Sappington’s Theory & Treatment of Fevers

As I have long since departed from the theory and practice in which I was principally taught, and am now engaged in writing against them, it may be proper that I should give my reasons to the public for doing so.  —John Sappington, Theory and Treatment of Fevers.

The library has recently acquired one of the earliest books published west of the Mississippi and the first medical book printed in Missouri, John Sappington’s Theory and Treatment of Fevers … Revised and corrected by Ferdinand Stith, Arrow Rock [Mo.], Published by the Author, 1844.

The book, Sappington’s first and published by the author in aproximatey16,000 copies, went against contemporary medical treatment of fevers, which included bloodletting, vomiting with the use of emetics, and administering Calomel or Mercury Chloride as a purgative, and instead advocated the efficacy of his own anti-fever pills. Sappington had found both medical and commercial success in fighting fevers with the release of his “Dr. Sappington’s Anti-Fever Pills,” which he began to sell in 1832. The ingredient responsible for their efficacy was quinine, a substance derived from the bark of a South American tree. It was soon discovered that the pills were highly effective in the treatment of malaria (a dreaded and wide-spread disease for southern frontier settlers), and in 1835, Sappington founded Sappington and Sons to meet demand and widen distribution.  The Theory and Treatment of Fevers, however, was not a commercial or advertisement ploy to sell more pills, which Sappington had been successfully selling for nearly a decade by the time of the book’s publication. Rather, the author professed a benevolent desire and purpose for the book and even went so far as to included the ingredients for his lucrative anti-fever pills:

Although the author has vended pills to a large amount, and realized considerable sums of money by his sales, the people have also saved a great many dollars by using them; been relieved of much pain and suffering, and very many lives have no doubt been saved and prolonged. The author considers himself driven to this alternative, more from motives of benevolence than from those of self-interest. (79)

Sappington’s Anti-Fever Pills “were simply composed of one grain quinine each, three-fourths of a grain of liquorice, and one-fourth grain of myrrh, to which was added just so much of the oil of sassafras as would give to them an agreeable odor” (79).

Princeton’s copy contains the bookplate of H. P. Engle, M. D., undoubtedly the county physician Harry P. Engle of Newton, Iowa:

A biographical sketch and photograph of H. P. Engle, M. D., can be found in the Standard Historical Atlas of Jasper County, Iowa, while Dr. Engle’s early adoption of the automobile and its benefit to county physicians can be read in “The Most Satisfactory Investment for the County Physician Harry P. Engle, M.D. Newton, Iowa.”

The Sappingtons went on to became a very prominent and influential Missouri family.  A detailed account of Dr. Sappington’s life and his legacy, including portraits of family members and photographs of his Anti-Fever Pills and related ephemera, can be found on the State Historical Society of Missouri’s Historic Missourians, Nurses & Doctors, website: John S. Sappington (1776-1856). The historical society also houses the Sappington Family Papers.

Select Bibliography:

Eimas, Richard (Ed.). Heirs of Hippocrates: The Development of Medicine in a Catalogue of Historic Books in the Hardin Library for the Health Sciences, the University of Iowa. Third Edition. Iowa City: Published for the University of Iowa Libraries by the University of Iowa Press, 1990. Available online: Heirs of Hippocrates.

Morrow, Lynn. “Dr. John Sappington: Southern Patriarch in the New West.” Missouri Historical Review. Vol 90, no. 1 (October 1995): 38-60.

Sappington, John. The­ory and Treat­ment of Fevers … Revised and cor­rected by Fer­di­nand Stith.  Arrow Rock [Mo.]: Pub­lished by the Author, 1844.

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