An Illustrated History of Alternative Medicine in Early America

Sickness was a major part of early American life. Many people suffered from poor health their whole lives.

But scientifically valid medical knowledge was limited. The world in 1820 was not a much more comfortable place to fall ill than it had been two hundred years earlier. No one knew about germs or the significance of human contact or insects in spreading disease.

Medical theory of the time held that sickness resulted from a body out of balance. It was an idea that went back hundreds of years to Roman physician Galen in the 2nd century. To restore balance, mainstream doctors bled, blistered, and sweated patients to large and often painful degrees. They administered large doses of drugs like calomel, a form of mercury, to purge patients. Doctors chose treatments that caused quick and drastic changes in a patient’s condition, which could be interpreted as progress. Though well-intentioned, these mainstream treatments also caused as much, if not more, pain than the sickness itself. As a result, doctors could rarely offer sick Americans a medical means of getting better.

But as industrialization, urbanization, and new technologies remade everything from where people worked to how they lived and got around in the 19th century, many Americans began to question why medical care didn’t seem to be improving, too. Anyone who could offer a remedy that seemed effective, didn’t hurt as much as bleeding, cost less than a trip to a doctor, and even allowed you to treat yourself was bound to be popular. (Even a cursory study of the past reveals that Americans have been staunchly independent and looking for deals for centuries.)

And so, phrenologists read character on the topography of people’s skulls, hydropaths attempted to wash out all disease with cold water, and mesmerists transmitted an invisible fluid known as animal magnetism. And millions of Americans became devotees.

But why would anyone believe these things could work?

Burns Archive

Burns Archive

Read the rest on The Beacon Broadside.

Marketplace of the Marvelous News

photo

It’s been a busy few weeks bringing the stories of irregular healing and 19th century medicine to the airwaves and print. Some highlights:

I love history books (no surprise) and here are a few I recommend in this “Just Read It” feature.

Salon ran an excerpt from the conclusion while The Atlantic ran an excerpt from the phrenology chapter (a personal favorite).

Loved talking with Simon Moncrieff on Newstalk Ireland from Dublin (if only I could have done the interview in studio).

Doctor Radio with Dr. Ira Breite on Sirius XM was a lot of fun.

The Wisconsin State Journal ran a nice Q&A with me at the end of January.

And Madison’s alt-weekly Isthmus ran a profile under the headline “Textual Healing,” which cracked me up. Should I have called the book that instead?

You can hear me talk about the book on The Larry Meiller show on Wisconsin Public Radio.

The Boston Globe featured the book in their nonfiction book briefs.

 

This week, I’ll be speaking at Boswell Books in Milwaukee on Tuesday, February 11th at 7PM. And on Sunday,  February 16th, I’ll be at one of my favorite places, Arcadia Books in Spring Green, speaking at 2PM. Hope to see you there!

What One Writing Process Looks Like

In talking about my new book Marketplace of the Marvelous: The Strange Origins of Modern Medicineeveryone seems to want to know about the writing and research process. Writing a book can seem like some kind of miracle. It can also seem like some tortuously difficult endeavor that is hard to fully comprehend and explain to those who haven’t done it. It’s a little bit of both.

As a historian, the work of writing a book really breaks down into two parts: researching and writing. I take a lot of notes. How many? Here’s my stack of typed notes:

photo (5)

 

 

There’s lots of highlighting by major themes for each chapter:

photo (7)

 

And scribbling of ideas on random slips of papers and folders as I come up with common themes, chapter ideas, questions, possible ways to phrase things:

photo (6)

 

That stack, with all its highlights and scribblings, becomes a book – slowly, painfully slowly – after lots and lots and lots of editing. The first draft often bears little, if any, resemblance to the printed product.  I rewrote every chapter more times than I can even recall. The miraculous part of book writing may be that something coherent even emerges in the end. But it does, if you stick with it.