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16 Things You Didn’t Know About the Origins of Modern Medicine

We've all heard the horror stories of early medicine, which seems to have taken cues from a Medieval torture how-to book: bloodletting (leeches, anyone?), trepanning, using mercury to treat anything...the list goes on. What you might not know is that many of our current medicinal practices derive from rather curious sources. Erika Janik's Markeplace of the Marvelous, which is now available, documents the strange, sometimes bizarre paths that contemporary medicine took on its way to becoming the modern scientific practice we know it to be today. Here are a few facts that might surprise you about the origins of modern medicine:

  1. Elizabeth Blackwell is rightly celebrated as the first woman doctor in the United States. But her admission to Geneva Medical College in 1847 happened as a joke. The faculty opposed admitting a woman but unable to turn the otherwise qualified student down, they turned the decision over to the students who took the request as a gag. The students voted unanimously to admit her. Much to their surprise, Blackwell arrived for classes a few weeks later. Many mainstream medical schools refused to admit women until the 20th century so most of the first generations of female doctors came out of alternative medicine.

  2. Women served as “Dr. Mom” long before marketers invented the term. Since the earliest colonial days, women acted as their family’s doctor, nurse, and pharmacist, providing most home medical care and nearly all birthing assistance.

  3. American interest in natural and local ingredients is nothing new. Botanic healer Samuel Thomson devised a medical system comprised of plants and other local, natural ingredients nearly two centuries before those ideas became commonplace.

  4. The bumps on your head could make or break your job prospects in the 19th century. These bumps were thought to correspond to certain character traits in phrenology. Some employers used these head readings to ascertain the skills and deficiencies of employees.

  5. The idea of the brain as an organ divided into parts with different motor and sensory functions was popularized by phrenologist Franz Joseph Gall in the 18th century. Although the phrenological idea of reading personality on the bumps of your head was wrong, Gall’s fundamental idea of various brain functions being located in specific areas ultimately proved correct.

  6. Got a water bottle? Austrian Vincent Priessnitz prescribed at least eight glasses of cold, pure water daily for health to patients at his 19th century water cure. The idea spread to America in the 1840s with hydropathy, a system of water-based healing. Priessnitz also recommended daily exercise and a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

  7. Patients in the 19th century expected harsh side effects from medical treatments: the more violent the effect, the more certain the patient and the doctor of a cure. Alternative medicine, particularly homeopathy, introduced the novel idea that healing didn’t have to hurt to be effective.

  8. Medicine in the 19th century was a low-paying profession that garnered little popular respect. One desperate doctor took to robbing stagecoaches to make ends meet.

  9. The modern conceptions of hypnosis and the unconscious mind didn’t begin with Freud. Both emerged from mesmerism, an 18th century theory of healing based on an invisible fluid known as animal magnetism.

  10. Despite the name, most patent medicines were never patented. To actually file for a patent would have required makers to reveal their secret ingredients, which most refused to do.  Most did trademark their product names and label designs.

  11. Alcohol was a medical mainstay in both regular and alternative medicine. First prescribed for its stimulant effects, the discovery of germs in the late 19th century turned alcohol into an internal cleanser, able to kill germs in the body’s hard-to-reach places.

  12. Mainstream doctors marketed and sold their own name brand remedies, advertised them in newspapers and magazines, and took to the stage—all the tactics of the so-called quack.

  13. Angostura Bitters, Coca-Cola, Dr. Pepper, tonic water, and Hires Root Beer began life as patent medicines.

  14. Medical licensing laws were weak to non-existent throughout much of the 19th century. Just about anyone could practice medicine and call him or herself doctor. Until late in the century, many doctors never even attended medical school.

  15. Educational standards and training at homeopathic medical schools often exceeded those of mainstream medical schools in the 19th century.

  16. Homeopathy presented the biggest and most organized challenge to mainstream medical care in the 19th century. By 1898, homeopaths had 9 national and 33 state medical societies, 140 hospitals, 20 medical colleges, and 31 medical journals.


2208Marketplace of the Marvelous is an entertaining introduction to the quacks, snake-oil salesmen, and charlatans who often had a point. 

Despite rampant scientific innovation in nineteenth-century America, traditional medicine still adhered to ancient healing methods, subjecting patients to bleeding, blistering, and induced vomiting and sweating. Facing such horrors, many patients ran with open arms to burgeoning practices that promised new ways to cure their ills. Bizarre as these methods may now seem, many are the precursors of today’s notions of healthy living. We have the nineteenth-century practice of “medical gymnastics” to thank for today’s emphasis on regular exercise, and hydropathy’s various water cures for the notion of regular bathing and the mantra to drink “eight glasses of water a day.” And much of the philosophy of health introduced by these alternative methods is reflected in today’s patient-centered care and holistic medicine, which takes account of the body and spirit. Though many of these medical fads faded, and most of their claims of magical cures were discredited by advances in medical science, a surprising number of the theories and ideas behind the quackery are staples in today's health industry. Janik tells the colorful stories of these "quacks," whose oftentimes genuine wish to heal helped shape and influence modern medicine.


Janik,Erika-1004-Dutcher_PhotographyErika Janik is the producer and editor of the Wisconsin Public Radio series Wisconsin Life. She is the author of four award-winning history books. Her work has appeared in SmithsonianMental Floss, and Midwest Living, among other publications. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.