Alternative Medicine? A History

Alternative Medicine? A History

Alternative Medicine? A History

Alternative Medicine? A History


Walk into the local health food shop or pick up today's paper and the chances are that you'll see adverts for acupuncture and herbal medicine, hypnotists and homeopaths. Some doctors and scientists mourn the lost lustre of mainstream medicine and complain about a new breed of 'irrational' consumer.

But what exactly is 'alternative' medicine? Is the astonishing popularity of alternative and multicultural medicine really such a recent development? And, given the success story of modern biomedical science, why are alternative and traditional treatments now so fashionable? Has the impersonal chill of high-tech medicine driven consumers into the arms of charismatic quacks? Or is it the cost of western medicine that makes its competitors look so attractive? Do patients seek hope, holism, or just the thrill of rebellion?

This book seeks answers to all these questions and more. Comparing the medical systems of China, India, and the west - both mainstream and alternative - Roberta Bivins shows how medical expertise has migrated from one culture to another. From acupuncture in Regency England to homeopathy in the 'Wild West', Bivins unearths the roots of today's distinctions between alternative, complementary, and orthodox medicine, and shows how popular interest in medical alternatives - often of exotic origin - is a phenomenon with a long and fascinating pedigree.


I grew up in a world with no ‘ alternative medicine’. This is not a factor of my age, my culture, or of a particularly conventional upbringing; in fact, rather the reverse. As a child, I shuttled with my academic parents between richly diverse—if somewhat shabby—working-class neighbourhoods in urban New England, a remote village in the far northern Sokoto Caliphate of Nigeria, and the remarkable cities of Kano and Kaduna, also in Nigeria’s Muslim north. Whether from a shingleboarded apartment in the shadow of decaying tower blocks, or from an elegantly domed (but nonetheless mud-built) compound shaded by a mahogany tree, I went out into a world in which ‘medicine’ took many forms. And although I don’t remember my childhood as an unhealthy one, my medical records demonstrate that I was an annoyingly sickly child. Massachusetts winters saw me dangling my feet in municipal emergency rooms, wheezing with pneumonia or silenced by throat infections. In the Nigerian rainy season, I collected parasites and malarias with gay abandon; in the dry season, I replaced them with an exciting range of rashes, infected insect bites, and mysterious fevers.

My Petri dish tendencies were certainly a burden for my mother, but for me they have proven a real boon. I was exposed in childhood to an array of medical practices—no medical system looked particularly strange or ‘alternative’ to me, because I had no established expectations or assumptions about what was ‘normal’. My doctor du jour might very well take my temperature, put a stethoscope to my chest, and stick me with needles. On the other hand, I might be carefully catechized about my behaviour just before my illness, have my eyeballs scrutinized, and be given a Koranic amulet to wear against evil spirits. From a child’s perspective, the end result was the same: I went home, lay in bed feeling sick for a while, and then felt better. And at least the amulets didn’t hurt.

Two medical encounters stand out for me now as particularly influential, and particularly relevant to my understanding of medicine . . .

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