In nineteenth century America, a number of what today are called “alternative” medical practices—“magnetic healing” (hypnosis), homeopathy, and eclecticism, among others—vied with each other and with regular or “old school” medicine—i.e., allopathy, today’s science-based medicine.
Eclecticism was established in New York by Wooster Beach (1794–1868) and existed from 1825 until 1939, in various forms. The term “eclectic” was applied by pioneering Kentucky botanist Constantine Rafinesque because of its meaning (from the Greek eklego) “to choose from.” The movement’s physicians determined to draw from various sources and apply whatever their patients found to be beneficial.
Wooster Beach’s book, The American Practice of Medicine (1833), gave the movement a philosophy and a materia medica (its collected knowledge of 116 botanical medicines). He earlier established at Worthington, Ohio, his Reformed Medical College of Ohio, which began in 1830. That institution failed in 1842 after a mob gathered at the school, incensed at discovering the secret practice of removing corpses from the local potter’s field for dissection. It relocated in Cincinnati in 1845, newly renamed, with Reform replaced by Eclectic—as the Eclectic Medical Institute (Felter 1902, 15–25). It became in 1910 the Eclectic Medical College, and lasted until 1939. Another nineteenth-century institution, the Eclectic Medical College of Philadelphia, became notorious for selling diplomas (Wilmer 1974, 148).
Eclecticism was basically an extension of earlier American traditions of herbal medicine. Colonial healers, largely bereft of European plants, had begun to turn to those that were locally available. Rafinesque himself had studied Native American practices in that regard. And Wooster Beach stated, “I have not thought it beneath me to converse with Root doctors and Indian doctors, and everyone who has professed any valuable remedy, or any improved method of treating any disease” (“Eclectic” 2017). Beach (1833, 124–125) urged married persons to avoid sex to the extent possible, and eat only vegetables and fruit, among other imperatives.
A prominent graduate of the Eclectic Medical Institute in Cincinnati in 1865 (Felter 1902,162) was Dr. R(ay) V(aughn) Pierce (1840–1914). Pierce became one of the nation’s most successful Eclectic practitioners, offering cure-alls such as his Golden Medical Discovery and his Favorite Prescription “For Weak Women”—touted in newspaper ads, endless promotional giveaways, and barn signs scattered across the country. He became known as “The Prince of Quacks” (Nickell 2014; Wilmer 1974).
For every diplomaed practitioner like Pierce, there were many others who followed the basic Eclectic approach—if not formally, at least in the sense of relying largely on botanicals. These included Dr. S.N. Thomas of Phelps, New York, who licensed his liniment, which appeared first as Eclectric (sic) Oil, then Eclectic (sic) Oil (Nickell 2006), and even Electric (sic) Oil, possibly a misspelling (“Dr. S.N. Thomas” 2017). Perhaps we can just call the product “E(c)lect(r)ic Oil.” Anyway, it contained “Spirits of Turpentine, Camphor, Oil of Tar, Red Thyme and Fish Oil specially processed” (Nickell 2006).
With the passing of the Eclectic Medical College in 1939, the last such school to die, the eclectic movement passed into history. According to one critic, it did not last “because of its failure to formulate a coherent therapeutic doctrine” (“Eclectic” 2017).
Beach, Wooster. 1833. The American Practice Condensed . . ., 56th ed. Cincinnati: Moore, Witlasch, Moore, 1869.
Dr. S.N. Thomas “Electric” Oil. 2017. Online at https://www.antique-bottles.net/showthread.php?661093-Dr-S-N-Thomas-Electric-Oil; accessed April 6, 2017.
Eclectic School of Medicine. 2017. Online at https://doctorschar.com/eclectic-school-of-medicine-2/; accessed April 5, 2017.
Felter, Harvey Wickes. 1902. History of the Eclectic Medical Institute, Cincinnati. . . . Reprinted Nabu Press, 2011.
Nickell, Joe. 2004. The Mystery Chronicles. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky.
———. 2006. Snake Oil: A Guide for Connoisseurs. Skeptical Briefs 16:3 (September), 7–8.
———. 2014. Dr. Pierce: Medicine for “Weak Women.” Skeptical Briefs: 24:4 (Winter 2014/2015), 6–8.
Wilmer, Terrence Francis. 1974. Apostle of Truth or Advocate of Deception? The Life and Times of Ray Vaughn Pierce, M.D. PhD dissertation, University of Maryland.