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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 77.4 (2003) 964-965
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James C. Whorton. Nature Cures: The History of Alternative Medicine in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. xv + 368 pp. Ill. $30.00 (0-19-514071-0).
The enormous expansion of interest in and usage of alternative medicine by the American public in the last couple of decades is provided in Nature Cures with a brilliant historical background that unifies the role of unorthodoxy through the nation's past. Anyone concerned with health—from the undergraduate pre-med student to the medical school dean, as well as the curious patient—will be fascinated and enlightened by James C. Whorton's deeply researched, lively, and persuasive account. Apt quotations from the sources are especially well chosen.
Over time, alternative systems have shared certain traits: a reliance on natural remedies; crediting experience rather than theory; and holism, dealing with "illness as a disorder affecting the patient as a whole and unique person" (p. 15). Step after step, Whorton presents the development of irregular cultists and [End Page 964] describes their combats with the regular medical profession. First came Samuel Thomson in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, with his vegetarian emphasis. Next came homeopathy, pioneered in Germany by Samuel Hahnemann and brought to America in 1825. Then followed hydropathy, magnetism, mesmerism, and Christian Science. Andrew Taylor Still launched osteopathy in the nineteenth century, and D. D. Palmer was "the Discoverer" (p. 166) of chiropractic in 1896. Naturopathy began in Germany and was brought to America in the 1890s by Benedict Lust. The conflicts between these irregular cults and regular medicine are described intriguingly, and with sympathetic comprehension on both sides of the often-fierce arguments that sometimes took place in the courts of law.
Particularly useful to the understanding of the present are Whorton's final chapters on "Holistic Healing" (p. 219) in the late twentieth century and into the new millennium. The major therapy explored here is acupuncture, an Asian procedure proven to have some therapeutic benefits. Also discussed are the increase in the usage of alternative medicine and the expansion of research, partly prompted by congressional action in creating an Office of Alternative Medicine in the National Institutes of Health.
Whorton concludes with a look ahead, noting evidence of cooperation between regular and irregular physicians, especially in his own state of Washington. But he makes clear the major obstacles to such collaboration. Will the new century prove to be "The Age of Curapathy" (p. 297)? In addressing this question, he suggests: "For the time, at least, mainstream and marginal medicine have reached a condition of entente, sometimes cordial, more often wary, but withal holding some promise that the two-hundred-years' war might be about to end—and might conclude not in a sterile truce but with an actual alliance" (p. 306). Such an achievement, Whorton believes, is greatly to be desired.