A short walk in the 19th century through six websites

By Alison Denham, Herbalist & former Senior Lecturer, University Central Lancashire

The aim of this blog is to help you find free, downloadable primary sources for the history of herbal medicine in the 19th century. No charges or membership are needed for any of these websites.


In the early 19th century, with the advent of steam-printing, numerous books on healthcare and herbalism were published. Often presented as a “Domestic Guide”, they were written for a wide audience with varying levels of medical knowledge (Murphy, 1991). An article on Bristol herbalists in the 19th century gives some idea of the context (Brown, 1982).


 In the last five years, many 19th century books have been digitized and are now available online to download for free.

The focus of this overview is on primary sources written by herbalists in Britain and in America. Only a few sources are listed which we recommend as good places to start.

 1.    Henriette’s Herbal Homepage:


Then as now, people often referred to older books. Here is an example, first published in 1755 by John Hill (1714-1775), and reprinted in 1812.

Hill, J. 1812. The useful family herbal. Bungay: Brightly & Kinnersley.

Henriette’s Herbal homepage sets the books organisation out herb by herb.

 2.    Wellcome Library:

https://wellcomelibrary.org/search-the-catalogues/ wellcome

The Wellcome Library in London is digitizing 19th and 18th century sources – mainly British.

For example, Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, first published in 1652 by Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), was widely read in numerous editions.

  • Type Wellcome library catalogue in Google. This takes you to the search page.
  • Type Culpeper 1842. This takes you to:

Culpeper, N. (1842). The complete herbal and English physician enlarged. London: Thomas Kelly.

3.    Books by herbalists:  Wellcome Library


  • Go to Advanced Search and type Stevens, John in Author and medical reform in title
  • You will see a list of editions. Go to the one with the button View online. Click on the button. This takes you to:

Stevens, J. 1847 Medical reform, or physiology and botanic practice, for the people. London: Whittaker & Co.

This contains a clear exposition of Thomsonian principles.

You can read online, or search on a word in the text online, or download as a pdf.

  • Type coffin botanic in the search box. This takes you to the 1866 edition.

Coffin, A. I. 1866. Botanic guide to health and the natural pathology of disease. 36th ed. London: A. Coffin, printed by Job Caudwell.

4.    Google books:


Google books has google-booksnumerous texts. You will find The family medical adviser published in 1852 by John Skelton (1805-1880).  You cannot download the pdf but can search online and can “keep” the book in “My library.”

Skelton, J. 1852. Family medical adviser. 2nd ed. Leeds: Moxon and Walker.

John Skelton (1805-1880) a shoemaker and labour leader, was a signatory of the People’s Charter in 1839, and then became Albert’s Coffin’s assistant in 1848 and remained in herbal practice throughout his life. Maybe because of his rural childhood in Devon, Skelton was a big advocate of pick-your-own.

5.    Medical Heritage Library:


The Medical Heritage Library is bringing together digitised sources form many universitylibraries.

Many books are in more than one place. So, Family medical adviser is also available here, where it is downloadable.

  • Type john skelton family medical adviser
  • Type fox nadin in the search box.

This takes you to The working-man’s family botanic guide,  one of the most republished herbal books of the 19th century. It was published in Sheffield by two medical botanists who were early agents for Coffin. The text draws on the earlier book by Stevens.

Fox, W. and Nadin, J. 1852. The working-man’s family botanic guide. Sheffield: Dawsons.

This is not available online via Google or the Wellcome.

The Wellcome has the first edition of 1852 but it is not yet digitized.

The Southwest School of Botanical Medicine has the 1924 edition alongside lots of Eclectic texts at http://www.swsbm.com/HOMEPAGE/HomePage.html

6.    National Library of Medicine:


The National Library of Medicine has a bewildering number of American books and pamphlets available online. Type Thomsonian in the search box and there are 286 sources including numerous versions of Thomson’s New guide to health, or botanic family physician.

We know that the following books were imported into Britain by John Skelton in the 1850s so they are a good place to start.

Type comfort, john in the search box for:

Comfort, J. W. 1843. The practice of medicine on Thomsonian principles, adapted as well to the use of families as to that of the practitioner. 3rd ed.  Philadelphia: A. Comfort.

Type botanic theory and practice for:

Worthy, A. 1842. A treatise on the botanic theory and practice of medicine.  Forsyth: C.R. Hanleiter.

Type wooster beach for:

Beach. W. 1848. The American practice condensed, or the family physician. 14th ed. New York: James M’Alister.


It is easy to become confused as to which book is where!  But, this digitization is opening up a new world for herbalists to read prescriptions, to understand more about individual herbs, but also to ask the question  – where have we come from and where are we going?


Brown, P. S. 1982. Herbalists and medical botanists in mid-19th-century Britain with special reference to Bristol. Medical History, 26(4), pp. 405–420.

Murphy, L. R. 1991. Enter the physician: the transformation of domestic medicine, 1760-1860. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.