Emily Dickinson 1830 - 1886
February 29, 2008
** Emily Dickinson** 1830
- 1886 was a patient of homeopath William Wesselhoeft, as was her aunt Lavinia Norcross.
Emily wrote that he prescribed two homeopathic medicines for her. She didn’t think that the medicines were effective, but her older and more practical sister, Lavina, thought otherwise. Lavina (who originally referred Emily and their brother Austin to Dr. Wesselhoeft because he was her homeopath) asserted just two weeks after homeopathic treatment: “I think Emily may be very much improved. She has really grown fat.” Because Emily was always extremely thin, this statement of her gaining weight suggests some health improvements. Her brother Austin wrote Emily’s closest friend, Susan Gilbert: “He [their father] says Emily is better than for years since she returned from Boston” (Thomas, 1988, 219). And lending further support to the real benefits from the homeopathic treatment, within several months, she no longer complained about the chronic cough that she had experienced for five years. Thomas, H. K. Emily Dickinson’s “Renunciation” and Anorexia Nervosa, American Literature, May 1988, 60(2):205–225. quoted in Dana Ullman, The Homeopathic Revolution: Why Famous People and Cultural Heroes Choose Homeopathy. (North Atlantic Books, 2007). Page 87.
Emily Dickinson is considered, with Walt Whitman, as one of the two great American poets of the nineteenth century.
Between 1846 and 1852, Emily Dickinson experienced serious problems with her health, specifically a chronic cough, fatigue, and significant weight loss. Extracting clinical clues from her correspondence, some historians have suggested that she was suffering from tuberculosis (Hirschhorn, 1999).
Tuberculosis was and is a very serious disease, and epidemics of it have erupted at various times in human history. In 1851 it was the cause of one-third of all deaths in Boston, and Emily had many relatives who had died from it.
That year, Emily sought treatment with a highly respected homeopath, Dr. William Wesselhoeft in Boston (St. John, n.d.; Hirschhorn, 1999). Emily wrote that he prescribed two homeopathic medicines for her. She didn’t think that the medicines were effective, but her older and more practical sister (Lavina was actually Emily’s aunt), Lavina, thought otherwise. (”While in Boston, Emily and Vinnie (Lavina) had consulted Dr. William Wesselhoft. Emily’s interview with this eminent physician brought not only a noticeable improvement in her health but a certain buoyancy of spirit as well. This was not unusual with Dr. Wesselhoft’s patients.“)
Lavina (who originally referred Emily and their brother Austin to Dr. William Wesselhoeft because he was her homeopath) asserted just two weeks after homeopathic treatment:
"I think Emily may be very much improved. She has really grown fat."
Because Emily was always extremely thin, this statement of her gaining weight suggests some health improvements.
Her brother Austin wrote Emily’s closest friend, Susan Gilbert:
“He [their father] says Emily is better than for years since she returned from Boston” (Thomas, 1988, 219).
And lending further support to the real benefits from the homeopathic treatment, within several months, she no longer complained about the chronic cough that she had experienced for five years.
Other biographers of Emily Dickinson said that William Wesselhoeft’s treatment:
“brought not only a noticeable improvement in her health but a certain buoyancy of spirit as well” (Bingham, 1955, 175).
Despite the serious health problems that Emily Dickinson experienced in the 1840s and early 1850s, she lived considerably beyond these decades. She died in 1886.
Emily also mentions homeopath Cate Hamilton in her correspondence. There are also letters in her correspondence dated 18.3.1853, 24.3.1852 and 13.7.1851 which refer to homeopathy.
A great deal has been written about Emily repeatedly visiting Dr. William Wesselhoeft in Boston during 1846, 1851 and possibly May/June 1844.
William Wesselhoeft from 1845 had a considerable financial interest in his younger brother Dr. Robert Wesselhoeft’s Brattleboro Hydropathic Establishment in Brattleboro, Vermont, and he frequently referred his patients to that Water Cure for exercise and treatment.
There is a clear possibility that Emily journeyed with her mother to Brattleboro, in following this Boston doctor’s orders, at some time when Otis H. Cooley was maintaining his gallery there on Main Street. Her likeness - and that of her mother - may have been taken along Main Street, or possibly in some room convenient for the purpose at the Water Cure itself on Elliot Street. That noted and distinctive gallery tablecloth that Cooley used was quite portable and could have been carried easily from Springfield to Vermont.
Unfortunately the names of the 593 patients at the Wesselhoeft Water Cure from May 19, 1845 to the end of 1847 are not now available, and in the list of the 392 named patients during 1848, no Dickinson name is apparent.
It is noted in passing that Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s older brother, Dr. Francis John Higginson, was well acquainted with Dr. Robert Wesselhoeft, having a practice in Brattleboro for forty years. Thomas Wentworth Higginson later became Emily Dickinson’s friend and confidante.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson is also remembered as a correspondent and literary mentor to Emily Dickinson. In April 1862, Higginson published an article in the Atlantic Monthly, titled “Letter to a Young Contributor,” in which he advised budding young writers.
Emily Dickinson, a 32-year-old woman from Amherst, Massachusetts sent a letter to Higginson, enclosing four poems and asking,
"Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?" (Letter 261)
He was not — his reply included gentle “surgery” (that is, criticism) of Dickinson’s raw, odd verse, questions about Dickinson’s personal and literary background, and a request for more poems. Higginson’s next reply contained high praise, causing Dickinson to reply that it
“gave no drunkenness” only because she had “tasted rum before”
she still, though, had
“few pleasures so deep as your opinion, and if I tried to thank you, my tears would block my tongue” (Letter 265).
But in the same letter, Higginson warned her against publishing her poetry because of its defiant form and unconventional style.
Gradually, Higginson became Dickinson’s mentor and “preceptor,” though he himself almost felt out of Dickinson’s league.
“The bee himself did not evade the schoolboy more than she evaded me,” he wrote, “and even at this day I still stand somewhat bewildered, like the boy.” (“Emily Dickinson’s Letters,” Atlantic Monthly October 1891)
- ”.. and also Ms. Laura Matilda Towne, the homeopathic physician of the department, chief teacher and probably the most energetic person this side of civilisation: a person of splendid health and astonishing capacity… I think she has done more for me than anyone else by prescribing homeopathic arsenic as a tonic, one powder every day on rising, and it has already, I think (3 doses) affected me.”
After Dickinson died, Higginson collaborated with Mabel Loomis Todd in publishing volumes of her poetry — heavily edited in favor of conventional punctuation, diction, and rhyme. But Higginson’s intellectual prominence helped Dickinson’s altered but still startling and strange poetry gain favor, becoming quick bestsellers and lasting classics.
Until the end of her life, Emily Dickinson wrote long letters to Josiah Gilbert Holland and his wife Elizabeth Chapin, a close correspondence. It is not known precisely when Emily first met Mr. Holland.
To Benjamin Ruth Jones - ”but a man must be an idiot to suppose that a system of medicine which has won itself large numbers of skillful men from the regular profession and secured the approval, when compared directly with regular practice, of as intelligent people as can be found in this or any other country, has nothing of good in it.
“For you, without experiment, without observation, without careful study, to call homeopathy a system of unmitigated quackery, and to hold those in contempt who practice and patronise it, is a piece of the most childish arrogance.
“This is neither the way of true science nor liberal culture. You may be measurably certain that there is something in homeopathy worthy, not only of your examination, but of incorporation into your system of practice.
“It has already modified your practice while you have been talking and acting against it. You are not exhibiting today a third as much medicine as you did before homeopathy made its appearance.
“It has killed the old system of large dosing, let us hope, forever. This is a fact; and what you call no medicine at all has at least shown itself to be better than too much medicine, even when administered in the regular way.
“You say that a homeopathic dose cannot affect the human constitution, in any appreciable degree. A million men and women stand ready to swear that, according to their honest belief and best knowledge, they have themselves been sensibly affected by homeopathic doses, and that, on the whole, they prefer homeopathic to allopathic practice in their families, judjing from a long series of results.
”Now what are you going to do with facts like these? You cannot dismiss them with a contemptuous paragraph, and a wave of the hand, and maintain your reputation as a candid man. If you are a free man, and not under bondage to the most contemptible old fogyism that the World ever gave birth to, you will act as a free man… continue reading:”
The Quinsy approached Miss Goudy [?], but was dexterously warded off by homeopathic glances from a certain Dr Samuel Gregg, of whom you may hear in Boston.
The sense of being closely knit reveals itself also in the Dickinson habit of lampooning neighbors. Though the quotations are Emily’s words, the spirit is that of the clan. ”
'Mrs Skeeter' [perhaps Mrs. Luke Sweetser] is very feeble," she wrote Austin in March 1852, "'cant bear Allopathic treatment, cant have Homeopathic' — dont want Hydropathic — Oh what a pickle she is in — shouldn't think she would deign to live — it is so decidedly vulgar!"