Eclectic medicine

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Eclectic medicine was a branch of American medicine which made use of botanical remedies along with other substances and physical therapy practices, popular in the latter half of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries.

The term was coined by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1784 to 1841), a physician living among the Native Americans, and observing their use of medicinal plants. Rafinesque used the word "eclectic" to refer to those physicians who employed whatever was found to be beneficial to their patients (eclectic being derived from the Greek word "eklego", meaning "to choose from").

Therefore, "Eclectics" were doctors who practiced with a philosophy of "alignment with nature," learning from and using concepts from other schools of medical thought. They opposed the techniques of bleeding, chemical purging and the use of mercury compounds common among the "conventional" doctors of that time.[1]


Eclectic Medicine appeared as an extension of early American herbal medicine traditions, such as "Thomsonian medicine" in the early 1800s, and Native American medicine. Regular medicine at the time made extensive use of purges with calomel and other mercury-based remedies, as well as extensive bloodletting and Eclectic medicine was a direct reaction to those practices as well as the need to professionalize the Thomsonian medicine innovations.

Alexander Holmes Baldridge (1795-1874) suggested that the Eclectic Medicine should be called the American School of Medicine instead, given its American roots. It however bears resemblance to Physiomedicalism which is practiced in the United Kingdom.

In 1827, a medical doctor named Wooster Beach who broke with Thomson over professionalism founded the United States Infirmary in New York in 1827 and the Reformed Medical College in 1829, practicing and teaching Eclectic Medicine.[2] The Eclectic Medical Institute in Worthington, Ohio graduated its first class in 1833, lasting until the last class in 1939 over a century later. A number of other Ohio medical schools had been merged into that institution. The American School of Medicine (Eclectic) in Cincinnati operated from 1839 to 1857, when it merged with the Eclectic Medical Institute.[3] [4]

Eclectic Medicine expanded during the 1840s as part of an immense populist anti-regular medical movement in North America, which used many principles of Samuel Thomson's family herbal medication but which chose to train doctors in physiology and more conventional principles along with botanical medicine. The American School of Medicine (Eclectic) trained physicians in a dozen or so privately funded medical schools, principally located in the mid-western United States. [5] By the 1850s, several "regular" American doctors, especially from the New York Academy of Medicine, had begun using herbal salves and other preparations.

The movement peaked in the 1880s and 1890s. The schools were not approved by the Flexner Report (1910), which was used to decide on accreditation.[6] By World War I, states and provinces were adopting curriculum requirements that followed those articulated by the AMA. Those schools preferred pharmaceutical medicines to botanical extracts and eschewed a vitalist model. This effectively forced the Eclectic Medical Schools to either adopt the new model or fold. The last Eclectic Medical school closed in Cincinnati in 1939. The Lloyd Library and Museum still maintains the greatest collection of books, papers and publications of the Eclectic physicians, including libraries from the Eclectic schools.[7][8]

Michael Moore recounts:

"In 1990 I visited the Lloyd Library in Cincinnati, Ohio, where, in the basement, I found the accumulated libraries of ALL the Eclectic medical schools, shipped off to the Eclectic Medical College (the "Mother School") as, one by one, they died. Finally, even the E. M.C. died (1939) and there they all were, holding on by the slimmest thread, the writings of a discipline of medicine that survived for a century, was famous (or infamous) for its vast plant materia medica, treated the patient and NOT the pathology, a sophisticated model of vitalist healing."[9]

Major Eclectic physicians include John Uri Lloyd, John Milton Scudder, Harvey Wickes Felter, John King, Andrew Jackson Howe, Finley Ellingwood, Frederick J. Locke, and William N. Mundy. [10] [11]

Harvey Wickes Felter's Eclectic Materia Medica is one of several important Eclectic medical publications dating from the 1920s that represented the last, articulate, but in the end futile attempt to stem the tide of "standard practice medicine", the antithesis of the model of the rural primary care vitalist physician that was the basis for Eclectic practice.[12]

In 1934 the president of the Eclectic Medical Association J. C. Hubbard, M.D. decried the artificial hurdles of modern medical education and put forth a vision for the vitalist, mentor-led eclectic tradition:

"The problem of the present is fundamental and must be solved if we are to continue as the Eclectic Section in Medicine. We must choose between being absorbed by the dominant section, our professional activities dictated and controlled, our policies subject to the approval of an unfriendly, prejudiced, self-constituted authority, and soon lose our identity as the Eclectic Section of American Medicine, or adapt ourselves to the general social change and retain the old Eclectic values of individual freedom of thought and action, independence in practice and the right to use that which has stood the test of experience in our service to mankind.

If we are to retain the heritage passed on to us by our Eclectic fathers, we must purge ourselves of the cowering fear of prejudicial criticism that comes from the uninformed and vicious contingent of the majority section in medicine. Rather should we listen to the voice of suffering humanity calling for physicians to relieve pain, restore and maintain health and efficiency; for institutions of intelligence and understanding dedicated and standardized for the purpose of rendering service."[13]

Eclectic medicine is practiced in a modernized form today, but mainly by medical herbalists rather than physicians. Much of the important Eclectic literature found in the Lloyd Library has been scanned by herbalists David Winston[14], Michael Moore,[15] and Henriette Kress,[16] on their webpages.


  1. Alan Tillotson Philosophies and Traditions of Herbal Medicine
  2. [ The History of Western Herbal Medicine], Chanchal Cabrera, 2006.
  3. Former Cincinnati Medical Schools and Colleges, Archives and Rare Books, University Libraries, University of Cincinnati
  4. A Profile in Alternative Medicine: The Eclectic Medical College of Cincinnati, 1835-1942, John S. Haller, Kent State University Press, 1999, ISBN 0585262209
  5. Introduction to Felter's Materia Medica by Michael Moore (herbalist)
  6. Flexner Report, 1910.
  9. Michael MooreEclectic Medicine, Materia Medica and Pharmacy - classic texts
  10. Felter's 1912 biography of Scudder, Howe and King
  11. list of publications by Eclectic physicians scanned by David Winston
  12. Introduction to Felter's Materia Medica by Michael Moore (herbalist)
  14. David Winston scanned texts
  15. Michael Moore scanned texts
  16. Linked list of Eclectic texts on Henriette's Herbal Homepage

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