A Brief History of Alternative Medicine by Deep Throat

September 20, 2010
Alan Berkenwald, MD

Dr. Berkenwald begins a three-part series on alternative and

Click here for Part II

We medical professionals labor, often in ignorance, of our curious past. Often glorious, sometimes vain and grasping, we did not arrive where we are today without struggle—a struggle against disease, death, and competing methodologies. "Regular" medicine, today, has a near monopolistic control of the largest economic sector in this country. It was not always so.

What follows is a three-part history (lite) of the competition between Alternative Medicine and "Regular" medicine.

Part I

Why Study History?

When I was attending New York City's public schools in the 1960s, it was usual, every year, to run out of time before the curriculum ended. In American History, time after time, we never made it past the Spanish-American War. To this day, countless New Yorkers never heard of World War "I". They assume World War "II" is a typo.

In medical school, I do not recall any lectures on medical history. (On the other hand, I don't recall any lectures on embryology. I was too grossed out by the pictures.) As none of my medical colleagues have a clue about our profession's past, I am reassured, thus, that I never slept through any such lectures.

My colleagues assume our profession sprung fully developed from the Greek Aesculepius, the god of healing. But, he only left us that stick with the snake wrapped around it, along with his daughter, Hygeia, the goddess of health. More important were his followers, the Aesculepiads. They were a secret, hereditary society of priests, prophets and physicians who would study the ill in their temple, exciting and preparing them to receive healing. They, thus, functioned very much like our modern hospitals.

Clearly, there is more to it than that.

Doctors Were Gods

It is true, that in earliest human society, the role of the healer was both religious and supernatural. Primitive man believed that illness was caused by "magic", sent by man or demon to harm him, or visited upon him by a deity for reasons clear or otherwise. This primitive 'health care system' functioned with little conflict between the different roles played by the physician-priest-prophet.

Early Christianity developed a competing, 'proprietary' health care system to heal people both physically and spiritually. Monks and monasteries preserved and applied the rudimentary surgical skills of the era. By the middle ages, in a major 'policy shift', the Church forbade further practice of medical and surgical techniques. It was deemed not acceptable for a priest to take a life, even while trying to save it, by the knife. (Was this a rudimentary attempt at tort reform? Scholars and pundits disagree.) It was, thus, left to the layman to practice and further develop needed medical skills.

With the Church pulling out of the 'market' (and, with it, a major source of capital funding), medical practice in Europe developed slowly, albeit with a strong and defensive intellectual hierarchy and tradition. It fell to Colonial America—where anyone could appropriate the title of doctor and practice medicine in any fashion—that the field soon exploded. After all, people came to America to start anew. The land was wide open, as was the populace to new ideas and practices.

Before 1800, most American physicians learned their craft under an apprenticeship with an older physician, as there were only three medical schools in this country. Illness was thought due to hereditary and emotion (which any fool could clearly understand). Physical exam was limited to the strength of the patient's pulse, tone of his skin, regularity of his breathing, and the color of his urine and stool.

The drive for the standards and trappings of a profession, as opposed to an open trade, came from those doctors emigrating from Europe or returning after studies there. In this country, schools of medicine were slow to start, since who needed the burden of 'student loans' when you could just hang a shingle and get to work.

Going to Medical School

Being of a proprietary nature and run on a for-profit basis, American medical schools had minimal entrance requirements. Most did not require a high school diploma and less than 20% of the medical students had some college education. As a degree was still not required to practice medicine, only 20% to 70% of the practicing physicians in some parts of the country actually graduated from a medical school. (Think of the money saved on tuition.)

The medical curriculum of that time was presented in lecture classes with minimum basic sciences (primarily chemistry) being taught. It was rare for a patient to be seen in the setting of these medical schools; models and preserved anatomical specimens were used instead, no matter how dusty or distressed. Following four sessions of 16 weeks each, over a two year period, graduates could choose to continue their education by means of apprenticeship, private tutelage, and hospital and dispensary courses, as well as further study abroad. Or, they could immediately start practicing their skills upon the public, for better or for worse.

With such an open and eclectic approach to medicine, it was natural that various competing disciplines—the "Sectarians"—appeared. After all, the field was wide open. These were the halcyon days where there were no medical administrators, paper work, or protocols. All you needed to succeed was a quick wit and a sharp knife.

In Part II, the role of the "Sectarians," those whose methodologies hinged on the organizing principles laid down by visionary individuals. Sectarians believed in proprietary methodologies that did not allow for the observations or interpretations by those outside their closed, internally consistent, systems. This marks the birth of "Alternative" medicine.