Gerald Douglass is finding the District of Columbia a tough place to practice alternative medicine.
He has battled for seven years for the District to accept his Oregon medical license as a naturopath, a form of drugless healing popular in the 1920s and 1930s and enjoying a resurgence in some areas. Its practitioners avoid drugs and surgery and use such treatments as heat, cold, light, sound, electricity, exercise and acupuncture.
Despite a 1929 District law that permits naturopaths, the D.C. Commission on the Healing Arts has never licensed one, rejecting Douglass and about 10 others who have applied, according to court records. The 1929 healing arts law said its object is "not to give any monopoly to what are known as 'medical doctors,' but to afford ample opportunity, without discrimination, for the practice of therapeutics."
Since the 1920s, many of the unorthodox medical specialties in America lost favor as states instituted licensing boards and national medical examinations were developed. But alternative medicine has become popular in recent years, causing the World Health Organization to call the 1980s "the decade of alternative health practitioners."
Douglass' case illustrates the problems that state licensing boards and unorthodox medical practices have with each other, as boards try to maintain safe standards to protect patients, and specialists in unusual medical procedures attempt to practice their profession.
Like most cases, Douglass' battle has been fought in the courts.
A Washington native and a biology graduate from Kansas Newman College, Douglass, 35, returned to the area after completing a degree at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Ore., and working for three years as a naturopath.
His 1978 application for a license was denied, after the commission said his training and basic sciences exam did not meet its standards.
Douglass sued and D.C. Superior Court Judge Robert M. Scott ruled in 1980 that the D.C. Commission on the Healing Arts "misapplied and in some instances ignored" the city law requiring naturopaths to be licensed and ordered the board to issue him a license.
The commission erred in the way it evaluated Douglass' science background, the judge ruled, and needs to establish a naturopathic board to examine his credentials.
The city appealed and a higher court dismissed the case on a technicality, ruling that Douglass should have filed his initial complaint in a different court.
Instead of reapplying, Douglass began operating the Potomac Health Conservatory, a medical office on Euclid Street in the District. "I was just advising on diet and life style," said Douglass.
But District officials found otherwise. An undercover police officer was alerted to the clinic by a complaint from the D.C. Medical Society that Douglass was diagnosing and treating patients. The complaint was passed on to the police by the healing arts commission.
Police officer Melvin Cammon visited Douglass three times in late 1984, creating a story that he had hurt his shoulder when a two-by-four fell on it.
According to court records, Douglass told Cammon he had a hairline fracture and wrote him an excuse from work.
As a result, Douglass was arrested last February and charged with practicing medicine without a license, a criminal misdemeanor. He pleaded no contest and was found guilty and sentenced to perform 70 hours of community service work.
But when he tried to complete his sentence last month by volunteering his services, not even D.C. Village, the city-run nursing home that is chronically short of staff, would accept him.
"They said they had no use for my training," said Douglass, who is attempting instead to work at RAP Inc., a private drug counseling center.
In the meantime, he has again asked the commission to grant him a license. That request still is pending, according to commission director P. Joseph Sarnella. Commission records show that action on it has been postponed several times.
"The city is stonewalling my application," said Douglass, who said he continues to counsel a few patients on nutrition and herbal remedies from his Landover apartment even though Maryland does not license naturopaths. "This is just how chiropractors were ostracized for many years," Douglass added.
Ed Hofmann-Smith, a doctor of naturopathy and a founder of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians, of Portland, said many of the 2,000 naturopaths in the United States face difficulty in all but seven states that license naturopaths.
Douglass "is a real pioneer," said Hofmann-Smith. "When he got to D.C. there were only two naturopaths there and both were old and not making any waves. Most of our students won't fight, they just move to a state where naturopaths already are licensed."
But Douglass said he is staying because this is his home town and he wants the commission to follow its own laws. "There are a lot of people in the D.C. community who don't believe in hospitals or drugs," he said. "Why should they be denied professional help?"