Treasures from the Rare Book Room: Advice from a Quack or a Naturopath?

Random reflections on indigestion, bilious complaints, scrofula… by S. W. Tilke. London 1837.

This curious book is part of our gout collection, which has a few rare items. This book by Tilke, like others in the collection, is also scarce – few copies are known to be in existence. Scarce books typically were published in limited numbers, were so popular that they were read to death, or were too trivial to make it into a library collection. The scarcity of Tilke’s book may be linked to all three reasons. It was written by a self-professed expert, a baker-turned-healer, Samuel Westcott Tilke. Tilke, the owner of an establishment offering medical advice, remedies, and stay-in-clinic treatments, wrote a self-promoting work. It advertised his services, pills, medical preparations, and two products he invented: the Improved Enema Instrument and the Camphorated Spirit Bed Lamp. The language is suitable for the general public, and at one time was annotated with the handwritten notes of a studious reader. This suggests that the book gained some popularity. The presence of multiple underlined passages, marginal notes, and several additions prove that the book was studied with interest.

Would Tilke be considered a quack or a naturopath? The author shows that he was well-read and aware of current discussions in learned societies attended by the medical establishment. His medical advice could not do any harm. He promoted a healthy diet, the use of herbal medicines in the place of pills with harmful ingredients, and the use of medicated vapor baths to deliver medicine while bypassing digestive organs. He called for finding and removing the cause of an illness instead of focusing on its symptoms. He also recognized inequities in access to medical care and advocated for fixing polluted water in overpopulated urban areas in order to improve residents’ health. Tilke cleverly defended his rights to use his talents in treating people and serving the helpless poor; he explained to his critics that the quacks and empirics made true improvements in treating gout. He might not have had a diploma or a formal anatomical education, but he had “access to the finest anatomical museum” and the “knowledge [of a disease] from his practice.”

The book has Tilke’s portrait drawn from life and two folded broadsheets of advertisements. It was bound by the London binder E. Riley, who was coincidentally located in the vicinity of the British Medical Association. It is a half-leather binding, with parts of the board covered with marbled paper. The same marble pattern is also used on the end papers and even on the edge of the book. Tilke’s binding is a fitting example of paper decorated with floating colors.

~Gosia Fort