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The Ludwell Blog

News and research on the life, community, and worldview of Colonel Philip Ludwell III.
philip ludwell iii virginia general assembly cure for cancer

Philip Ludwell III and a Cure for Cancer

Philip Ludwell III served as a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses (the lower chamber of the Virginia Assembly) as representative for Jamestown from 1742 to 1749. On October 27, 1748, (when he was still only thirty-one years old) he was proposed as Speaker of the House by Benjamin Waller. (Nearly twenty-eight years later it would fall to Waller to read the newly arrived Declaration of Independence from the courthouse steps in Williamsburg.) In his speech nominating Ludwell he is described by Waller as “A gentleman of known ability and integrity, and entirely equal to that Trust.”

Less than two months after this, on December 15, 1748, Ludwell introduced a bill into the Virginia Assembly for “regulating the Practitioners in Physic, Chirurgery [Archaic form of surgery from Greek χειρουργική cheirourgikē], and Pharmacy, in this Colony; for settling their Fees, and granting them certain Privileges and Immunities.” One week earlier, on December 8, 1748, Ludwell’s concern for medicinal matters had been evidenced when he was delegated by the Assembly to “make an experiment of the Efficacy of the Medicine that shall be by the said Mary Johnson to them communicated…” The Assembly’s minutes record prior to this decision that one hundred pounds (a very substantial sum of money that would equate to at least tens of thousands of dollars in today’s money) be given out of public funds to Mary Johnson for “discovering her Method of curing cancers.”

Who was this Mary Johnson whom Ludwell was deputed to work with and what was the cure for cancer that she was claiming to have discovered? The answer to this question demonstrates how contemporary history can be: in September 2008 the US Federal Trade Commission heard a complaint against the Native Essence Herb Company filed as Docket No. 9328. It seems that they were marketing a cure for cancer of which sorrell was a key ingredient. The Commission noted in this respect that:

Throughout the centuries, the sorrels have appeared in historical archives as a folk remedy for cancer in both Europe and America. In the late 1740’s, legislation was introduced in Williamsburg, Virginia, that permitted Mrs. Mary Johnson to use this plant as a treatment for cancer [Emphasis mine]. . . . In 1926, the National Cancer Institute received a recipe from Canada citing an old Indian cure for cancer using a paste made with bread and the juice of sheep sorrel, applied externally. Thus, it would appear from early literature that the sorrels were used to treat cancer.
Mrs Johnson’s experiments must have continued for at least a number of years as the Virginia Almanack of 1754 records that the Assembly permitted her to use herbs in the treatment of cancer and that she presented receipts for the cost of the preparation of her herbal remedies. To what extent, if any, Philip Ludwell was still involved with her experiments by this time I have not been able to determine. But his interest in and support of the healing arts clearly continued: in September 1756 he became one of the founding donors of America’s first hospital in Philadelphia. We read in the Philadelphia Gazette of September 30, 1756 that:
Colonel Philip Ludwell, a Gentleman of Virginia, passing through this City lately in his Return from New-York, made a very generous Present of Twenty Pounds Sterling to the Academy, and Ten Pounds Sterling to the Pennsylvania Hospital.

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