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Phineas Parkhurst Quimby: His Complete Writings and Beyond

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Phineas Parkhurst Quimby

Although Dr. Quimby died nine years before the period treated in this volume, it has been thought appropriate, in view of the widespread interest in his teachings, to include here a brief outline of his life and work.

Phineas Parkhurst Quimby was born in the town of Lebanon, New Hampshire, 16 February, 1802, and died in Belfast, 16 January, 1866. He was the son of Jonathan and Susannah (White) Quimby. The father, a blacksmith by trade, removed with his family to Belfast when Phineas was about two years of age. The son attended the town schools irregularly, and was apprenticed to a watch- and clock-maker, and later not only made clocks which are to-day accurate timekeepers, but became an inventor of some note. His education, which was supplemented in mature life by reading, was, however, for the most part derived from close observation and from his own original experiments; his active, penetrating, and inventive mind leading him to investigate first mechanical and scientific, and later philosophical subjects. Although not the recipient of any academic degree warranting the title, he was for many years generally referred to as Dr. Quimby.

In 1838, his attention was called to mesmerism, and after some time spent in experimentation with a youth named Lucius Burkmar as his "subject," he gave some astonishing exhibitions of mesmerism, often relieving at the same time much pain and suffering.

As his experience increased, Dr. Quimby became very much interested in developing his powers along the lines of helping the sick. He gradually came to place less and less importance on the part played in his cures by the intermediary "subject," Burkmar, and after some years gave him up entirely, and ceased to resort to mesmerism. It is at this epoch that he may be said to have formulated his final method, which consisted in the practice of treating those who were not well by influencing their mental life. In a "Circular to the Sick," which he distributed from 1860 to 1865, in Portland, Maine, where he was, during the latter part of his life, settled, he says: "As my practice is unlike all other medical practice, it is necessary to say that I give no medicines, and make no outward applications, but simply sit by the patient, tell him what he thinks is his disease, and my explanation is the cure. And, if I succeed in correcting his errors, I change the fluids of the system and establish the truth or health. The truth is the cure."

His "explanation," to which Dr. Quimby refers, consisted largely in setting right the false conceptions the persons who came to him held about themselves; hence it followed, naturally, that as soon as the patient accepted this "explanation," and thus recognized that his fears and worries had no real reason for existing, he was freed from them, and ceased to be their slave, and consequently was started at once on the road to recovery. His method was to disabuse the mind of its errors, and to establish truth in their place. He became more and more convinced that disease was largely an error of the mind, and not real, though he made a distinction between an error of the mind and one of imagination, and was wont to say that, to his suffering patients, there was no imagination about their pain. He believed that a superior wisdom could change the wrong state of mind and effect a cure. The only part of this "superior wisdom" to which he personally laid claim was that which his twenty-five years of intimate experience with the sick had gradually taught him. As a result of this "wisdom," or insight into their conditions, he devised his own method of helping and often curing those afflicted with disease, and he distinctly refers to this method as a Science. The words, Truth, Error, Wisdom, Science, Science of Health, etc., occur frequently throughout his writings.

It is worthy of note that while examining and treating the sick he was always in his normal condition, and that he never made any pretense of going into a trance, and was a strong disbeliever in spiritualism in its common acceptation. An insight into the character of Dr. Quimby may be obtained from the fact that his whole idea of happiness was to be able to serve and benefit mankind; and to administer to the sick and suffering seemed to him to be his special privilege, and to that end he labored sincerely and gave to it, without regard to pecuniary rewards, his strength, and finally his own life.

A study of Dr. Quimby's career and a perusal of such of his writings as are available give the impression that he was a distinctly original man, who, through his quarter of a century of practical experience in observing closely the workings of the human mind, discovered, independently and unaided, some of the most profound principles which underlie modern psychotherapy. The power of suggestion, the importance of substituting correct methods of thought for bad, and of maintaining wholesome normal attitudes towards life, and the need of correct adjustment both physically and mentally to one's surroundings, and the influence of environment, upon all of which the most learned students of psychology and psychiatry have laid so much stress during the last five years, appear to have been known to him. While it would doubtless be going too far to say that his use of the terms "change of fluids of the system," "chemical changes," etc., meant that he foresaw the very important part that chemistry was to play in the present decade in helping to understand the human mind and body, yet his recourse to the terms leads one to infer that he was even along these lines groping in the right direction. With wider opportunities for training and education, such a mind and personality would doubtless have gone very far in helping his fellow men. As it is, the principles he made use of, so important in the treatment of functional as distinguished from organic diseases, will outlive any existing sect, and the modesty with which he presented them was in great contrast to the loudness with which they have often been advertised in more recent times.

We are told by men who knew him that he was a most sincere man, an absolutely disinterested and unselfish one; while a study of his portrait, framed in its wealth of snow-white hair and the beard worn by his generation, and with its keen, piercing, but kindly eyes, its strong mouth, high intellectual forehead, and its forceful lines, and very evident power of intense concentration, is sufficient to convince any one of the general upright nature and strength of his character. The love, confidence, and gratitude of his patients, as well as the remarkable nature of his cures, are amply attested by letters still extant, and which have been read by the writer of the above.

His wife, who was Susannah Burnham, daughter of the late John Haraden, died 19 April, 1875. Their children, the late John Haraden Quimby, Mrs. James Woodbury Frederick, and George Albert Quimby, survived them, and the two latter are still living (1913).

[From: The History of the City of Belfast, in the State of Maine, Volume II, 1875-1900, by Joseph Williamson,  completed and edited by Alfred Johnson,  originally published: Houghton Mifflin Company, The Riverside Press Cambridge, Boston and New York,  1913. Ron Hughes]

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