A Brief History of Alternative Medicine by Deep Throat, Part II

The second in a series on alternative medicine, this installment looks at the first organized attempt at natural medicine -- and its many spin-offs.

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"Alternative Medicine" is identified

Philosophically, at this time, thought was divided as to causality of illness. Either it came from within, as evidenced by those with "weak constitutions"; or from without, in environments containing "bad" air, water, or other subtle poisons. Methodologies thus developed that looked both inward, searching the body’s alignment of bones or organs, as well as outward, to the environment, for external influences. Anyone with a strong opinion, and a means to express it, could hypothesize a medical theory, formulate a methodology, and get rich.

In 1836, the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal listed the then current and competing medical sects. There were the "regulars"—the presumed readers of the Journal (precursor to New England Journal of Medicine), and the "irregulars"—the Baroussaisians, Sangradoarians, Morrisonians, Bradethians, Beechitareians, Botanics, Regular Botanics, Thomsonians, Reformed Thomsonians, Theoretical, Practical, Experimental, Dogmatical, Emblematical, Electrical, Magnetical, Diplomatical Homeopathians, Rootists, Herbists, Florists, and “Quacks”. The listing of "Quacks” itself included chronothermalists, mesmerists, Indian doctors, clairvoyants, and spiritualists.

Meet the competition

The first successful, national, organized, medical society in this country was the Thomsonians, based on the personal experiences, teachings and texts of its founder, Samuel Thompson, a self-taught man who published his “New Guide to Health” in 1822. Thompson felt every man was qualified to practice medicine and saw the trappings of other practitioners as solely for power and mystification. His principles were simple; animal bodies were composed of the basic elements—earth, air, fire and water; disease was caused by a cold and cured by heat; heat came from the sun and was captured by herbs and other plants; and botanicals were thus curative. Non-vegetable remedies were mineral based, of the earth, and thus "cold" and non-curative.

  • It was very popular.
  • It was mail-order (a primitive form of email).
  • Rapid acceptance followed.

Thomsonian medicine was the first organizational attempt at natural medicine, and its proponents strove to expose "quacks" as readily as other physicians. (From “Zell's Popular Encyclopedia", 1886: ‘quack’ — a verb, noun; "to cry like the common domestic duck; to boast; to talk noisily and ostentatiously; a boastful pretender to medical skill which he does not possess.")

This organizational effort was due, in part, to zealous belief in their methods—and in profit. In our profession's noble history of suppressing economic competition, this was the opening shot, and fired first by organized alternative medicine! The Thomsonian movement empowered the layman who could study those methods and practice with readily available ingredients. People could be freed from the domination of a professional healing class—a popular democratic concept in this Jacksonian era. The rights to practice, as well as the instructions, could be obtained by anyone for $20. Over 100,000 rights were sold by 1840.

The wild, wild west

Thompsonian medicine was the first of the successful patented medicines and it soon inspired its own competition. Other successful medical methodologies of the era included the following:

Eclectics:

Dr. Wooster Beach was a 'conventionally' trained physician who, in 1827, thought an educated man could do more to further the interesting ideas of Samuel Thompson. He opened the first botanical, degree granting medical school in 1830. (Of note, it was the first medical school, ever, to admit women and blacks.) They professed to select the best single remedy from all the sects and schools that existed, be it botanical or mineral in origin. However, in the era of mercury, arsenic and other mineral poisons that conventional doctors were using, they advanced knowledge of botanicals. They were the first to use chemists to produce concentrated extracts of botanicals. And, in an astounding paradigmatic shift that brought them financial and popular success, they created botanical preparations that tasted good, a first in a world where all 'effective' remedies were supposed to taste nasty and bitter.

By 1906, there were 10 Eclectic medical schools in the US. After the Flexner report of 1910, exposing the appalling state of medical education in this country, they all closed. Their legacy, however, remains both in Mary Poppins song, "Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down," and in the evolution of laboratory-made drugs.

Osteopathy:

Founded by Andrew Taylor Still in the mid 19th-century, Osteopaths believed that the body, in a state of normal musculoskeletal structural relationship and in a favorable environment with good nutrition, is able to make its own remedies and defend itself against disease and other assaulting toxins. It emphasized the importance of manipulative methods in correcting faulty structural relationships and in detecting abnormalities. However, it believed in the "rule of the artery" where it was the circulatory system—not the nervous system—that determined health.

'Dr'. Stills, son of a preacher man who never had any formal education, discovered the principles of Osteopathy when, at the age of 10, suffering from headaches and stomach ailments, he threw a rope over a tree limb and hung himself by his head on a makeshift swing. After surviving a deep sleep in this position, he awoke cured with new insights into medical pathology. He founded the first Osteopathic Medical School in 1892; his graduates founded other, for profit, Osteopathic schools to compete with him. This competition encouraged each school to be 'early adapters' and open to accepting new breakthroughs, embracing the Germ Theory, blood studies, surgery, and pharmacology, in their effort to attract students and their tuition.

Osteopaths, confronted by 20th century medical progress in laboratory science, embraced, in 1929, "supplementary therapeutics", to go along with manipulative techniques. Such acceptance made this the only sectarian practice to survive successfully, to this day, without scientific stigma.

Chiropractic:

In 1895, a janitor in Davenport, IA, suddenly lost his hearing. A local healer, D.D. Palmer, evaluated him and found a misplaced vertebra in his back exam. With an effective snap of his hands the vertebra was pushed back into place, the janitor's hearing was restored, and Chiropracty was born.

Seen as competition to the Osteopaths (who called them "quacks"), they shunned drugs and surgical intervention. Chiropracty was based on the belief that illness is caused by abnormal functioning of the "nerve highway" as it runs through the spinal canal. Thus, by adjustments of the spinal column, all manner of cures can be obtained.

D.D. Palmer was not a financial success. He opened his first school, Palmer's School of Magnetic Cure, in 1899, and had no more than five students a year enrolled. His son, B.J. Palmer, bought the school in 1906, and under his guidance, it quickly prospered. For $500 and a six-month study, a "Doctor of Chiropractic" degree was received. B.J. was famous for many things, but his marketing skills were revolutionary. He created his own publishing and advertising firm as part of this campaign. His motto: "Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise", was promoted in his 1926 book, "Selling Yourself", a 'how to' manual on promoting Chiropracty.

Naturopathy:

Benjamin Lust, a German physician, founded the American School of Naturopathy in 1902, advancing a German based belief system holding that disease came from violations of the natural laws of living—essentially a build-up of toxins and waste matter in the body—that accumulates and causes organ malfunction and disease. It was a drugless form of healing that relied on physical forces such as massage, diet, colonic irrigation, and special "Detox Baths" focusing on the genitals. It has since evolved to focus more on diet and herbal supplements, and less on genitals and high colonics.

Homeopathy:

Based on the interesting premise that the body cannot suffer two similar illnesses at the same time (i.e. a body cannot have two fevers simultaneously), thus one illness can "drive" out the other. Hence, homeopathic followers thought "like cures like", and used infinitesimally small doses of preparations that, in higher doses, could create similar symptoms in the patient. With spiritual overtones, the dilutional theory rested on a premise of a "vital force" being present in the medicinals. By 1906, there were 20 homeopathic schools in this country.

These were the major players present on the contested medical playing field, vying for patients and the health care dollar, at the turn of the 20th century. Recall that no certification to practice medicine was necessary and attendance to medical school—any medical school—was voluntary and not required. What happened next ultimately shaped the modern medical world as we know it. It came about with the appearance of a remarkable ally that crossed taxonomic phylum to assist Regular medicine in its efforts to dominate its competition. Part III, "Success At Last", will reveal Regular medicine's ploy to achieve economic and popular success.

-alan berkenwald, md

Click here for Part III