Signatures And Psychotherapy

Similia similibus curantur, like is cured by like, is a very old

idea. According to the doctrine of signatures nature had put an

external natural marking or a symbolical appearance or characteristic

upon a plant, mineral or other object, to indicate its special

usefulness for the treatment of certain diseases or for affections of

certain organs. Sir Robert Boyle, sometimes spoken of as the father of

chemistry, said, "Chymists observe in the book of nature that those

simples that wear the figure or resemblance, by them termed signature,

of a distempered part, are medicinal for that part or that infirmity

whose signature they bear." On this principle yellow flowered plants

were good for jaundice, because they resembled it in color. The blood

stone was good for hemorrhage, and plants of certain forms were good

for the organs or parts of man which they resembled. Certain plants

were named with this idea. Kidneywort, liverwort, are typical

examples. Scorpion grass, our familiar forget-me-not of the genus

myosotis, was so-called because its spike resembled a scorpion's tail

and was, therefore, good against the scorpion's sting, or against

pains similar to that produced by such a sting. Some of the

resemblances were extremely far-fetched, but in spite of the defect of

nature's signature on them, they seem to have been effective in

therapeutics. The plant, sometimes called Jew's ear, which can by an

effort of the imagination be made to bear resemblance to the human

ear, was, for instance, supposed to be a successful cure for diseases

of that organ.

We know now that there is no significance in this doctrine of

signatures. It represented one phase of pseudo-science. But the idea

of itself was enough to help people to throw off many symptoms, to

relieve discouragement, to encourage them with the thought that they

ought to get better; accordingly they took new heart, ate better, went

out more, and as a result naturally slept better, and then nature did

the rest. Signatures are an exquisite example of pure psychotherapy,

as the initial agent and natural curative methods accomplishing the


Signature Details.--Some of the details of the doctrine of signatures

are amusing. For a considerable period nuts were supposed to be a good

brain food, and some traces of this idea are still extant, although

there does not seem to be any better reason for it than the fact that

many nuts have an arrangement of their lobes which resembles the

conformation of the brain. On the same principle the Chinese use

ginseng-root as a general tonic. The extract is not of any

special significance in medicine, though it has come to be much

advertised in recent years, and the Chinese continue to pay high

prices for it. The reason is that the root of the ginseng plant often

resembles the human body. The more nearly this resemblance can be

traced, the more virtue there is for the Chinese in the particular

specimen of ginseng. The signature is on the roots. It is good for man

because it looks like man, just as the nuts are good for the brain

because they look like the brain. In modern times we are likely to

think that we are far away from any such self-deception. But our

deceptions have a more appealing pseudo scientific element in them.

Fish was for some time considered a good brain food because fish has

phosphorus in it and so has the brain. The two reasons have as much

connection as that between nuts and the brain; or ginseng and man.

Astrological ideas came in to help out ignorance and foster supposed

knowledge. The sun and the stars were favorable planets and the moon

unfavorable. If anything about a plant reminded the gatherer of the

sun or the stars, then that plant was sure to be beneficial,

especially in chronic diseases. If anything reminded him of the moon,

however, then it could be expected to be maleficent in influence.

Though childish, this had yet its power to help.

The use of nitrate of silver, which in the old days was called lunar

caustic, because it had, in a fresh state, a silvery, moon-like sheen,

was largely a matter of signatures. The signature went both by

similitude and by contrary. Since the lunar caustic supposedly had a

moon quantity, therefore it would be good for moon-struck people--the

lunatics of the old time and of our own time. As a consequence nitrate

of silver was used in many obscure nervous and mental diseases. In

epilepsy it was commonly employed. Even in our own times, entirely on

empiric grounds, it was used for such severe organic nervous diseases

as locomotor ataxia and sometimes to such an extent as to produce

argyria. Undoubtedly, its use, with confidence on the part of the

physician and suggestion and persuasion on the part of the patient,

did much to relieve sufferers from discouragement and from such

psychic disturbance of their general health as would have made their

condition seem worse.

Wines as Remedies.--How much suggestibility means in the choice of

remedies that of themselves are more or less indifferent, may be well

judged from the recommendations with regard to various wines that have

been made by physicians. At one time and place it is red wine, at

another it is white wine that is particularly effective. For certain

nations the stronger wines, as Port or some of the Hungarian wines,

have appeared to exercise specific effects. Except for the tastiness

of these various brands or for other trivial accessories, it is

probable that the therapeutic efficacy of the wine depends entirely on

the alcohol and the effect of this upon the patient. In his "Memories

of My Life," Francis Galton relates that Robert Frere, one of his

fellow pupils with Prof. Partridge, who became through marriage in

later years a managing partner in a very old and eminent firm of wine

merchants, told him that the books of the firm for one hundred and

fifty years showed that every class of wine had in its turn been

favored by the doctors.

In prescribing wine the doctrine of signatures probably had more to do

with the special choice than anything else. Red wines were recommended

for anemic people, because somehow the coloring was supposed to affect

the patient in such a way as to make up for the lack of coloring

in the blood. On the other hand, the light, and especially the

straw-colored wines, were recommended for liver troubles, because of

their relation in color to the yellow of bile. Light wines were best

for people who had more color than normal. Some wines are much

stronger than others, and the alcohol, as in so many of our patent

medicines, had a stimulating tonic effect, but in olden times this was

supposed to constitute only the smallest portion of the efficiency of

the wine, while the ingredients that made its color and taste were

extremely important. The taking of red wine by anemic patients often

proved suggestively valuable, and the alcoholic stimulation led them

to eat more freely and look at things more hopefully and,

consequently, to improve in health more rapidly than would have been

the case had they not had the feeling that somehow they were actually

consuming elements that would make their blood red.

Precious Stones.--The doctrine of signatures applied particularly to

precious stones, and many of the popular medical superstitions with

regard to precious stones were founded on it. The blood stone was said

to be efficient as a tonic: it stimulated people: it made the anemic

stronger and ruddier if it were worn on the fingers. The torquise

turned pale when its owner was in poor health. It was the stone that

was an index of what has been called "the blues" or what one modern

writer has dignified by the title "splanchnic neurasthenia." Dr. Donne

wrote of:

A compassionate turquoise that doth tell

By looking pale, the owner is not well.

It is probable that the pallor of the patient's hands as the

background to the stone made the difference in its appearance thus

noted. It became deeper in hue, as it were, when people were in ruddy

health. The suggestive influence of such beliefs is easy to

understand. It is even possible that the wearing of an amethyst did

help to keep people from indulging in liquor to excess, for that is

the traditional effect of the wearing of this stone, though its virtue

seems to be founded on nothing better than the supposed derivation of

the name from the Greek a privative and methuo, "I get drunk,"

suggesting strongly to the wearer that he should not get drunk.

The jacinth superinduced sleep and doubtless the strong suggestion of

this supposed influence helped many sufferers from so-called insomnia

to get sleep. The single fixed idea that now they must get to sleep

would greatly help them. Pillows in the olden time were occasionally

set with bits of jacinth, and there is even the record of bed-linen

embroidered with it. This would probably be quite as effective as are

hop-pillows in the modern time, for their main influence, as is also

true of pine pillows, seems to be through suggestion. Some other

traditions with regard to precious stones are harder to understand,

yet may be explained. The owner of a diamond was supposed to be

invincible. Diamonds represented money and money meant power. It is

harder to explain the tradition that the possession of an agate made a

man able and eloquent.

The wide acceptance of the doctrine of signatures, and of allied

ideas, as to the effect of precious stones and metal and jewelry upon

disease, makes it clear that the acceptance of a mental

persuasion with the changes in habits that follow, may serve as the

basis of a successful system of therapeutics. The materials associated

with the idea had absolutely no more physical influence than does the

carrying of a horse chestnut or a potato in the pocket serve to keep

off rheumatism.

Sexual Neuroses Sleep Communications facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail