Homeopathy and the War Between Conventional and Alternative Medicine
By Natalie Robins. Knopf. 330 pp. $24.95
In my youth, working as a freelance magazine writer, I did a lot of work for a famously rich magazine that paid five times as much as Esquire or the Atlantic Monthly. Today's Health had nothing to do with health. It was a masterpiece of gothic horror. The editor's all-time favorite piece was an account of a 12-year-old boy who fell off a path in Yellowstone National Park and simmered to death in a boiling lake. I don't remember the exact quote, but the sentence that stood out was, "His parents stood helpless, watching his agonized face." I myself wrote on anorexia, then another affliction in which children ate themselves to death, then yet another in which an infant's skin was so covered with sores that (as I recall the quote) "it looked as if she had sunburn on her sunburn in her sunburn." Today's Health was not available for subscription but was placed in doctors' waiting rooms to scare patients half to death. Its publisher was the American Medical Association, an outfit that played hardball.
In "Copeland's Cure," we find an absolutely dazzling account of the quarrel, over the course of some 150 years, between conventional medicine (as represented by the AMA) and the alternative practice of homeopathy, founded in 1796 by Christian Hahnemann and used enthusiastically by the American (mostly rural) middle class throughout the 19th century and on into the 20th -- mostly because it was gentle, and because it often worked.
Well up into the 1800s, all conventional medicine could offer by way of treatment was bloodletting -- terribly painful and ineffective -- or prescriptions of "mercury, arsenic, or lead, which purged the body of its excesses if they didn't first poison the patient, or blistering, pulling teeth, sweating, ice, starvation, darkness and silence." Homeopathy, on the other hand, based on the assumption that "like cures like," used infinitesimal doses of up to 3,000 remedies, usually in pleasing little sugar pills. People swore by them.
Natalie Robins writes that she's equally interested in both sides of the battle and hopes, above all, to be "fair minded." She chooses as her emblematic protagonist a certain Royal Copeland, a country boy who grew up in the 1880s in the town of Dexter, Mich. He was bright and ambitious, earned the money to attend homeopathic school, practiced that medical discipline for many years, then turned politician. He became commissioner of health in New York during the Spanish influenza epidemic and finally became a member of the U.S. Senate, where he was able to keep the prescriptions of the (by then beleaguered) homeopaths legal and safe from attacks by the tireless AMA.
There are so many wonderful treats in this book! For starters, there's the portrait of Copeland, a quintessentially optimistic, Bible-quoting, self-improving, platitude-spouting American boy who grows into a self-serving blowhard who writes medical columns, has his own radio show, endorses dozens of products and becomes something of an embarrassment to his colleagues. But through it all he remains a fine family man and totally committed to a method of medical practice that he believes to be both effective and safe. Copeland is our whole sweet country concentrated in one flawed human being.
We also learn of the illnesses and misfortunes that have punished us in so many ways -- malaria, smallpox, tetanus, typhoid, typhus, bone breaks, heart attacks, cancer, pustules, piles, boils. And the cures for what people perceived to be sickness; for instance, plaster casts were applied to penises to prevent masturbation. And there's a ghastly account of a week-long set of treatments given for acute nephritis that ended in the patient's death -- a tale so gothic that it would have set the teeth of the old Today's Health editor gleaming. And these were the treatments of well-meaning homeopaths, the "gentle" way of dealing with that illness.
Most charmingly, we get to observe the battle between the AMA and the homeopaths, which resembled a fight between blustering British colonials and the annoyingly pacifist Gandhi, or a match between Mike Tyson and a bank of clouds. It wasn't enough for the AMA that from the beginning its doctors were referred to as practicing "dominant medicine." They wanted it all! They wanted every possible competitor to be beaten, squashed, disgraced, obliterated! They came out from about the 1850s to the 1950s against "osteopaths, naturopaths, optometrists, chiropodists, and midwives" (only to be beset in the 20th century's second half by aromatherapists, masseurs and so on). They lashed out at aspirin over and over during those years, comparing it to morphine. They were against everything except themselves. They wanted to be the only guys on the playground.
Conventional medicine "won," of course. In the 20th century, antibiotics were discovered, and many diseases were (theoretically) eradicated. Many gadgets, from pacemakers to MRI machines, were invented. The AMA got hooked up with scientists who took money from drug companies and the National Institutes of Health. For decades, they prescribed an awful lot of estrogen to an awful lot of women. Then came Vioxx -- oh, well! -- and earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page story reporting that the president of the vaccine division of Merck & Co. had been warned in 1991 that his company's vaccinations were giving infants a dangerously "elevated dose of mercury" -- that old standby poison.
More and more people turned to alternative medicine out of sheer disgust. Meanwhile, the few remaining homeopaths kept on dispensing their annoying little sugar pills.
Natalie Robins captures all this perfectly and with engaging verve. I can only add this: After once suffering for three months from a ravaging case of meningitis that included an excruciating and constant headache as well as double vision, after being subjected to every clanking machine and strong medicine in conventional medicine's considerable repertoire, I went -- as a desperate, very last resort -- to a homeopath, who cured me in a day.
The AMA would label this a placebo effect, I'm sure. They'd suggest I find a nice boiling lake somewhere and jump right in. It's a lot like religion, isn't it? It's what you believe in, and what you don't.