The Eclectic Medical Movement

Orthodox medicine practiced heroic medicine. As mentioned earlier, the treatments for “excessive vitality” were often more frightening than the disease. Not surprisingly, these practices did not often yield favourable results. Indeed, the general public began to seek out the services of the non?orthodox medical providers who offered an alternative to allopathic practice. Michael Flannery, former Library director of the Lloyd Library and adjunct professor at Northern Kentucky University, has studied the Eclectics extensively. Flannery writes: “Eclecticism can be briefly described as a nineteenth century sectarian medical movement emerging out of Americans dissatisfaction with the harsh heroic therapies characteristic of regular (also referred to as allopathic) practitioners. Distrustful of European ideas and institutions, eclectics promoted botanical remedies drawn primarily from America’s fields and forests rather than the chemical and mineral concoctions that formed much of the allopath’s armamentarium.”(19) Dr. Haller, speaking of the core values of Eclectic reform movement in Medical Protestants, writes, “At the heart of the sectarian medicine was its refusal to submit to the beliefs and pretenses of allopathy.” (20) First and foremost, the Eclectics believed that the practice of medicine should work with the body and never against. In contrast to the allopath’s, the Eclectics believed the object of the practice of medicine was to harness the bodies’ own intrinsic healing capacity and to augment that capacity with remedies. “As we are taught to observe and follow nature’s footsteps in these things, we use our remedies to facilitate what nature might accomplish without our aid. We do the things that she does. We do them in the same order, and we endeavour to do them in the same quiet way. In so far as we work with the vital powers, we are successful; when we oppose them we had better not practice medicine.” (3). In fact, to the Eclectics, injuring a patient with health damaging procedures was a crime. John Milton Scudder, one of the leading Eclectics and author of numerous Eclectic textbooks, writes: “Tartar Emetic, though not resorted to as frequently as calomel, was guilty many times of manslaughter. Thus in the days that I speak of, it was thought that inflammation of the lungs could not be treated without the use of this agent. In proof that it is clearly chargeable with murder, let us examine the statement of Dr. Deitl. In order to show the comparative value of treatment, he reports three hundred and eighty cases of inflammation of the lungs. Eighty five were treated with by blood letting, one hundred and six by large doses of tartar emetic, and one hundred and eighty nine by diet and bed rest alone. Of those treated by blood letting, seventeen or 20.4 % died, of those treated with large doses of tartar emetic, twenty two or 20.7% died; while those treated with by diet and rest, only 15, or 7.4%, terminated fatally. These were cases of similar character and yet we see that the cases being as one hundred and six tatar?emetic to one hundred and eighty nine diet and rest, this agent is chargeable directly with the lives of at least ten persons. We therefore choose to discard this agent.” (21)

The core of the Eclectic’s philosophy was the belief that the body had within it the capacity to heal itself. Called the “Vis conservatrix,” this capacity was variously described as vitality, vital powers, life force and conservative power. The Eclectics felt that if one observed the body and it operations, manifestations of the Vis conservatrix were apparent. One of the early Eclectics wrote: “There is, in organised beings a certain conservative power which opposes the operation of noxious agents, and labors to expel them when they are introduced. The existence of this power has long been recognised and in former days it was impersonated. It was the archaeus of Van Helmont; the anima of Stahl. The Vis medicatrix of Cullen… We see its frequent operation in the common performance of excretion; in the careful manner in which noxious products of the body and offending substances in food are ejected from the system; in the flow of tears to wash a grain of dust from the eye; in the act of coughing and sneezing to discharge irritating matters from the air passages, and in the slower more complicated, but not less obvious example of inflammation, effusion of lymph and suppuration, by which a thorn or other extraneous object is removed from the flesh. This Vis conservatrix is alive to the exciting causes of disease, and in person in full health it is generally competent to resist them. How it resists them will depend upon what they are. For instance, is cold the cause? This throws the blood inwardly, which, by increasing the internal secretions and exciting the heart to increased action establishes a calorific process that removes the cold. Is the cause improper food? The preserving power operates by discharging this speedily, by vomiting or by stool. Is it a malarious or contagious poison? It is carried off by an increase of some of the secretions.” (4) Whether the threat to the body was a grain of dust in the eye or a bacterium invading the tissue, the Eclectics believed the body was capable of neutralising threats to well being. Moreover, this innate power gave the body ability to resist the forces of death and decay. Indeed, the Eclectics believed that the Vis conservatrix was the power behind all the basic physiological functions of which the resistive capacity was merely one. In fact, according to their beliefs, problems with the Vis conservatrix could spell problems with all the basic physiological processes. The Eclectics postulated that disease occurred in one of two circumstances. The first was when the Vis conservatrix was diminished and unable to neutralise a threat to well being. For example, a person in a run down state, encountering an infectious disease, is unable to fight it off. The second circumstance was when the Vis conservatrix was overwhelmed by an unnaturally great threat to well being. For example, a person thrown into sub?zero water will succumb to the cold. “But if this resisting power be weakened, locally or generally, or if the exciting cause be too strong for it, then the cause acts, and disease begins.” (5) In essence, the Eclectics felt that disease occurred when the Vis conservatrix was inadequate to counter the challenge confronting the body. When disease resulted from inadequate Vis conservatrix, the Eclectics’ solution was to administer remedies that would boost the body’s intrinsic healing capacity. By augmenting vitality, the real root of disease was removed. “If we can see clearly that the condition of disease is one of depression, that in proportion as a man is sick, his vitality is lessened, such means as will increase the power to live, or the resistance of the body to death, will be suggested.” (6) Another Eclectic author echoes the same sentiment. “We choose to believe and teach, that a person labouring under disease is actually debilitated from the commencement?that the disease itself is an evidence of depressed vitality… we carefully husband the strength of the patient, until by appropriate remedies we remove the cause of the disease.” (2) The Eclectics were convinced that only remedies that augmented the Vis conservatrix should be used in disease. “The influence of all remedies upon the system must be vital in its nature, though it may depend in some part of its action on its physical condition, or on it chemical properties, its major action is such only as could be exerted in a living body. The class of vegetable remedies exert the least physical or chemical effect upon the system; they appear to act directly upon the vital force of the entire system, or on some particular organ or parts.” (7) They rejected any medical treatment that depressed the Vis conservatrix believing the administration of such remedies was likely to cause or worsen disease. “It is a cardinal principle of the Eclectic system, that no medical treatment should be allowed which permanently impairs or injures the vital powers; that no such treatment is, in any case, necessary or proper, and that in the choice of remedies, we should prefer those which are safest, and calculated to act most nearly in accordance with the laws of health.” (2)

The Eclectics called drugs that increased the Vis conservatrix “tonics.” One Eclectic defined tonics as those agents that heightened or augmented vital action. (3) Indeed, tonics became the pillars of Eclectic medicine. A good description of a “tonic” can be found in an 1858 text of Dr. John Scudder who was largely responsible for the isolation of botanical tonics. He writes, “we may say in reference to this class of agents, that their use is indicated whenever the system is depressed below its normal level. They act directly in support of the vital force, and not as is the case with stimulants to produce merely nervous excitation; they therefore assist nature in the removal of the disease. ‘Tonics,’ says Headland, ‘are among the most useful of all medicines. And it is certainly not the least of their recommendations that we can seldom or never do harm by their use. They are remedies, but not poisons. Many a man has been killed by opium, many a constitution ruined by mercury, but it has never been known that quinine has done the one or the other.’” (8) The Eclectics felt that tonics had an almost universal applicability—whenever the healing capacity of the body was needed, tonics could be used to stimulate the process. And, very importantly, they did no harm in the process. When a patient was displaying a deficiency of Vis conservatrix, as in general debility or in the debility following an acute illness, tonics were used to boost the recuperative capacity. “In all cases of asthenia they are indicated, unless it be connected with some local inflammatory affection that would be aggravated by their use. They become important agents in the advanced stages of most of the acute diseases, after fever has subsided, and when high inflammatory action no longer exists; in such cases they enable the system to throw off the disease; and render convalescence much shorter.” (8) In other words, tonics were used to boost the Vis conservatrix when the body was resisting infectious disease be it bacterial, viral, or protozoan. When an infectious agent represented a force greater than the Vis conservatrix, life was threatened. Again, tonics were used to boost the preservative force so that it was sufficient to overcome the infectious agent. “In adynamic fevers, as typhus gravior, scarlatina maligna, gangrenous erysipelas, or in any case where there is a tendency to gangrene or putrescency, they are agents of the first importance. In small pox, where the vital powers are much prostrated, in carbuncle, scorbutis, scrofula, and other similar affections, their employment constitutes an important part of the treatment.” (8) Tonics were used to boost the Vis conservatrix in chronic infectious disease as well. As in the case of Malaria, once acquired, the infection would revisit the patient. “In diseases marked by a periodic character the most powerful tonics are administered. Some of them are supposed to possess antiperiodic in addition to their “tonic” properties, and are therefore called anti?periodics. The cinchona and its alkaloids principles are examples of this kind… Why certain agents of this class exert this peculiar anti?periodic property we are unable to explain, any more than we are why some causes produce periodic fever; the fact, however, is evident that some of them possess a power over this form of disease that is not possessed by others of the class.” (8) Tonics were also used to reduce susceptibility to a secondary disease when a patient was already resisting a disease. The Eclectics felt that while the Vis conservatrix was resisting one outside force, the body had less resistance to other outside forces. For example, when infected with the influenza virus, the body produces excess mucous, which in turn makes a person more susceptible to bacterial infections (tonsillitis, bronchitis, pneumonia, etc.) In fact, most people do not die from influenza but rather from one of these secondary infections. Indeed, the Eclectics found that diseased people were less vulnerable to secondary disease when tonics were used. “Debility of a single organ or of the entire system, predisposes to the morbid influences of surrounding causes of disease, as the infection of certain contagious diseases, changes of temperature causing the retention of a customary secretion, the morbid effects of miasmata, etc. Tonics aid the enfeebled energies of the system in warding off these extraneous causes of disease.” (8) Tonics were also prescribed to increase the power and force of all basic body functions. The Eclectics had observed that when the Vis conservatrix ran low, the basic body functions become weak; the pulse weakens, the body temperature decreases, nervous energy is poor, digestive function becomes marginal, and the muscles grow weak. In the case of extreme debility, the pulse becomes weaker and weaker until it disappears. When tonics were administered, the Eclectics noticed, basic body functions became more forceful and powerful and displayed increased vitality and renewed vigour; the pulse became strong, the body temperature normal, nervous and muscular strength returned. To wit: “Tonics are medicines which produce a permanent exaltation of the energies of the general system, without materially increasing the vital manifestation in any particular organ. They give tone to the muscular system without increasing the temperature of the body or rapidity of the circulation, producing no immediate and marked excitement like stimulants. Their influence is manifested by a very slow and permanent exaltation of organic action, evinced by an increased force of the circulation, and increased muscular power. The heart contracts with more force, but its contractions are not increased in frequency; the pulse acquires fullness and firmness, and loses that soft, flaccid, and atonic character which is a manifestation of debility. They increased energy which they impart to the nervous system, the impetus which they give to the circulation and the improvement in the digestive functions, together with the increased secretion and absorption which they effect, are among the many evidences of their sanative powers.” (8) The Eclectics noted that the stimulating effect of tonics extended beyond stimulating the basic body functions. Once absorbed and released into circulation, the Eclectics found tonics had the capacity to stimulate vital action in every cell, tissue, and organ of the body. “All of this class of agents are readily soluble in the fluids of the body, and hence are absorbed into the circulation, and act from it upon every part of the system. We have already seen that they exert a “tonic” and strengthening influence when topically applied to the stomach; and we may notice a similar influence, from the application to indolent ulcers, wounds, etc., when applied so that we can notice their effects. If this is the case then, that they impart strength and “tonic” when brought into contact with the tissues, as it undoubtedly is, we have a solution of their effects after absorption. The circulation conveys them to every part of the system, they are brought into contact with every fibre and every cell; and if they act in the circulation as they do when topically applied, they give new energy and tone to every part.” (8) The Eclectics had also observed that when the body was labouring under the stress of a destructive force (infection, cold, hardship, etc.), physiological functions often displayed excesses or shortfalls. They noticed that tonics had the ability to normalise these excesses or shortfalls regardless of which direction the abnormality took. “Very peculiar, and apparently very dissimilar effects upon the secretory organs and tissues follow from the use of tonics, under different pathological conditions of these organs and tissues.” (8) For example, tonics could be used to arrest excessive secretion when the organs and tissues were in a state of over activity or production. “When the secretions become abnormal and super?abundant, from an atonic state of the secretory organs, this class of agents have the power to restrain and control them. Thus, if the cutaneous exhaltation becomes superabundant from debility, as is the case in the advanced stages of phthisis, typhus, and typhoid fever, etc., tonics often promptly restore the tone of the system and arrest it. Also, in phthisis and other diseases of the respiratory apparatus, when the secretion from the lungs becomes excessive from debility, and when this discharge would tend to increase that debility, tonics, combined with astringents, are of much value in arresting the secretions. The same remarks apply to diabetes, chronic diarrhoea, leucorrhea, menorrhagia, passive haemorrhages and passive dropsies; in all of which cases tonics will be found important auxiliary agents in restraining the morbid discharges. In the ‘night sweats’ of debilitating diseases, they are often of much advantage, strengthening the skin, and checking the morbid secretions” (8) Alternatively, tonics could be used to stimulate normal activity when organs and tissues were under active or had stopped secreting necessary secretions. “When, on the contrary, the secretions are lessened or arrested from torpor or atony of the organs, or from a languid or enfeebled state of the circulation, or of the general system, tonics are by no means an unimportant class of agents in aiding in the reestablishment of them. If the kidneys, skin, uterus, or lungs, fail to furnish their due secretion, from a torpid state of the organ, or from an enfeebled state of the general system, tonics are of much importance in restoring them; in such cases they exert a diuretic, diaphoretic, emmenagogue, and expectorant influence.” (8)

The Eclectics also noted that when a person was mounting a challenge to an aggressive acute
disease (scarlet fever/Streptococcal infection) or a chronic disease (Malaria, Syphilis, and
Tuberculosis), physiological function could become perverted. When severe acute or chronic
disease exhausted the Vis conservatrix, and perverted function resulted, a specialised class of
tonics was used. Drugs the Eclectics called “Alteratives.”
To the Eclectics “perverted function” meant body functions that had lost normal, orderly
function. For example, when a splinter enters into the skin, it is quickly surrounded by
inflammation. It is through inflammation the site is kept infection free and the splinter is ejected
from the skin. An example of perverted inflammation can be found with rheumatoid arthritis. In
this case, inflammation occurs around a joint when there is no foreign or offending agent that
needs to be removed. Orderly inflammation has been lost and in its place stands unnecessary
“’Alteratives’ are defined to be agents which change, in some insensible and inexplicable way, certain
morbid actions and conditions of particular organs, or of the general system. They produce no sensible
evacuation, or modification of function, by which we can in any way judge of their mode of operation. They
are administered to counteract certain morbid habits of the body, or cachectic states of the constitution, and
to re?establish the healthy functions of deranged organs. As to their general application, they are employed
in all chronic diseases in which there is a depraved or vitiated condition of either the solids or the fluids.
Thus, they are used in scrophula, syphilis, scorbutis, tabes mesenterica, chronic hepatitis, dyspepsia,
chlorosis, chronic rheumatism, chronic cutaneous diseases, etc.” (9)
The Eclectics found that alteratives, like other tonic remedies, had the capacity to restore normal
function in the Vis conservatrix depleted patient. “Administered in small and continuous doses they
improve the blood in quality, the appetite is increased, digestion promoted, and the process of elimination
accelerated. Alteratives improve the nutrition of the nerve centres, and greater and healthier activity to the
circulatory and breathing organs.” (10) In other words, alterative tonics normalised function by
augmenting the Vis conservatrix.

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