Alternative medicine

The conflict between alternative medicine and medical science dates back to the 19th century

Medicine today is a highly specialized science, advanced by expensive laboratory research published in reputable scientific journals, following strict criteria of scientific evidence.

Meanwhile, unorthodox or alternative medicine thrives on divergent theories, which more or less conflict with orthodox medicine.

This division dates back to the 19and century, where the central themes of the modern conflict between orthodox medicine and non-orthodox medicine have emerged, and this is the subject of my doctoral thesis.

Let’s take a look at some of the key ideas and movements in alternative medicine that have clashed with medical orthodoxy since the early 1800s.

19and Century: Better Diagnoses but Lack of Treatments

Hydropathic therapies, including a barefoot walk through dew-covered grass, according to Sebastian Kneipp. (Illustration: Sebastiana Kneippa)

The 19and century saw a spectacular development of medical science. At the turn of the century, scientists abandoned the theory that good health could be derived from the proper balance of bodily fluids, even though this Hippocratic theory had been a cornerstone of medicine since ancient times.

Modern medical science has searched for specific causes for specific diseases. This change began in large public hospitals, notably in Paris, where the large number of patients provided an inexhaustible source of research material, and diagnoses were quickly tested by autopsy.

Later medical research moved to the laboratory where the microscope enabled scientists to study and isolate anthrax, cholera and tuberculosis bacteria.

An increasing number of illnesses could be diagnosed and medicine could better explain human health, but in 1900 doctors were still unable to cure several serious and rather common illnesses.

It was only with the arrival of antibiotics in the mid-20and century that doctors were able to treat infectious diseases like tuberculosis.

Read more: Clay tablets from the cradle of civilization offer new insight into the history of medicine

Bleeding gums and narcotics

The so-called “heroic therapy” was practiced until the 19and century by orthodox doctors. The principle of heroic therapy was that serious illnesses could only be treated with harsh therapies, which led doctors to use frequent bleeding and strong drugs on already weak patients.

Mercury compounds were particularly popular and were usually administered until the patient’s gums began to bleed and the teeth became loose. It was apparently to make sure the medicine had started working.

The growth of the medical industry in the mid-19and century introduced many powerful painkillers, which today we classify as narcotics. But even around 1900, doctors could often diagnose the disease and prescribe a painkiller or tranquilizer only to show that he had at least done something.

The 19and century also marked a turning point in access to medical care. Until that time, doctors worked only for well-to-do citizens of big cities. But at 19and century, many western countries began to develop different types of health care, and for the first time, all members of society had access to qualified doctors.

Rejection of orthodox treatments

Several popular movements began to arise in opposition to harsh therapies, strong drugs and orthodox medical authorities in the 19and century.

Most of them encouraged a more natural way to heal through lifestyle changes or non-toxic treatments. And while they challenged medical authorities, they also set out to present their own theories as scientifically viable and to establish medical schools and journals.

American pastor Sylvester Graham was one of many early health reformers. From the 1830s he promoted his own health program, known as the “Science of Human Life”.

Every human disease stemmed from over-stimulation, the theory goes. In particular, overstimulation of the food system could spread through the nerves and cause disease in other parts of the body.

Read more: Medicine in Antiquity: from ancient temples to Roman logistics

Less sex, meat and white bread

For Graham, what was morally wrong was also wrong. Meat was harmful not only because it was morally wrong to kill, but also because it overstimulated the body.

The same problem arose with the consumption of alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea and spicy foods. White flour also contained too much stimulation, only wholemeal flour provided nutrition.

Sex more than once a month was also too stimulating, even for young and healthy people, he said. While older, weaker people should definitely engage in sexual activity less frequently, masturbation was out of the question. In addition, polluted air in crowded rooms, especially ballrooms, theaters and game rooms, had to be avoided.

Health as religion

Coincidentally, staying healthy has also become a moral duty. Graham and his followers were convinced that adopting these principles would eliminate disease. And as subsequent generations became healthier and more moral, human life expectancy would increase by hundreds of years.

Today health is sometimes criticized as being used as a religion. But Graham lived in a time less afraid of religion and actually wanted to explicitly strengthen religious society, through physiological arguments.

Read more: The story of anti-rheumatic drugs is one of hope and disaster

Distrust of medication

Today, there is a great deal of skepticism towards drugs and vaccination among the general public, who prefer a more “natural” or non-chemical method of healing.

It was also one of the main reasons for many of the sanitary movements of the 19and century: Grahamism rejected conventional medical therapy with drugs because it could only relieve symptoms and never got to the true causes of disease. Medicines and vaccinations were considered poisons, which overstimulated the body.

The inventor of homeopathy, Dr. Samuel Hahnemann, rejected what he saw as the lavish use of potent drugs. He was convinced that diseases should be cured with substances that produced the same symptoms in healthy people that disease produced in sick people. In addition, he believed that the active substance should be diluted in water or alcohol until almost all molecules of active substance have disappeared. This, he says, would make the remedy less harmful and more healing.

95% of all disease originates in the spine

Another healer, DD Palmer, had the same distrust of drugs and vaccines, but developed a rather different therapeutic approach.

In 1895, he invented chiropractic, which he claimed could cure 95% of all diseases through manual adjustment of the spine. The last 5% could be cured by adjusting the other joints of the body.

Palmer believed that all disease was caused by the flow of what he called innate intelligence – a kind of cosmic energy given at the time of birth. This flow was impeded by small joint displacements, he said. At the same time, he rejected all other remedies, from drugs to diet and from surgery to hydrotherapy.

Read more: What are the main challenges of modern medicine?

Back to nature – civilization makes us sick

Another alternative to chemical drugs was the German method of hydrotherapy. In the United States, hydrotherapy was associated with Graham’s vegetarianism to form the naturopathic health reform movement in the late 19and century.

The basic tenet of naturopathy was that life in modern civilization was unhealthy. Every disease stemmed in one way or another from inadequate metabolism and internal poisoning derived from incorrect lifestyles dominated by tobacco, alcohol, meat, lack of exercise and an imbalance between work and leisure.

Even in the Danish branch of the movement, which was far from radical, it was commonly believed that a healthy body could not be harmed by bacteria as long as it was protected by a healthy metabolism.

The idea that good health stems from a natural lifestyle is still popular, but neither today nor in the 19and century there was agreement on what exactly constituted “a natural way of life”.

Interestingly, unorthodox movements are emerging just as access to educated physicians has been opened up to everyone in society, and remains popular despite enormous advances in medical science. Maybe it all depends on the individual, who thinks they know what’s best for their health.

Read this article in Danish on ForskerZonen, part of

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