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An Illustrated History of Alternative Medicine in Early America

By Erika Janik

(Source: The Burns Archive, New York) 

Sickness was a major part of early American life. Many people suffered from poor health their whole lives.

But scientifically valid medical knowledge was limited. The world in 1820 was not a much more comfortable place to fall ill than it had been two hundred years earlier. No one knew about germs or the significance of human contact or insects in spreading disease. Medical theory of the time held that sickness resulted from a body out of balance. It was an idea that went back hundreds of years to Roman physician Galen in the 2nd century. To restore balance, mainstream doctors bled, blistered, and sweated patients to large and often painful degrees. They administered large doses of drugs like calomel, a form of mercury, to purge patients. Doctors chose treatments that caused quick and drastic changes in a patient’s condition, which could be interpreted as progress. Though well-intentioned, these mainstream treatments also caused as much, if not more, pain than the sickness itself. As a result, doctors could rarely offer sick Americans a medical means of getting better.

But as industrialization, urbanization, and new technologies remade everything from where people worked to how they lived and got around in the 19th century, many Americans began to question why medical care didn’t seem to be improving, too. Anyone who could offer a remedy that seemed effective, didn’t hurt as much as bleeding, cost less than a trip to a doctor, and even allowed you to treat yourself was bound to be popular. (Even a cursory study of the past reveals that Americans have been staunchly independent and looking for deals for centuries.)

And so, phrenologists read character on the topography of people’s skulls, hydropaths attempted to wash out all disease with cold water, and mesmerists transmitted an invisible fluid known as animal magnetism. And millions of Americans became devotees.

But why would anyone believe these things could work?



(Source: Wellcome Library, London)

Franz Anton Mesmer proposed that health depended on the unimpeded flow of an invisible healing fluid called animal magnetism through the body. Interruptions or imbalances in the stream caused the organs to falter. Disease was the inevitable result.

To a generation enamored with the power and potential of electricity, another visible but demonstrably powerful and unexplainable force, the idea of an invisible magnetic fluid traveling between bodies appeared perfectly plausible. Mesmer and his disciples treated patients with dramatic effect (that “mesmerizing” gaze was certainly powerful), winning converts on both sides of the Atlantic as he healed.

Famous Users: Marie Antoinette, Nathaniel Hawthorne 



(Source: Anatomical and Medical Illustrations, ed. Jim Harter, Dover Publications, 1991)

Hydropaths proposed that cold, pure water not only healed, but prevented disease from taking hold in the first place. They advocated regular exercise, drinking 8-10 glasses of water a day, and regular bathing. Sure, the actual hydropathic regimen of bathing, showering, and soaking in cold water from morning until night might be a little extreme but for a society unused to such preventative health measures not to mention prolonged “me time” away from the hustle and bustle of modern life, hydropathy seemed like a godsend. 

Famous Users: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charles Darwin



(Source: National Library of Medicine)

Botanical healer Samuel Thomson believed that everything we needed to heal ourselves was growing right outside our doors. He theorized that disease resulted from a lack of internal heat in the body so he developed a 6-step system of healing to restore that heat made entirely from plants, including such heat generators as cayenne, ginger, and black pepper. Thomson hit on the marketing gold of local, natural plant-based ingredients 200 hundred years before Michael Pollan



(Source: Wikipedia)

Phrenologists believed that the shape of your skull provided the key to your character. Its founder, Franz Joseph Gall, made the case that the spatial organization of your brain determined its function. It gave people a way to know and understand their behavior and personality (and those of people around them) with seemingly scientific precision. Why do we act the way we do? How can we be better people? Every generation seeks answers to these questions, and in the 19th century, phrenology provided one incredibly popular explanation.  We’re still enamored with the power and potential of the brain as popular neuroscience attempts to map the brain in a search for answers.

Famous Users: Mark Twain, Susan B. Anthony, Walt Whitman, Moby Dick


Patent Medicines


Public disgust with the bleeding and blistering therapies of regular medicine as well as the cost of visiting a doctor made patent remedies popular. At an average cost of a penny a pill, patent medicines seemed like a good value. They also suggested speed and convenience, factors just as important in the past as today. And for the sick, remedies bought at the pharmacy on a doctor’s prescription versus those from a traveling medicine man likely made little difference in the century’s hit-or-miss climate of relief and cure.



(Source: Wikipedia)

Small doses of medicines that taste goodor like nothing at allwith little or no side effects and appeared to work? Not to mention a system built on a scientific foundation of observation, experimentation, and strict testing? Based on these promises, millions of Americans came knocking on homeopathy’s door.

Famous Users: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Louisa May Alcott, Henry Longfellow


Manual Manipulation  

(Source: Wellcome Library, London)

Back pain and other musculoskeletal problems have plagued humans for centuries, but regular medicine had few answers for this form of debilitating pain. Osteopathy and chiropractic were two systems designed to heal through the physical manipulation of the body, an area that regular medicine largely ignored.



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.