Sectarian Medicine

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Sectarian Medicine


Appeal. Sectarian or alternative medicine referred to nontraditional medical practices offered by lay practitioners or people trained at sectarian medical schools. The appeal of sectarian medicine lay in its focus on natures healing power. Treatments generally had few side effects and were often pleasant to experience. The gentler approach seemed more appropriate for children than the harsh treatments of regular physicians; women were thus attracted to sectarians in disproportionate numbers. Sectarian medicine was also relatively inexpensive, encouraging the use of medicines that could be made at home. Sectarians also frequently used scientific language to describe their treatments, thus lending their views an aura of authority.

Botanic Medicine. Samuel Thomson offered one of the most popular alternatives to traditional medicine. Thomson criticized regular physicians for their harsh treatments and for foisting what he called poisonous chemicals on the unsuspecting masses. Like most traditional physicians, Thomson believed in a universal cause for all disease, but in his twist on traditional humoral theory he maintained that the body was like a stove which had food as its fuel. When the stove did not function properly it was merely clogged with soot and needed to be cleared out. The unclogging of the body could be accomplished with the use of his universal cure, a system of gentle botanic medicines described in his New Guide to Health, or Botanic Family Physician, which first appeared in 1831.

Homeopathic Medicine. Homeopathic medicine was developed by a German physician named Samuel Hahneman in the 1790s and imported to the United States by Dr. Hans Burch Gram in 1827. Hahneman also emphasized the healing power of nature, maintaining that if left alone the body would usually heal itself. In those instances where help was required he employed a guiding principle that he called the law of infinitesimals, by which he meant that drugs were more effective in small doses. Hahneman recommended diluting most medicines by using only one-thirtieth of the normal amount of active ingredient. American homeopaths took Hahnemans recommendations to extremes, often prescribing only one-hundredth the usual dosage of a medication. With such a gentle approach homeopathic medicine became extremely popular by the 1840s, continuing through the early twentieth century. By 1900 more than fifteen thousand homeopathic physicians practiced in the United States.

Hydropathy. Popularly known as the water cure, hydropathy went even further than homeopathy by rejecting the use of all drugs in favor of treatment with water. A European peasant by the name of Vincent Priessnitz invented the process, which involved frequent bathing, the application of wet bandages and water packs, and the ingestion of large quantities of water. The practice appeared in the United States in the 1840s. Water-cure establishments, forerunners of modern spas, sprang up throughout the eastern half of the country and appealed particularly to the affluent middle classes.


It is true, that the study of anatomy, or structure of the human body, and of the whole animal economy is pleasing and useful, & But it is no more necessary to mankind at large, to quality them to administer relief from pain and sickness, than to a cook in preparing food to satisfy hunger and nourish the body. There is one general cause of hunger, and one general supply of food; one general cause of disease, and one general remedy& That medicine, therefore, that will remove obstructions, promote perspiration, and restore digestion, is suited to every patient, whatever form the disease assumes, and is universally applicable.

Source: Samuel Thomson, New Guide to Health, or Botanic Family Physician, ninth edition (Columbus, Ohio: Jarvis Pike, 1833)

Phrenology. Another alternative scientific theory that worked its way into popular culture was phrenology. Franz Joseph Gall of Vienna first proposed in the 1790s that the brain was not a single organ but a collection of organs, or faculties, each of which governed an aspect of human personality and behavior, such as love for children or perceptiveness. The different faculties of the brain assumed a size and prominence that shaped the strength of particular character traits in the individual. Because the skull conformed to the shape of the brain, skilled phrenologists claimed that they could read and accurately describe a persons character and personality by feeling the shape of his or her head. Furthermore, any individual could increase the size of a particular part of the brain by practicing the trait governed by that faculty. A person with adequate self-knowledge and selfdiscipline could, presumably, transform his or her own character for the better. Galls disciple, Johann Caspar Spurzheim, popularized phrenology in the United States during a lecture tour in 1832. In a context marked by a spirit of reform and a profound faith in the ability of people to perfect their physical, spiritual, and intellectual lives, phrenology achieved great popularity from the 1830s to the 1860s, pervading many aspects of American culture.


Orson Squires Fowler suggested that people use phrenological principles in seeking a mate:

I beseech you, that you choose a companion having large moral organs, so that your own may be continually and agreeably excited and never outraged. To woman this principle applies with double force; Erst, because she is much more under the power, and subject to the caprice of her husband than he is to hers. and secondly, woman is more social affectionate, and domestic than man; that is, she enjoys a good husband, and suffers from a bad one, more than it is possible for man to enjoy a good wife, or suffer from a bad one.

The reader hardly requires to be told that a predominance of the moral sentiments is indicated by a high head, and one that is long, especially on the top. Do not marry a man with a low, wide, flat head; for, however fascinating, genteel, polite, tender, plausible, or winning he may be, you will repent the day of your espousal. I would not have you marry a head too long, or too thin, lest your husband should lack the requisite of mind and energy of character to support yourself and children; but, marry a well proportioned head and body [T]he best heads are those in which the organs are the most evenly and harmoniously developed and balanceda principle which should be borne in mind in selecting companions for life; for, the more equally developed their organs, the more perfect will be their characters, and the greater the amount of brain in your head that will be called into action by them, and, consequently the greater your happiness.

Source: Orson Squires Fowler, Fowler on Matrimony; Or, Phrenology and Physiology Applied to the Selection of Congenial Companions for Life (New York: O. S. & L. N. Fowler, 1842).


Susan E. Cayleff, Wash and Be Healed: The Water-Cure Movement and Womens Health (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987);

John S. Haller, Medical Protestants: The Eclectics in American Medicine, 18251939 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994).

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Sectarian Medicine

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Sectarian Medicine