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Alternative Medical Practices

Home Health Care

While doctors were trying to improve their profession through "scientific" study, others were promoting treatments with little or no basis in science. Regardless, these treatments enjoyed enormous popularity. Followers had lost faith in the ability of doctors to cure using heroic treatments, and unlike heroic methods, alternative medicine did not appear to do harm. Rebelling against the aristocracy of the medical profession, 19th century Jacksonian America believed every man could be his own doctor which led most states to repeal their licensing laws by the 1840s. Many alternative medical treatments were promoted in home medical guides that allowed the public to treat itself and bypass the established medical profession entirely.

A prescription for homeopathic medicine from Gilbert and Hall Homeopathic Chemists. Note the picture of Samuel Hahnemann, founder of the movement.

Homeopathy was one of the first popular medical movements that could be practiced by the novice at home. It was founded by German physician Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), and gained an American following in the 1830s. The movement was based on Hahnemann's theory simila similibus curantur: treating disease with extremely small doses of drugs that produced symptoms similar to those of the offending disease. The theory held that the lesser symptoms brought on by the weak drugs replaced the stronger symptoms of the original disease and provided comfort for the patient. Not surprisingly, patients preferred this treatment to severe heroic methods. The biggest boost to homeopathy's popularity came during the cholera epidemic of 1832, when conventional bleeding and purging devastated those already weakened by the wasting disease. Homeopathic treatments appeared to cure simply because they lowered the death rate by not further debilitating the patient. Because homeopathic drugs were taken in such small doses, little harm came from them, and they were therefore easy to use in the home without physician assistance. Many homeopathic kits were packaged and sold by mail order or over the counter.

Advertisement for a homeopathic medicine kit sold by Otis Clapp & Son, Boston.

The rural nature of America, which made finding a doctor difficult, combined with the skepticism many felt about physicians led to numerous home remedies and medical guides. Household libraries contained books like Our Home Doctor, or Gunn's New Domestic Physician. Common in these books were formulas for healing teas and poultices. Some of the books advocated a particular theory, while others described several medical theories: Our Family Physician(Stout, 1886), carefully prescribes the allopathic, homeopathic, hydropathic, eclectic, and herbal (Thomsonian) remedy for each ailment listed. All home medical guides were optimistic in outlook, offering "cures" for the likes of baldness and cancer along with treatments for more common afflictions like bee stings.

Moore Russell Fletcher's Our Home Doctor: Domestic Remedies Simplified and Explained for Family Treatment,1890.

Many of the home medical books also provided guidance for nearly every aspect of domestic life. Introductory essays offered advice on the proper conduct of mothers toward children and husbands toward wives. Gunn's New Domestic Physician begins with two hundred pages on topics like "The Passions," "The Dread of Death," "Early Rising," "To Young Men—How to Get Rich," and "Cold Baths versus Warm Baths." Under the heading "To Husbands," Dr. Gunn urged consideration of a wife's "peculiar tender heart," especially if she was in a "delicate situation." Of course, the guides offered frightening examples of what would happen if such advice was not heeded.

Coffin, John G. Domestic Medicine, or, a Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases by Regimen and Simple Medicines. Boston: Phelps & Farnham, 1825.

Farrington, Ernest A. A Clinical Materia Medica. Being a Course of Lectures Delivered at the Hahnemann Medical College, of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Hahnemann Publishing House, 1890.

Fletcher, Moore Russell. Our Home Doctor: Domestic Remedies Simplified and Explained for Family Treatment. Boston: A. M. Thayer & Co., 1890.

Freligh, M. Homeopathic Practice of Medicine: Embracing the History, Diagnosis, and Treatment of Disease in General, Including Those Peculiar to Females and the Management of Children. New York: Charles T. Hurlburt, 1867.

Title page, Freligh's Homeopathic Practice of Medicine.

Guernsey, Egbert. Homeopathic Domestic Practice, Containing Also Chapters on Physiology, Hygiene, Anatomy, and an Abridged Materia Medica. New York: Boericke & Tafel, 1872.

Gunn, John C. Gunn's New Domestic Physician: Or Home Book of Health. Cincinnati: Moore, Wilstach & Baldwin, 1864.

Laurie, J. Homeopathic Domestic Medicine. New York: William Radde, 1843.
Lovering, Anna Temple. Hints in Domestic Practice and Home Nursing. Boston and Providence: Otis Clapp & Son, 1896.

Pulte, J. H. Homeopathic Domestic Physician. Cincinnati: Smith & Worthington, 1869.

Stout, H. R. Our Family Physician. Peoria, Illinois: Henderson & Smith, 1887.

Williams, Theodore D. The American Homeopathic Dispensatory. Chicago: Gross & Delbridge, 1884.

Barbara Floyd, University Archivist, University of Toledo

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Last Updated: 6/27/22