Rush's Pills were Dr. Benjamin Rush's early 1800s cure-all concoctions consisting of calomel (a combination of mercury and chlorine ...yum!) and jalap (the root of the Central American plant Ipomea purga). Also known as thunderclappers or thunderbolts, the very powerful pill was a fast acting laxative. (hence the plant's name and pill's nickname) At a time when little was known about actual causes of disease, the treatments for illness usually had to do with attempting to remove the presumed cause from the body. Dr. Rush, one of the foremost physicians of his time, was a very strong proponent of bloodletting, induced vomiting, and other purging of bodily fluids.

Rush's Pills are most famous for being included on the Lewis and Clark expedition. Thomas Jefferson was a good friend of Dr. Rush and so when Jefferson named Meriwether Lewis to lead the expedition, Jefferson instructed Lewis to gather medical equipment and knowledge from the doctor. Dr. Rush's contributions included his pills, lancets to correctly make one bleed, substances to induce vomiting, other laxatives, and clyster syringes for enemas. He also gave Lewis a list of rules to follow during the trip:

  • Flannel worn next to the skin, especially in wet weather
  • Always to take a little raw spirits after being very wet or much fatigued; and as little as possible at any other time
  • When you feel the least indisposition, fasting and rest; and diluting drinks for a few hours, take a sweat, and if costive take a purge of two pills every four hours until they operate freely
  • Unusual costiveness is often the sign of an approaching disease. When you feel it, take one or two of the opening pills
  • Where salt cannot be had with your meat, steep it a day or two in common lye
  • In difficult and laborious enterprises or marches, eating sparingly will enable you to bear them with less fatigue and more safety to your health
  • Washing feet with spirit when chilled, and every morning with cold water
  • Molasses or sugar with water with victuals and for drink with meals
  • Shoes without heels
  • Lying down when fatigued

600 pills were brought along on the trip, were used often, and were actually credited with saving Lewis' life. Near what is now Paducah, KY Lewis came down with what was believed to be malaria. As Lewis recorded in his journal, "I took a doze of Rush's pills which operated extremely well and I found myself much to my satisfaction intirely clear of fever by evening". Though Lewis credited the pills with his recovery, Lewis would have likely been helped more by the peruvian bark they were carrying than the pills. The bark was one of the few medical substances they carried that would still be considered medicine today as it contains the drug quinine which controls fevers.


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