By John S. Haller Jr.
John S. Haller,Jr., provides the first modern history of the Eclectic school of American sectarian medicine.
The Eclectic school (sometimes called the "American School") flourished in the mid-nineteenth century when the art and science of medicine was undergoing a profound crisis of faith. At the heart of the crisis was a disillusionment with the traditional therapeutics of the day and an intense questioning of the principles and philosophy upon which medicine had been built. Many American physicians and their patients felt that medicine had lost the ability to cure. The Eclectics surmounted the crisis by forging a therapeutics based on herbal remedies and an empirical approach to disease, a system independent of the influence of European practices.
Although rejected by the Regulars (adherents of mainstream medicine), the Eclectics imitated their magisterial manner, establishing two dozen colleges and more than sixty-five journals to proclaim the wisdom of their theory. Central to the story of Eclecticism is that of the Eclectic Medical Institute of Cincinnati, the "mother institute" of reform medical colleges. Organized in 1845, the school was to exist for ninety-four years before closing in 1939.
Throughout much of their history, the Eclectic medical schools provided an avenue into the medical profession for men and women who lacked the financial and educational opportunities the Regular schools required, siding with Professor Martyn Paine of the Medical Department of New York University, who, in 1846, had accused the newly formed American Medical Association of playing aristocratic politics behind a masquerade of curriculum reform. Eventually, though, they grudgingly followed the lead of the Regulars by changing their curriculum and tightening admission standards.
By the late nineteenth century, the Eclectics found themselves in the backwaters of modern medicine. Unable to break away from their botanic bias and ill-equipped to support the implications of germ theory, the financial costs of salaried faculty and staff, and the research implications of laboratory science, the Eclectics were pushed aside by the rush of modern academic medicine.