The Eclectic Herbalists

Popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the “Eclectics” practiced herbal medicine in a time when standard Western practices often included barbaric approaches like blood-letting. Looking at plants and Native American medicine for inspiration, Eclectic physicians approached healing with the perspective of “whatever works” – so long as it did no harm. We explore this lesser-known chapter in herbal history and how its legacy has impacted herbal medicine today.

During the 1840s, an “anti-regular” medical movement took hold in North America. Tired and frightened by conventional health practices that were often violent and unsafe, a group of physicians decided to look toward a gentler type of medicine, turning to indigenous plants and herbs for treatment. Known as Eclectic medicine, a term coined by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque and derived from the Greek word eklego – to choose from – this approach to healing included botanical medicine, physical therapy, homeopathy, and anything that would benefit patients without harming them. Eclectic medicine became very popular, and though it experienced a short lifespan, it has left a lasting impression.

The Dangers of “Regular” Medicine

My opinion is, more harm than good is done by physicians, and I am convinced that had I left my patients to nature instead of prescribing drugs, more would have been saved.” Such was the opinion of Dr. Christopher Hufeland {1762-1836}, one of the most famous and revered physicians of his time in Germany. His contemporary Dr. John Mason Good {1764-1827}, writer, physician, and later a member of the British Pharmaceutical Society, concurred: “The science of medicine is barbarous jargon, and the effects of our medicine on the human system are in the highest degree uncertain, except indeed that they have already destroyed more lives than war, pestilence, and famine combined.”

These judgments were directed toward the practice of “allopathic” medicine, a name invented by homeopathic physicians of the time to highlight the stark differences between their holistic approach to healing vs. that of “regular” doctors. While the definition of “allopathic” has changed over the last 100-plus years – today it refers to conventional science- and evidence-based medicine – in the early 1800s it was a derogatory word to describe this regular medicine {also known as “heroic medicine”}, which tended to blame all disease on the imbalance of the four “humours”: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. To bring these humours back into balance, allopathic doctors would often employ extremely dangerous “treatments.”

A very famous example of this kind of perilous medicine is illustrated in the demise of President George Washington. Having retired a few years before, Washington was out riding horseback on a freezing, rainy day. Upon returning home, instead of changing from his wet clothes, he went to dinner still cold and wet. He awoke early the next morning with his throat so inflamed that he was having difficulty breathing, so the best doctors in the area were summoned. Conventional medicine at that time dictated that drawing blood would reduce the inflammation in his throat, so these physicians began the process of bloodletting. They also administered Washington enemas as well as drugs to make him vomit. One doctor even applied “blister of cantharides,” known also as Spanish Fly, a concoction made from a species of beetle containing a toxic terpenoid, which caused a very painful blister. The blister that formed was said to remove the humors causing the illness, and this blister was drawn, clipped, and then covered with a poultice. {Apparently, blisters also exuded a terrible odor, which in no way put the patient at ease.}

There has been much speculation as to what actually killed President Washington, but removing 80 ounces – approximately 40 percent – of his blood over a 12-hour period likely had something to do with it. The sad fact is, he was probably suffering from nothing more than tonsillitis.

Other “cures” used in allopathic practices of the time included mercury, antimony, or calomel {a mercury chloride mineral} combined with opium to induce vomiting and “relax” the patient. These medicines would make anyone lose their appetite, which in turn meant that patients didn’t receive the proper nutrients they needed to get better. Doctors also theorized that mercury and water counteracted each other, so they would withhold fluids from patients receiving mercury treatments, leading to dehydration.

Often, physicians perceived illness and disease as a “devil-like” entity that they needed to remove by violent means. They would bring the patient to the edge of death and then try to revive him or her by the methods mentioned above. Of course, these treatments actually created a wide variety of illnesses – decaying bones, loss of teeth, mercury rheumatism, and liver and bowel disorders, to name a few. As the saying goes, if the illness didn’t kill you, the cure surely would.

The Birth of Eclecticism

Around the year 1825, a bright light appeared at the end of a very dark tunnel. Eclectic medicine began forming as a response to the dangers and false principles of “regular” medicine, but to understand how Eclecticism got its start, we first need to look at the three schools of medicine that existed during the 19th century in the United States.

The first was “old school” or “regular medicine,” as discussed above.

The second school was rooted in botanical medicine and divided into two sub-schools: Thomsonian Medicine, created by Samuel Thomson, whose practice was based on a small set of herbal medicines, the rights to which anyone could purchase and start practicing {this would ultimately help grow his brand into a medical movement}; and physio-medicalism, which employed a much wider range of herbal medicines and was developed by Alva Curtis, a protege of Thomson.

The third, homeopathy, was developed by Samuel Hahnemann in 1796. This alternative medical system was based on the premise that the body could heal itself. Practitioners of this system used small amounts of natural plants and minerals to stimulate the healing process {and, of course, homeopathy is alive and well today as a system of medicine}. The curricula for all of these schools included anatomy, physiology, pathology, chemistry, and pathological anatomy. Eclectic medicine took much from homeopathic studies, but it also incorporated ideas and remedies from the study of indigenous medicinal plants in the United States.

More than that, it served as a continuation of Thomson’s movement to put healing in the hands of the patient. As Michael A. Flannery explains in the Journal of the Medical Library Association, “Although all physicians utilized an extensive botanical materia medica, their heroic bleeding, purging, and puking made recipients wary of their “care.” Added to this was an attitude among regular physicians that struck many as supercilious and condescending. The faith of Thomson that all people could be their own physicians was juxtaposed to most regular physicians who thought little of their patients’ abilities to appreciate even the most rudimentary aspects of the healing art.”

With the monumental push of the Eclectic movement came many highly trained and dedicated doctors. One such famous doctor was Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, who coined the term “eclectic medicine” and was often referred to as an eccentric genius. He studied and excelled in several areas of knowledge, including zoology, biology, geology, anthropology, and botany. He studied the Native American use of plants for healing and wrote and lectured extensively on the subject. He also sold many of his remedies by mail.

Another doctor in the movement who deserves mention is Harvey Wicks Felter. He, along with pharmacist John Uri Lloyd, wrote the King’s American Dispensatory {1898} and Eclectic Materia Medica {1922}. The latter contained a list of healing plants and the elements each one contained, providing instructions on preparing the plant for healing purposes and the specific conditions it could treat internally, externally, or both.

But the doctor most widely known as the founder of the Eclectic movement is Wooster Beach {1794-1859}. Early on in life, he had decided he wanted to reform and improve existing medical practices, so he convinced a successful {although unlicensed} country doctor in a secluded part of New Jersey to take him under his wing and train him. Beach then went on to study regular medicine and get his medical degree, which he obtained for two reasons; he wanted to practice legally without interruption from the authorities and he wanted to “detect errors” within the modern practice. Beach leaned toward “nature’s remedies” and the use of botanical cures from Native American cultures for his patients, and he began his own school. {His disciples were referred to as “Beachites.”}

In 1827 he founded the United States Infirmary on Eldridge Street in New York City. Then, 10 years later, he founded the New York Medical Academy, which later evolved into the Reformed Medical College of New York.

Michael Flannery explains that it was Thomas Vaughan Morrow, a follower of Beach, who helped Beachites “find success” as Eclectics. Morrow opened the Eclectic Medical Institute in Worthington, Ohio, from which the first class of Eclectic physicians graduated in 1833. But the school was ultimately banned from Worthington due to a scandal called the “Resurrection Riot” of 1839, a reaction to thieves robbing graveyards to supply cadavers for the medical school. {Bodysnatching was an issue that plagued quite a few hospitals between the late 1700s through the late 1800s.}

Upon its closure, Morrow moved the school to Cincinnati, where it was renamed the American School of Medicine {Eclectic}, operating from 1839 t0 1857 and opening a dozen privately funded medical schools, where Eclectic physicians were trained in family herbal medicine using many of the principles from Samuel Thomson’s teachings.

The End of the Eclectic Era

The Eclectic movement reached its peak in the 1880s and 1890s. Some argue that part of its downfall was that it appealed mainly to upper-class people of means rather than to the masses it aimed to help.

Then in 1910, the American Medical Association commissioned a council to evaluate medical education standards in America. The Flexner Report of 1910 transformed much of the process and nature of medical teaching at that time. Eclectic medicine did not make the cut. In his report, Abraham Flexner stated that these colleges did not have adequate laboratory facilities or proper opportunities for in-hospital clinical education.

The last college of Eclectic medicine closed its doors in Cincinnati in 1939. John S. Haller, author of A Profile in Alternative Medicine: The Eclectic College of Cincinnati, 1845-1942, notes that by 1900, “the curriculum of the {Eclectic Medical College} included a mixture of courses in the sciences and in modern medicine {including pharmacy and surgery}, as well as in Materia medica {presumably pertaining to herbal medicine}, and ‘electro-therapeutics’ {which might have straddled the border of modern and alternative medicine}.”

The late Michael Moore, the notable contemporary medical herbalist, authored several books on botanical medicine. He found all of the libraries from the Eclectic medical schools in the basement of the Lloyd Library in Cincinnati. This library is touted as the most extensive botanical library in the Western world. All the vast knowledge of plant-based materia medica, which advocated treating the patient and not the pathology, and a plethora of Eclectic medical publications can be found there. The combined works of many of the major Eclectic scholars and practitioners are also housed in that library basement. Some of the doctors whose works are included in these teachings include Frederick J. Locke, William N. Mundy, John Milton Scudder, John King, Finley Ellingwood, John Uri Lloyd, and Andrew Jackson Howe, the foremost Eclectic surgeon of his time. One of the most important documents of the movement, the Eclectic Materia Medica, written by Harvey Wickes Felter, may be found there as well.

Today, you can find a wealth of research on this moment in time and even a few contemporary Eclectic programs. Eclecticism’s legacy has inspired many contemporary healers to see the patient as a whole and not just a symptom, and American herbalists continue to evolve these rich and vibrant herbal traditions into the 21st century.

materia medica herbal jars

Native American Influence

Both Rafinesque and Beach studied Native American plant healing, and the Eclectic medical movement introduced European audiences to many herbs we still use today.

  • Black cohosh {Actaea racemosa}: for symptoms of menopause, acne, starting labor for women, and osteoporosis.
  • Blue cohosh {Caulophyllum thalictroides}: for gynecological problems, treating colic, as a laxative, for sore throats, for “hysterics,” epilepsy cramps, and hiccups.
  • Cascara {Rhamnus purshiana}: as a laxative.
  • Echinacea {E. purpurea, E. angustifolia}: for carbuncles and cellulitis.
  • Goldenseal {Hydrastis canadensis}: for digestive problems, diarrhea, liver conditions, and eye irritations.
  • Kava {Piper methysticum}: for relief of stress, anxiety, and help sleep.
  • Moonlight cactus {Selenicereus}: as a heart tonic for blood pressure control and managing symptoms of congestive heart failure.
  • Wild indigo {Baptisia australis}: for toothaches and nausea.

Some Eclectic skin remedies include:

  • Barberry rootbark {Myrica cerifera}: for psoriasis, head colds, colitis, nausea, and diarrhea.
  • Figwort root and leaf {Scrophularai nodosa L.}: for enlarged lymph nodes and lymphatic congestion.
  • Gotu kola {Centella asiatica}: applied externally with sarsaparilla to heal burns, lesions, and leprosy.
  • Sarsaparilla rhizome {Smilax officinalis}: for psoriatic arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and scleroderma.

Interesting Reading

Eclectic Medicine – The Roots of Modern Alternative Medicine

Eclectic Medicine – Lloyd Library › research › archives › eclectic-medicine
Eclectic medicine was a branch of American medicine that made use of noninvasive therapies and healing practices popular in the latter half of the 19th and …

Michael Moore – SW School of Botanical Medicine Home Page

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