The History of Naturopathy

The term ‘Naturopath’ is an Anglicized version of the term ‘physician’ which was used by Hippocrates from the Greek root word ‘physikos’ meaning ‘nature’. This suggests that every practitioner of naturopathic medicine should to be skilled in Nature and must strive to know what man is in relation to food, drink, occupation and the effects that each of these has upon the other. In this sense, ‘nature’ also means a person’s ‘nature’ or constitution.

Naturopathy, as a collection of disciplines, dates back approximately 150 years although some of its practices have been used for centuries. It draws upon the rich heritage of writings and practices of Western and Eastern natural doctors since the time of Hippocrates. Modern naturopathy grew out of the healing traditions of the 18th and 19th centuries but its underlying philosophy, and the belief that the body has the innate wisdom to resist disease and the mechanisms to be able to self-regulate and recover from disease, are identical to Ayurvedic medicine. These observations of health and disease evolved into a healing art that was passed down over the centuries, being modified and added to by many different disciplines including traditional Chinese acupuncture (five elements/phases), Tibetan medicine, Greek medicine and Unani Tibb.

Research in the 19th century by Antoine Bechamp and Claude Bernard further confirmed the naturopathic view of health and disease. Their research confirmed that the state of the inner terrain of the body was of paramount importance to health. Bernard stated that the factors necessary for health were divided into internal factors and external factors. The internal factors were alkalinity and a negative electrical charge and the external factors were good nutrition and the effective elimination of toxins.  Even Rudolf Virchow, the father of pathology, was quoted as saying: “If I could live my life over again, I would devote it to proving that germs seek their natural habitat—diseased tissue—rather than being the cause of the diseased tissue; e.g., mosquitoes seek the stagnant water, but do not cause the pool to become stagnant.” This line of thought complements naturopathic understanding perfectly and is in agreement with what Bechamp and Bernard believed to be the true.

At the turn of the 20th century doctors and naturopaths were divided between those that believed in the importance of a healthy diet and lifestyle  and a natural approach to support health, and those that were following the germ theory of disease; ‘a pill for an ill’.

Those doctors that favoured a more natural approach to health and disease included Dr. Thomas Allinson (of Allinson bread fame) who developed his theory of medicine which he called ‘Hygienic Medicine’. He promoted health through diet, exercise, fresh air and bathing and the avoidance of alcohol, tobacco, tea and coffee and was opposed to drugs and vaccination. He believed that smoking caused cancer, which was radical for the time, and unaccepted. Other doctors, including doctor and surgeon Arbuthnot Lane, Dr John Harvey Kellogg and Dr John Tilden, all believed that the state and cleanliness of the gut and the resultant bowel flora was of the utmost importance to health and that accumulated toxicity in this area resulted in disease.

Research carried out by Professor J.E.R. McDonagh, an English surgeon, further confirmed the naturopathic unitary view of disease. McDonagh concluded that there is only one disease and that all diseases were from this one source which was a manifestation of damage to the blood proteins.   He suggested that there is a life force or energy from which all matter is derived and that this matter pulsates in cycles. As long as these cycles are able to continue the body will function healthily, but if the cycle is disturbed, disease will result.  These findings confirmed the earlier research of Bernard and Bechamp in that it is the inner terrain and alkalinity of the body that determined health and that disease occurred when this delicate balance was disturbed.  

The main practitioner who is known to have formulated naturopathy at the beginning of the 20th century was Benedict Lust who trained in chiropractic and adopted the term “Naturopath” which he purchased from a colleague of his, a Dr John Scheel.  Lust opened the first ‘Health food store’ in America in 1895 (originally called ‘Kneipp store’) and set up the American School of Naturopathy. In 1902 Lust replaced the Kneipp societies with the ‘Naturopathic Society of America’, later changed to the ‘American Naturopathic Association’. Lust claimed at one point to have 40,000 practitioners practicing naturopathy. In the early 20th century naturopaths were on a par with doctors and were sought after for their vast and diverse knowledge of health and disease.

There are numerous amazing practitioners which influenced naturopathic medicine including (but not limited to) Father Sebastian Kneipp (hydrotherapy), Dr Henry Lindlahr (nature cure), Dr John Harvey Kellogg (autointoxication), Dr AT Still (osteopathy), DD Palmer (chiropractic), Winternitz, Dr OG Carroll, Bernarr McFadden (physical therapy) Rudolph Steiner and Dr Bernard Jensen.

Naturopathy therefore became an amalgamation of different disciplines all of which aim to treat the body naturally and respect and acknowledge the vital energy in the body. Although the therapies differ, the underlying message of promoting health and supporting the body’s own healing processes runs through them all. They are: healthy living, natural diet, detoxification, exercise, physical therapy, and mental, emotional and spiritual healing, all using natural therapeutic agents. The schools of thought that influenced naturopathy include hydrotherapy, nature cure, Eclectic school of medicine, the hygienic system, autotoxicity, homeopathic medicine, herbal medicine, osteopathy and chiropractic, exercise and spirituality.

Naturopathy was therefore extremely popular throughout the 18th, 19th and early 20th century. The naturopathic doctors of the ‘hygienic’ system such as JH Kellogg, Arbuthnot Lane and Thomas Allinson played a big part in educating the masses to the benefits of cleanliness and healthy living. Most of the current accepted public hygiene practices were actually bought into being due to the early naturopathic hygiene reformers. The hygienists had great success at decreasing morbidity and mortality and increasing life span with their methods.

After the 1930’s

It was during the 1920’s and up to 1937 that Naturopathy was at its height. Naturopaths such as Lindlahr, Lust, Kellogg and Carroll were spreading the word of Nature Cure and Naturopathy and having huge success in their sanatoriums in curing people of many aliments. The research of Tilden, McDonagh and Bechamp verified the underlying principles of naturopathy and many journals and books were written for the public to educate them into taking responsibility for their own health. The naturopathic journals of the 1920’s and 1930 provided a lot of valuable insight into the prevention of disease and the promotion of health. Dietary advice focussed on correcting poor eating habits, increasing the amount of fibre in the diet and reducing red meat.

Sir Arbuthnot Lane, medical doctor and surgeon, set up his New Health Society in the 1920’s. His beliefs were ridiculed by main stream medicine but he regarded bowel health to be of the utmost importance: “The lower end of the intestine is of the size that requires emptying every six hours, but by habit we retain its contents for 24 hours. The results are ulcers and cancer”.[1]   

All of the research of these naturopathic pioneers into causes of cancer via diet, maintaining good colon health, the importance of probiotics, the problems of too much red meat, the need for exercise and fresh air is now being resurrected and fed back to the general public after extensive research confirming that what they originally said nearly 100 years ago is in fact correct. So what went wrong? Why is the term ‘naturopathy’ not recognised by many people today? Why have the majority of people never heard of a ‘naturopath’ let alone know what they do?

The problems started with the advent of the ‘miracle medicine’. Pasteur’s germ theory had taken hold and the research was on for ‘a pill for every ill’. Sulphur drugs (also called sulfa or sulphonamide drugs, the early antibiotics) were introduced in 1937; penicillin in 1942 and the Salk Polio vaccine in 1955 and the general public became used to miracle drugs being produced regularly. This, together with the germ theory, took away any need for the public to take responsibility for their health. They no longer needed to worry. If they ‘caught’ something it wasn’t their fault and they could take a miracle drug for it. At the same time, the Journal of the American Medical Association, under the editorship of one Morris Fishbein, criticised naturopathy as quackery. In addition to all of these changes within medicine, there was also the Flexner Report.

The US Flexner report of 1910 criticised the number of medical schools in the US and called on them to have higher admission fees and higher graduation standards. Many medical schools fell short of the standards stipulated in the report and either closed ‘overnight’ or amalgamated with larger schools. In addition, a medical school could not teach naturopathy or homeopathy and if it did then graduates would not be recognised as doctors and therefore would not be able to find work. This, together with the public’s infatuation with technology and ‘a pill for an ill’; World War 2’s need for  the development of surgery, and growing sophistication of the American Medical Association under the leadership of Fishbein, together with the death of Benedict Lust in 1945, all led to the decline of naturopathy.

Naturopathy today

Although it was science that originally squashed naturopathy, it is science that has helped resurrect it. Vitamins were discovered by Eijkman and Hopkins in 1929 and since then the role of trace substances in clinical nutrition has been rigorously researched. There is more research into nutrition than any other area. Further discovery that enzymes were dependent upon essential nutrients provided naturopaths with the proof as to why organically grown, whole foods could have such a profound influence upon health. Confirmation of this was given in 1955 by Professor Roger Williams in ‘Biochemical Individuality’ in which Williams, a respected researcher into vitamins, stated that everyone is individual and that we are all genetically and biologically unique. He argued in his book that bad genes did not necessarily cause disease by themselves and that nutrition and environment can influence the outcome. The effect of nutrition and environment upon genes has now been proven.

Further nutritional research by Linus Pauling and Carl Pfeiffer confirmed the importance of diet and nutrition in maintaining health, and work by Rachel Carson in ‘Silent Spring’ in 1962 began to confirm the effects of the environment upon human health. Even the effects of spirituality have been scientifically proven with studies into how prayer has a positive effect upon health. The role of the mind is playing an increasingly important role in health research and the new science of psychoneuroimmunology is proving the various interactions between the mind and body.

Naturopathy is finally re-emerging in the 21st century as people become disillusioned by modern medicine which only treats symptoms and rarely addressing the cause of disease. Media coverage of a healthy diet and lifestyle being conducive to good health has spurred people into taking more responsibility for their well-being and seeking out naturopathic practitioners.  

Naturopathy now incorporates scientific advances in modern medicine, whilst remaining true to its vitalistic approach. The art of modern naturopathy is to be able to blend advances in modern medicine with the ancient traditions. Science is beginning to prove what the ancient Eastern medical traditions have been teaching and practicing for centuries.

[1] Arbuthnot Lane, ‘Tissue cleansing through bowel management’ Jensen p42