Alternative Medicine? A History



Whether acupuncture from China, Ayurvedic therapies from India, or home opathy in Europe, in her scholarly book, Roberta Bivins presents the belief systems that gave rise to such ancient practices and then follows their subsequent problematic global voyages to other cultures. Neither an allopathic doctor nor an alternat ive pract it ioner, Bivins provides readers with a social examination of these “exotic” techniques, from moxabustion to mesmerism, and explains how each was int roduced (and then studied, simulated, ridiculed, or rejected) by Western physicians in Europe and the United States. The nearly four-century transcontinental propagation was
not always easy — especially when corresponding bel ief systems could not be t ranspor ted along
with the therapeutic techniques.

The basis of many premodern medical practices rested on the belief that the human body was
a microcosm of the universe. For instance, with out the benefit of anatomical dissection (which
was then amoral and illegal) or microscopic analysis (which was then unavailable), the cupunc
turists in ancient China believed there were 12 waterways in the body that mirrored the coun
try’s 12 great rivers and canals. Ayurvedic medical pract it ioners believed in a deep philosophical and cosmological spiritual world of reincarnation and karma. A person’s balanced and healthy interactions with the environment were necessary not only for the body but also for the soul. The translat ion of these principles and techniques f rom East to West paralleled the interaction of the cultures themselves, with all the inherent stereotyping, superstitions, and feelings of racial and cultural superiority. Ultimately, despite British imperialism or the medical profession’s turf wars, it was often the realities of — and the lack of therapies forepidemics of cholera and the plague, or ailments such as gout, that encouraged quick investigation and resulted in rejection or eventual co-optation of the unfamiliar treatments.

Of note, the authorities investigating and discounting alterative therapies were also often “borrowing” the practices for reintroduction as their own. One example was moxabustion, a therapy that uses heat and was apparently effective in the treatment of gout.


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