracted medicinal constituents from the plants and preserved them. Notwithstanding the scorn of critics including Ladies’ Home Journal editor Edward Bok and historian James Harvey Young, probably few regular users of the Compound drank it to get high, nor does the 18% alcohol content explain why they bought it. The medicine was meant to be taken by the spoonful; imbibing it would have been expensive and probably unpleasant.
As the business grew, the Pinkhams tended hundreds of jars; an 1883 inventory includes “127 Jars in soak” and 23 percolators. In other words, Lydia and her sons at first expanded manufacturing capacity by multiplying her small-scale methods and equipment rather than by developing large-scale apparatus and techniques for mass production. Whether by design or by luck, this gave them flexibility for responding to market conditions – for example, when a decision to try cutting back on advertising reduced sales.
The first of the trademark portraits of Lydia Pinkham appeared in 1879. It linked an intimate product with a picture of a presumably wise old woman, representing the social relations of traditional herbalists and creating a new form of commercial celebrity. The pitch was tied not only to the product – which probably offered at least as much relief from menstrual cramps and hot flashes as anything else on the market — but to this trustworthy commercial character. At a time when the homemade and the handmade were yielding to goods produced in distant factories, the trademark further offered the consumer a portrait of the entrepreneur, suggesting that trade relationships might still be personal.
But the effectiveness of the trademark cannot be explained solely by its appearance. Consumers encountered enormous amounts of Pinkham advertising, some of it making hyperbolic claims. Once they started buying newspaper and billboard advertising, the Pinkhams bought a prodigious quantity, and the company’s success was due at least in part to the sheer volume of contact that consumers had with the advertising. By the time she died in 1883, Mrs. Pinkham’s image had become ubiquitous, and she was the butt of countless jokes, many of which survive in print. Once when the company ordered a dictionary, someone from G. & C. Merriam & Co. replied, “We feel that we are dealing with old friends, so many times have we seen Mrs. Pinkham’s portrait and our Webster Advs. side by side.”
Unfortunately for historians, the Schlesinger Library did not receive the vast trove of letters that women, and sometimes their husbands, sent to Lydia Pinkham seeking advice. Ads invited readers to “Write to Mrs. Pinkham,” who answered all the mail herself during the early years. When her health began to fail, her son hired help. After she died in 1883, the invitation remained in the ads, and Lydia’s daughter-in-law, Jennie Pinkham, was represented as the “Mrs. Pinkham” in charge. By the 1890s, a staff of thirty women answered questions on a broad range of women’s health topics, including masturbation and abortion.
This service subjected the Pinkhams to attack. Editor Edward Bok, in the Ladies’ Home Journal campaign for the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, maintained that male clerks answered such letters with preprinted forms and ridiculed the women who had unburdened their hearts. Bok further claimed that medicine companies sold correspondents’ names and addresses for direct mail campaigns. He did not mention the Pinkham company, which was not guilty of many of these practices. But in 1905, Bok published a photograph of Lydia Pinkham’s gravestone next to a current advertisement inviting women to write to Mrs. Pinkham, under the headline “Pictures That Tell Their Own Stories.”
Further information about the company can be found in the Harvard Business School’s R. G. Dun & Co. Credit Reports collection. The credit reporters first visited the Pinkhams in 1879; the reporter described the firm as a family business that was probably making money, though they did not require much credit because they traded finished medicine to wholesale druggists, in exchange for raw materials. By the time Lydia died four years later, the credit reports suggested a stable company, run by her only surviving son Charles. Soon he displayed the confidence to experiment with not advertising, and to refuse to give the Dun reporter information. The reporter responded by recommending caution to anybody who might be thinking of giving the Pinkhams credit. Groundbreaking for a new laboratory surprised the observers. When it was completed in 1886, Charles spoke to the Dun reporter (though still without many details) and the financial community accepted the company as creditworthy.