A rare look at Louisa May Alcott’s life as an invalid and a patient

You never know what you will find out from a librarian. Or where research will lead you. That’s what makes it so addictive.

The Alcotts and Homeopathy

My research on Elizabeth Alcott has recently led me into the world of alternative medicine. The Alcotts were followers of Homeopathy, a popular alternative to traditional medicine in the nineteenth century founded by Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician. Transcendentalists were among the earliest advocates of Homeopathy as opposed to Allopathy (traditional medicine). In her book, A Vital Force: Women in American Homeopathy, Anne Taylor Kirschmann writes,

“Many were attracted to Hahnemann’s metaphysical view of disease causality, his emphasis on the connection of mind and body in healing, and his insistence that only the spirit-like activity of mediinal substance (rather than the material drug) would influence a disordered spirit — the root cause of all disease.” (page 31)

Homeopathy, unlike Allopathy, was based on the premise that “like cures like.” Tiny doses of natural remedies first increase the symptoms but then cure the disease. The Alcotts turned to Hahnemann’s book, Organon of the Healing Art to treat small pox in 1850 and scarlet fever in 1856. Lizzie’s final physician, Dr. Christian Geist, was a homeopathic practitioner.

Alcott collections across the country

I discovered that along with Louisa May Alcott, many suffragettes supported homeopathy. This led me to send an inquiry to a professor I found online who had written on homeopathy. While he was not able to help, he referred me to a reference librarian at the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library of Yale University who sent me many fascinating links to places around the country that contain archives related to the Alcotts. Along with the well-known collections at Harvard University in Cambridge and the New York Public Library are collections at the University of Virginia and Brigham Young University. In fact, much of Madeleine B. Stern’s research is found at Brigham Young.

Here is the link to the various archives.

A previously unpublished story

Now for my discovery. Brigham Young has a previously unpublished story by Louisa May Alcott written near the end of her life when she was living in the nursing home of Dr. Rhoda Lawrence, also a homeopathic practitioner. Called “A Free Bed,” it includes an introduction and notes by Madeleine Stern. Brigham Young University published a limited number of copies of the story (350 to be exact), each bound with twine and printed on handmade paper. And, each edition is numbered. I was able to acquire copy number 114 on Amazon for a good price.

Stern’s notes describe how the manuscript was found and authenticated. Discovered along with numerous letters in the 1960s in the attic of a Wellesley, Massachusetts home (the town I grew up in and now work in), the home had belonged to the daughter of a Boston minister who published and edited a religious periodical. Stern speculated that the manuscript might have been submitted for publication in his magazine.

Sterns describes the manuscript as a minor story consisting of 11-1/2 pages. It is initialed “L.M.A.” at the end. As of 1978, a printed version of “A Free Bed” had not been located.

How the manuscript was authenticated

Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska (from Wikipedia)

Sterns went on to write that the story, although undated, can be traced to the end of Louisa’s life thanks to a reference to a “Dr. Z” in the manuscript. “Dr. Z” turned out to be Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska, founder of the New England Hospital for Women and Children. She was connected to Dr. Rhoda Lawrence when the hospital was moved to Roxbury in 1872 where Dr. Lawrence’s rest home would be located.

Dr. Zakrzewska was also well known to Ednah Dow Cheney who served on the board of directors of the hospital along with Louisa’s cousin, Samuel E. Sewell.

Converting her life to fiction

Stern describes “A Free Bed” as a “static” story with no real plot, calling it rather “an emotional and ethical profession.” It consists of a conversation between two women at a hospital, one who is lamenting her condition, and the other, offering hope through a life filled with purpose. The story gives us a glimpse into Louisa’s life as a patient and her struggle to maintain a purposeful life despite being plagued by ailments and pain.

Stern shared a passage from a letter from Louisa describing how she converted her life into fiction:

“Any paper, any pen, any place that is quiet suit me … Now … I can write by two hours a day … While a story is underway I live in it, see the people, more plainly than real ones, round me, hear them talk.” (page 3, Introduction by Madeleine B. Stern, “A Free Bed” by Louisa May Alcott).

Madeline B. Stern as a young woman

Parallels to real life

I immediately saw the parallel between the two characters, Mrs. Moody and Mrs. Cheerable, and Jo and Beth / Louisa and Lizzie. Louisa often said that Lizzie was her spiritual guide and I knew that her sister’s influence was best revealed in her writing. Louisa, like Lizzie, became an invalid and suffered greatly from her illness. She had been most impressed by Lizzie’s even temperament and her industry. Mrs. Cheerable described little gifts that she made for patients she had “adopted” from a free bed she endowed to the hospital. She sought to convince Mrs. Moody of the benefits of focusing on others as a means of coping with one’s own suffering. In typical Lizzie style, Mrs. Cheerable empathized with the patients who shared her free bed; she was not afraid to become emotionally involved even though the sick person might not recover. By the end of the story, Mrs. Moody agreed to visit the current occupant of the free bed because of Mrs. Cheerable’s admiration of the woman’s attitude and courage.

I have a dear elderly friend whom I visit every week who in every way is Mrs. Cheerable. I have known my friend for seven years and during that time I have taken copious mental notes of how she deals with her illness. No matter how poorly she feels, she rises every morning with purpose.

Louisa struggled to imitate her saintly sister in the hopes of better coping with her many ailments. Her moody temperament made it that much harder to do so. Always an Alcott however, she was resilient and tenacious. “A Free Bed” assured me that no matter how much she suffered, Louisa May Alcott faced her fate with grace.

Thank you to Brigham Young University, Madeleine Stern and the Wellesley woman who found the manuscript for giving us yet another glimpse into the life, mind and heart of Louisa May Alcott.



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14 Replies to “A rare look at Louisa May Alcott’s life as an invalid and a patient”

  1. Susan,It is so great that your research turned up another LMA story. Now I am really curious to read it. — Diane

    Sent from my T-Mobile 4G LTE Device

  2. Also I have the quote also, from Bronson after he was the first one to read Mrs Eddy’s book which took the homeopathy one step further to unlock the message in Genesis 1:31: And behold God saw everything he had made and it was very good” or in other words: God is All in all.

  3. This is FASCINATING. I live in the Boston area and have taken tours at the Orchard House too many times to count, but never heard about this book nor of this part of Louisa’s life. I knew she was sick for a while and died too young. Thanks for sharing your research.

  4. In my quest to collect all things LMA, I also came across this story. I have copy number 306. 🙂 Like you, I was thrilled to come across it.

    And just this morning I followed some different links to an image of the original handwritten manuscript at BYU. Here’s the direct link: http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/utils/getfile/collection/SCMisc/id/163/filename/164.pdf#toolbar=1&navpanes=1

    I’m glad I bought a copy, though. Besides the fact that I always have trouble reading Louisa’s handwriting, I just love how this one was printed, with the marbled cover and handmade paper.

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