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From Quackery to Bacteriology: The Emergence of Modern Medicine in 19th Century America: An Exhibition


This exhibit, "From Quackery to Bacteriology: The Emergence of Modern Medicine in 19th Century America," traces the development of medicine through printed works: from heroic medicine at the beginning of the century to quackery movements, the experience of the Civil War, and ending with improvements in medical education and the formulation of the germ theory at century's end. Other topics covered in the exhibit include women's health, mental health, public health, and preventative medicine as advocated through physical fitness and nutrition.

Two parallel threads run through 19th century American medicine: one of evolving medical theory and expanding knowledge that eventually furthered the profession; and the other of the daily practice of medicine in the field. The evolutionary side, or "scientific medicine," was led by the great medical minds such a Benjamin Rush, but was nonetheless ineffective in treating patients. The other side was dominated by quacks who promoted bizarre treatments like water cures and electrical garments which, while also ineffective, were enthusiastically followed. These two paths often crossed one another and mixed theories and techniques. Scientific medicine took on aspects of quackery to gain patient acceptance, and quackery assumed aspects of scientific medicine to gain credibility.

Scientific medicine at the beginning of the century was heroic medicine. All diseases resulted from an excess of fluids, and the cure was to relieve the body of the excesses through bloodletting and purging. The basic scientific knowledge necessary to disprove such beliefs was slow to develop in America. The generation of men like Franklin and Jefferson who dominated the intellectual life of the country from 1750 to 1800 and who promoted scientific research was largely gone by 1800. Besides, the country had little time and little use for such aristocrats as it was swept up in the Age of Common Man. As Tocqueville commented, the combination of democracy and economic opportunity in the Jacksonian era placed an emphasis on profitable technology over basic science. As a consequence, medical science based upon empirical research suffered too.

Contributing to the stagnation of scientific advances in the 19th century was the philosophical movement that dominated American society—Romanticism. Romanticism came to America from Europe between 1812 and 1861 as a revolt against the Age of Reason. Rather than rational empirical thought, Romanticism emphasized feeling, sensitivity, and the supernatural. As Romanticism mixed with Jacksonian democracy in the 1820s and 1830s, it developed many uniquely American traits, one of them being religious evangelicalism.

Jacksonian religious evangelicalism took religion from the privileged few to the masses. Religious thought was dominated by the impending coming of the millennium, which would begin when Christian principles triumphed and would produce a holy utopia in the promised land of America. To bring about Christ's glorious second coming, Americans had to reform. The common man had to improve himself by purifying his body and soul, and the country would do the same.

Since the scientific community was doing little to improve medicine, and the public was rebelling against the painful and debilitating treatments of heroics, a void developed in medical treatment. Lay health reformers and practitioners, filled with the millennial, democratic spirit, rushed in with "theories" of their own. Their treatments included water, electricity, manipulation of animal magnetism, and vegetable compounds. Many of the quackery theories took on qualities of social reform and religious revivalism to become movements of their own.

Itwas not until the end of the century that scientific advances began to catch up with the medical needs of the public. Civil War hospital experiences and the new theories of bacteriology slowly produced fundamental changes in medical practice. Medical training adapted to the growing knowledge base of the profession, and by the end of the century, America was well on its way to having the best medical care in the world.

This exhibit grew out of the Ward M. Canaday Center's "Women's Collection" of 19th century popular culture books which were collected to support the study of women's history. But the collection documents much more than women's history, as this exhibit hopefully shows. Through these printed works, researchers could study almost every aspect of 19th century American culture—including medicine.

Because the Center's collection is strongest in popular books, this exhibit has drawn on works from other repositories to fill in areas where lacking. Thanks are due to the Mulford Library, Medical College of Ohio at Toledo, and director David Boilard, for permission to borrow some pivotal materials from both the rare book and general collections of the library. Items listed in this exhibit from this institution are noted with the designation "MCO" in the bibliographic citation. All other items are from the collections of the Ward M. Canaday Center, and are available for use in the Center during regular business hours. For more information, please call (419)537-2170.

Financial contributions by the Friends of the University of Toledo Libraries provided needed funding to produce this exhibit as it was displayed in the Ward M. Canaday Center, University of Toledo Libraries, from October 12-December 30, 1994.

The artwork for the exhibit introductory image was designed by Sue Benedict, UT Audio-Visual Services. Thanks to her, and to Alan Hogan and David Reiman from UT Libraries' Technical Services Department for assistance in converting this exhibit from an actual one into a virtual one.

And a special word of thanks to my co-authors and research assistants: Judy Friebert, Kerri Hagan, Jamie Wraight, and Hannah Carter. Their contributions to the necessary background research and writing made this exhibit possible.

Barbara Floyd, University Archivist, University of Toledo

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Last Updated: 6/27/22