Historical background

When the United States was first founded, the urban centres from New England to the Southern Coast line boasted a small numbers of doctors who would have been trained in Europe and, more specifically, in England. Americans journeyed to European medical centres to study medicine and over time American?born European?trained doctors worked in the emerging American cities. This early medical community led to what would become the American medical establishment ? one rooted in European medical theory and practices and European remedies. During the Renaissance, in 15th century Europe, ancient Greco?Roman works came alive again along with their ideas and remedies. Two types of medical practices developed: the old world herbal tradition that nurtured vitality, and a tradition that relied on contraries for cures. Hippocrates had said, “All diseases which proceed from repletion are cured by evacuation; and those which proceed from evacuation are cured by repletion. And so in the rest, contraries are the remedies of contraries.” The 15th century medical axiom contraria contrariis opponenda in which medicines oppose the symptoms of disease grew out of Hippocrates? idea. Proponents of this tradition used blood letting to reduce body temperature and pulse, purgatives to end constipation, and treated hot inflammations with cold applications. (22) Paracelsius, born in 1506, discovered that minerals could be used to counteract symptoms. He found that substances like mercury, given in high doses, would bring down a temperature and a rapid pulse associated with an infection. With this discovery, lead, arsenic, gold, and other toxic minerals came into common medical practice. (23) Indeed, opposing symptoms with medicines became the dominant medical tradition in Europe, and then in America. By the mid 19th century, the American medical establishment felt disease was caused by an excess of vitality and, if vitality could be reduced, diminished, or drained off, health would return. To diminish vitality physicians bled, purged, burned, leeched, and poisoned patients with mercury, arsenic, and lead. For example, when body temperature rose due to a bacterial infection, blood letting was “the Magnum Bonum Die, The Great Gift of God”(1); it efficiently reduced body temperature. Indeed, bleeding a patient to the point of heart failure was an acceptable means of reducing body temperature according to the established medical practices of the time. Though most 19th century American physicians believed that excess vitality was the cause of disease, a small group of New York physicians did not. This band of medical doctors, organised by Wooster Beach, felt the theory was flawed and treatments based upon it harmed more than they helped. One of Beach’s early followers said this of the medical establishment’s philosophy and treatments based therein: “The results of this practice, and the theory upon which it was based, were very unsatisfactory, especially to the people who had to suffer the penalty?in many cases loss of useful lives, in others constitutions broken down, the patient being but the wreck of his former self.” (2) In fact, these renegade doctors rejected more than the medical establishment’s theory of disease. They rejected the practices that sprang from the theory. “We reject, in Toto, the most pernicious features of old school practice. The habitual internal use of certain intensely poisonous metals, as mercury, antimony, arsenic, lead, copper, etc., we consider a gross violation of the dictates of medical philosophy and experience?an egregious delusion which has bought millions to a premature grave, and which, at the present time, maintain an immense amount of human suffering among the living.” (2) Poisoning patients, with the aim of depleting vitality, was unacceptable to the Eclectics and they made this clear to anyone who would listen. As the American population moved westward, and pioneer settlements developed, formally educated doctors were in short supply. The vast majority of doctoring was undertaken by men and women with an interest or a talent in healing. Some had been to school, most had not. Lay doctors and European doctors alike had to work with indigenous plants when the European medical supplies ran out or were unavailable. Frontier doctors interacted with Native Americans, who had vast knowledge of the medicinal properties of local plants, and came away with valuable knowledge of their pharmacopoeia. Moreover, exposure to a different people who saw and descried the world and its workings in a different way changed the face of frontier medicine. New ideas entered the practice of medicine. Without the confines of organised society, there was intellectual freedom on the frontier. The dissenting physicians of the East Coast, shunned by the medical community after publicly accusing the establishment of murdering patients with their harmful practices, chose to abandon the establishment’s theory of disease and their treatments. They left the “civilised” world for the frontier territories where they could practice their form of medicine in relative peace. These physicians became known as the Eclectics or the “ones that chose.” They called themselves Eclectics because they chose a different disease theory and different remedies: “The term Eclectic, is derived from a Greek word which signifies to chose; we use it, however, in both the past and present tense?we have chosen, we are constantly choosing.” (2) The free?thinking Eclectics called themselves new school and reformers. The medical establishment became known as allopath?s, regulars, orthodox, old school, and majority school; they referred to Eclectic physicians as sectarians, quacks, pretenders, irregulars, and unorthodox. (17) For some time these two groups co?existed. The reformed form of medicine, known as the Eclectic medical movement, existed, in various forms, from 1825 and until 1939. The Eclectics opened “The Eclectic Institute of Medicine” in the frontier territory of Ohio, near a growing town called Cincinnati. It operated from 1848 until 1930. The Eclectic Institute trained physicians in the application of tonics of botanical origin and researched and studied botanical drugs. They encouraged their students and practitioners to continually choose the best remedies based on evidence at hand. The Eclectics had access to hundreds, if not thousands, of American medicinal plants, many of which they learned of from Native Americans and some of which they discovered by accident. In fact, the Eclectics conducted a significant screening of the medicinal plants of North America. King’s Dispensatory, the Eclectic pharmaceutical bible, contains thousands of listings of medicinal plants along with what the Eclectics found to be true for these botanical drugs. John S. Haller Jr., PhD, an American medical historian and professor of history at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, has spent his career documenting the medical experiments that took place in America. Dr. Haller has researched and written on the free thinking medical movements that flourished in the unrestrained American landscape, the Homeopaths, Eclectics, Osteopaths, and Thomasonians included. Among his many other titles, Dr. Haller is author of American Medicine in Transition, 1830?1910, Medical Protestants: The Eclectics in American Medicine, 1825? 1939, Kindly Medicine: The History of Physio?Medicalism in America, 1836?1911, A Portrait in Alternative Medicine: The Eclectic Medical College of Cincinnati, 1845?1942, and The People?s Doctors: Samuel Thomson and the American Botanical Movement, 1790?1860. In his book, Medical Protestants: the Eclectics in American Medicine, 1825?1939, Haller has these introductory words to say about the Eclectic medical movement: “In the freshness of its youth, the eclectic school of reform medicine stood as a symbol of America’s optimism, imagination, enthusiasms, and eccentricities. Of solid Yankee inheritance, the school represented a powerful statement of the fraternity that its adherents felt with the great world movements of thought. In their writings, the eclectics portrayed themselves as authentic Protestants, saving therapeutics from the errors and extravagances of orthodox medicine. Along with homeopaths, they saw themselves as offering a viable alternative to those in the early decades of the nineteenth century who had wearied of allopathy’s pretensions and failures. Having fostered a revolutionary challenge, they hoped to redress the shortcomings of orthodox practice with proof of their botanic successes, directing attention to the simpler and less drastic form of medicine. Although scornfully rejected by regulars, the eclectics imitated their magisterial air, for a score of years and in two dozen colleges and more than sixty? five journals, they asserted the wisdom of their theory and maxins of reform practice.” (18) Over its one hundred year span, many doctors were trained in and practiced Eclectic medicine. Indeed, as the following graphs indicate, the Eclectic movement was not an insignificant movement nor was it comprised of a insignificant number of physicians. Likewise, the data left behind by the physicians is rich in knowledge and plentiful.