cucumbers cause cholera

Was Ms. Eddy crazy, or a product of her time?

This question seems to come up again and again when reading about Ms. Edddy, her “science” and beliefs. I don’t doubt that she was a “difficult” woman, the quote about “well behaved women rarely make history” seems to apply nicely. When considering Ms. Eddy’s ideas, I think it is important to remember that most women in the 1800s didn’t found religions, or newspapers. The Mother Church was built in 1894, two years before women could vote in the United States (1).

The modern reader must remember that Christian Science is well over 100 years old, and much has happened in the last 100 years. Mary Baker Eddy was born in 1821, she founded Christian Science in 1879, and died 1910 (2) all of this took place before penicillin was invented in 1929.

For further context, Ms. Eddy was born after the Missouri Compromise in 1820, which admitted Missouri as a slave sate and Maine as a free State. 1879, the year Ms. Eddy founded her church was the same year Thomas Edison tested his first light bulb (3). Many of the medical and technological advances we take for granted today simply did not exist. While Ms. Eddy was working diligently on various editions of Science & Health in Massachusetts, Louis Pasteur was hard at work in Paris giving credence to germ theory (previously widely regarded as miasma theory).

The 19th century was a time of great medical advances, but many of them were not fully realized as such until the 20th century — well after Christian Science was established. In addition to great medical advances, there was plenty of medical quackery. (4)  Potions and elixirs promised to cure-all, and mind-healers like Ms. Eddy’s arch-nemesis Phineas Parkhurst Quimby were teaching, preaching and practicing their own takes on the work of Franz Mesmer from the century before. From wikipedia’s New Thought article:

  • Quimby developed a belief system that included the tenet that illness originated in the mind as a consequence of erroneous beliefs and that a mind open to God‘s wisdom could overcome any illness.[7] His basic premise was “The trouble is in the mind, for the body is only the house for the mind to dwell in…Therefore, if your mind had been deceived by some invisible enemy into a belief, you have out into it the form of a disease, with or without your knowledge. By my theory or truth, I come in contact with your enemy, and restore you to health and happiness. This I do partly mentally, and partly by talking till I correct the wrong impression and establish the Truth, and the Truth is the cure.”[8]

The Quimby-Eddy controversy is well documented, and there are undeniable similarities between Ms. Eddy’s work and Dr. Quimby’s that go beyond verbose 19th century prose. The Quimby Manuscripts by Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, Edited by Horatio W. Dresser, make several mentions of Ms. Eddy, including several letters from her then-husband Dr. Patterson on p. 152 (114 of the pdf). Quimby talks about Wisdom, Truth, and sprinkles Biblical references throughout.

  • I found that there is a Wisdom that can be applied to these errors or evils that can put man in possession of a Science that will not only destroy the evil but will hold up its serpent head, as Moses in the wilderness held up the errors of religious creeds, and all that looked upon his explanation were cured of the diseases that followed their beliefs. Science will hold up these old superstitious beliefs and theories and all that listen and learn can be cured not only of the disease that they may be suffering from but they will know how to avoid the errors of others.

The notion that the mind can influence disease isn’t new: Hippocrates once wrote, “The natural healing force within each one of us is the greatest force in getting well.” And the notion that the mind can influence disease hasn’t gone away either: the University of Maryland Medical Center has an interesting article (4) about what is, and what is not mind-body medicine. UMM’s approach is far more scientific that either Quimby’s or Ms. Eddy’s, UMM cites peer-reviewed studies. Most importantly, UMM points out that mind-body medicine, unlike Christian Science, should not make you feel that your attitude is the cause of your illness (5).

With all this focus on the capabilities of the human mind, and the limited knowledge about the human body, is it any wonder that Ms. Eddy that Ms. Eddy shared the following anecdote in her first few editions of Science & Health? (6)

  • An infant a few hours old was said to be immersed in water, to test the possibility of making him amphibious; and this daily ablution continued until the infant could remain under water, and the ordinary functions of lungs be suspended twenty minutes at one time, playing the while and enjoying the bath. The infant is wholly controlled by its parents’ belief; addressing the mother mentally, we have stopped the moaning and restlessness of her babe, but could not affect the child, except through its mother.

6486_551152993952_525328908_nAmphibious babies may be cool, but please do NOT try that at home.

To be fair to Ms. Eddy, medical experts of the day had some fairly unique ideas of their own:

  • the 1848 edition of Buchan’s Domestic Medicine, with its coloured frontispiece showing the symptoms of smallpox, scarlet fever and measles, listed among the general causes of illness ‘diseased parents‘, night air, sedentary habits, anger, wet feet and abrupt changes of temperature. The causes of fever included injury, bad air, violent emotion, irregular bowels and extremes of heat and cold. Cholera, shortly to be epidemic in many British cities, was said to be caused by rancid or putrid food, by ‘cold fruits’ such as cucumbers and melons, and by passionate fear or rage. (7) (emphasis mine)

Not quite as far out as amphibious baby anecdotes, but if the medical experts of the day say fear and rage cause cholera then is it really so far off to say it is all in your head?

Ms. Eddy may not have been the average woman, but her chapter on Physiology shows that she is not well versed in how humans actually work (although how this is all very trivial anyway, the material body is unreal, man is spiritual, etc.). While the reasoning and prose is difficult to follow, the experts of the day thought cucumbers and melons caused cholera, so her analogy of comparing men’s brains to mushrooms isn’t too far fetched. From the first edition of Science & Health:

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From the final edition:

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Obviously she’s worked with an editor, tightened up her prose, and worked on clarifying her ideas. I happen to agree, in the 1800s modern medicine was still in it’s infancy — the physical laws of health are still being discovered, explored and refined, we must remember, Lister was working on his theories regarding antiseptics at the same time Ms. Eddy was recovering from her fall in Lynn. The ideas that disease was caused by microbes and germs was still very new. While there were advances, the Victoria & Albert Museum reminds us that

  • many conditions remained chronic or incurable. These limitations, together with the relatively high cost of medical attendance, led to the rise (or extension) of alternative therapies including homeopathy, naturopathy (‘herbal remedies’), hydropathy (water cures), mesmerism (hypnotism) and galvanism (electric therapy) as well as blatant fraudulence through the promotion of useless pills, powders and coloured liquids. From 1866 notions that disease was caused and cured by mental or spiritual power alone were circulated by the Christian Science movement. (8)

When your options are reading a book and praying about it verses galvanism, I think I’d take my chances with prayer as well.

Glancing through the Fruitage chapter in Science and Health it is easy to see how prayer would be preferable to the treatments of the day. When dates are given, they range from 1883 – 1904, not exactly the peak of modern medicine, and many of the people writing in with healings mention the possibility of surgery which was something to be avoided. The Rose Melnick Medical Museum reminds us

  • Surgery could also be carried out in a patient’s home. Anesthesia was not widely used until the end of the century, so most surgeries were limited to surface areas of the body and a patient’s tolerance of pain. Early anesthesia consisted ether or chloroform, and carried some risk of asphyxiation. An additional risk in this type of surgical setting is infection. In the United States, anti-septic was not common until the turn of the century, so the risk of infection from any surgery was high. (9)

The Museum mentions that anesthesia was not widely used until the end of the century, so I can understand a certain amount of hesitance at the thought of visiting a doctor. The medical profession had a lot to make up for after years of infection, quakery and death.

Ms. Eddy’s ideas were not particularly radical (10), nor were they any deadlier than the treatments of the day. The biggest difference is that the medical community strives to improve and continues to advance while Christian Science continues to remain firmly in 1879. (11)


Assorted further reading

Medical History Timelines


  1. For some perspective in 1870 the 15th Amendment is passed enfranchising black men, but not women, with the right to vote. (http://www.bloomu.edu/wrc/timeline)
  2. via wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Baker_Eddy
  3. via wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/19th_century#Science and more
  4. http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/treatment/mindbody-medicine
  5. It is very important to remember that up until 1906, when President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Pure Food & Drug Act, “patent medicines” were widely available for use by unsuspecting individuals, and quackery was only beginning to be cracked down on by the mid-1800s. via wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quack
  6. Anecdotal evidence also makes up the entirety of the Fruitage chapter in the current edition of S&H
  7. http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/mind-body-000355.htm
  8. http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/h/health-and-medicine-in-the-19th-century/
  9. ibid. Please note in the V&A article, Christian Science is lumped in under the “growing medical industry.
  10. http://rosemelnickmuseum.wordpress.com/2009/03/11/19th-century-doctors-in-the-us/
  11. The MOST RADICAL part about the teachings is that they were coming from a woman, and that some of her followers thought she was the woman in Revelation – more on that later.
  12. For example modern medicine no longer believes that cucumbers cause cholera, but CS continues to perpetuate the idea that prayer can heal everything.
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3 thoughts on “cucumbers cause cholera

  1. Anonymous One says:

    In the mid-1800s and even into the late 1800s, (before the germ theory was well-known or even widely accepted), it was generally believed that a “moral question” caused sickness and even death, and that’s part of the reason that Quimby’s methods and “New Thought” (also known as “Higher Thought”) took hold so fast and became wildly popular.

    Sin was considered to be a cause of disease, but the subsequent shame and self-loathing that followed on the heels of sin fueled the fires, and with this as the “underlying cause” of sickness, the cure was readily apparent! Wrestle those demons of bad thought to the ground and destroy them!

    New Thought had the cure: Watch your thoughts, and think only pure and holy thoughts.

    If you read the literature of the day, it was also widely accepted that, in the case of children (who were considered “pure”), it was the mother’s thought that was the source of the trouble. When a child became ill, it was believed that it was the mother who’d allowed the thought demons into the familial hearth and home.

    That’s why Eddy said that in the case of children, the disease “needs to be met mainly through the mother’s thought.”

    In the mid-1800s, It was accepted that, in the case of children, the cause was the mother’s bad thoughts, so it followed logically that the cure lay there as well.

    When I began studying late 1800s/early 1900s American literature and history, I began to see that Eddy’s ideas were not radical for the time, but a natural progression of Quimbyism, New Thought, Higher Thought, etc. In fact, as modern medicine began inching along (with the discovery of the germ theory and the anti-diphtheria serum and other medical advances), Eddy’s ideas fast became old-fashioned.

    By the 1930s, immunizations had become more science than blind hope, and it’s not coincidental with the rapid strides in medical care, Christian Science church attendance began to ebb.

    Mid-19th Century America was a fascinating time in history, and it was radically different from 21st Century America, and one of the most remarkable differences is the Victorian’s curious views of suffering, disease and death (and its causes).

    • kat @ kindism says:

      I think the other reason for the decline of CS is that medical care has continued to progress forward while Christian Science remains “a natural progression of Quimbyism.”

  2. mkhuggins says:

    This is an excellent post. It is great to see you doing this work to put Eddy into her cultural context and point out how things were and how they are. Good job!

    New thought, Quimyism, called by many other names is still alive and well. It is everywhere, but never called such anymore.You can recognize it when you see it because it is basically the same thing, “your thoughts create your reality” and “you attract what you think about” New thought still holds the thinker responsible for conditions far beyond an individual’s ability to do much about. For instance, “all those people are poor because they chose to be”, or, “they attracted it into their lives”. Same with crippling diseases, dying young or of drug overdoses, same with child prostitution, I imagine. Imagining that some poor people chose their malady certainly absolves anyone else for another’s wretched cultural conditions.

    While I do believe one’s thinking can affect one’s reality and it is good to be positive; it is also good to see that there is a limit to how far this kind of thinking can take one. As far as I can see, New thought types, like CSers, take it way too far, even though they all allow medical science as needed, which is a big improvement, but still doesn’t address the issues of why they want to take thinking to such a magical level.

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