Nature Cures: The History of Alternative Medicine in America

Nature Cures: The History of Alternative Medicine in America

Nature Cures: The History of Alternative Medicine in America

Nature Cures: The History of Alternative Medicine in America


From reflexology and rolfing to shiatsu and dream work, we are confronted today by a welter of alternative medical therapies. But as James Whorton shows in Nature Cures, the recent explosion in alternative medicine actually reflects two centuries of competition and conflict between mainstream medicine and numerous unorthodox systems. This is the first comprehensive history of alternative medicine in America, examining the major systems that have emerged from 1800 to the present. Writing with wit and with fairness to all sides, Whorton offers a fascinating look at alternative health systems such as homeopathy, water cures, Mesmerism, Christian Science, osteopathy, chiropractic, naturopathy, and acupuncture. He highlights the birth and growth of each system (including European roots where appropriate) and vividly describes both the theories and the therapies developed within each system, including such dubious practices as hour-long walks barefoot in snow or Samuel Thompson's "puking and steaming" regimen. In particular, Whorton illuminates the philosophy of "natural healing" that has been espoused by alternative practitioners throughout history and the distinctive interpretations of "nature cure" developed by the different systems. Though he doesn't hesitate to point out the failings of these systems, he also shows that some "cult medicines" have eventually won recognition from practitioners of mainstream medicine. Throughout, Whorton writes with a light touch and quotes from contemporary humorists such as Mark Twain. His book is an engaging and authoritative history that highlights the course of alternative medicine in the U.S., providing valuable background to the wide range of therapies available today.


In the autumn of 1994, a New Yorker cartoonist imagined a clinical scene in which a patient who is literally radiant with health, his body throwing off a nearly blinding aura of wellness, is nevertheless being sternly admonished by his physician because he has achieved his health the wrong way: “You've been fooling around with alternative medicines, haven't you?” the doctor scolds.

New Yorker cartoons constitute the most sensitive of barometers to shifting currents in America's cultural atmosphere. And in truth, whatever one chooses to call it—alternative medicine, unconventional medicine, holistic medicine, complementary medicine, integrative medicine (some even like the term vernacular medicine)—a lot of people have been fooling around with unorthodox forms of therapy in recent years. In a now legendary survey published in 1993, Harvard's David Eisenberg reported that one in three Americans had used one or more forms of alternative medicine in 1990, and expressed surprise at the “enormous presence” of healing alternatives in American society. When Eisenberg and colleagues repeated the survey in 1997, furthermore, they found that “alternative medicine use and expenditures have increased dramatically” since the first study: now 40 percent of the population employed such procedures.

That alternative methods were so widespread in the presumably enlightened 1990s was a startling realization for the medical profession. It shouldn't have been, for there's nothing at all new in the current enthusiasm for unconventional therapies. Comparable levels of support have been the norm for most of the last two centuries: Americans, in short, have been fooling around with alternative medicine for a long time.

That such activity has been mere foolishness has been the opinion, of course, of orthodox practitioners. From the start, MDs have scorned alternative . . .

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