The Strange Origins of Modern Medicine
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A sharp compendium of the stranger developments in 19th-century medicine that have influenced how we care for ourselves today.

In parallel to the discovery of germs, X-ray technology and the novel idea of sterilized surgery, there developed a branch of pseudoscience called alternative, or irregular, medicine. The irregular practices were aligned by their democratic belief in a common understanding of medicine for the benefit of the people—i.e., wellness that did not rely on institutionalized, elitist doctors. After all, the accepted practices of the establishment included painful, “heroic” treatments like bloodletting, induced vomiting and blistering, which were believed to draw the disease out of a person. Other accepted ministrations were chemical purgatives that contained mercury, arsenic and antimony. Among the alternative methods that historian Janik (Apple: A Global History, 2011, etc.) highlights are holistic practices like hydropathy and botanic medicine, which stressed the curative and hygienic qualities of water, as well as natural, plant-based solutions. While the methods of hydropathy and botanic medicine were ambitious and well-meaning, these methods were also mostly incorrect. Among the irregular practices that proved most reliable and scientific was the chiropractic technique, which is still practiced today. On the other hand, phrenology, homeopathy and mesmerism all fit the description of “quack” science for their bizarre practices—e.g., measuring skull variations to determine intellectual and emotional attributes, ingesting diluted doses of harmful tinctures and controlling the flow of nervous fluids with magnets. These practices proved highly lucrative for many of their founders and inspired throngs of followers and fellow practitioners, much to the dismay of the distinguished physician Oliver Wendell Holmes, who persistently railed against the pseudoscience community for challenging the academy. Perhaps most importantly, Janik asserts the role of women in administering remedies—mothers were the chief doctors of local communities—and developing the successful irregular methods into what we now consider conventional medicine.

A thorough, informative history of the many eccentric narratives that make these quack sciences so interesting and important to modern medicine.

Pub Date: Jan. 7th, 2014
ISBN: 978-0807022085
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Beacon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2014


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