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From Quackery to Bacteriology: The Emergence of Modern Medicine in 19th
Century America: An Exhibition


This exhibit, "From Quackery to Bacteriology: The Emergence of Modern
Medicine in 19th Century America," traces the development of medicine
through printed works: from heroic medicine at the beginning of the century
to quackery movements, the experience of the Civil War, and ending with
improvements in medical education and the formulation of the germ theory at
century's end. Other topics covered in the exhibit include women's health,
mental health, public health, and preventative medicine as advocated through
physical fitness and nutrition.

        Two parallel threads run through 19th century American medicine:
one of evolving medical theory and expanding knowledge that eventually
furthered the profession; and the other of the daily practice of medicine in
the field. The evolutionary side, or "scientific medicine," was led by the
great medical minds such a Benjamin Rush, but was nonetheless ineffective in
treating patients. The other side was dominated by quacks who promoted
bizarre treatments like water cures and electrical garments which, while
also ineffective, were enthusiastically followed. These two paths often
crossed one another and mixed theories and techniques. Scientific medicine
took on aspects of quackery to gain patient acceptance, and quackery assumed
aspects of scientific medicine to gain credibility.

Scientific medicine at the beginning of the century was heroic medicine. All
diseases resulted from an excess of fluids, and the cure was to relieve the
body of the excesses through bloodletting and purging. The basic scientific
knowledge necessary to disprove such beliefs was slow to develop in America.
The generation of men like Franklin and Jefferson who dominated the
intellectual life of the country from 1750 to 1800 and who promoted
scientific research was largely gone by 1800. Besides, the country had
little time and little use for such aristocrats as it was swept up in the
Age of Common Man. As Tocqueville commented, the combination of democracy
and economic opportunity in the Jacksonian era placed an emphasis on
profitable technology over basic science. As a consequence, medical science
based upon empirical research suffered too.

Contributing to the stagnation of scientific advances in the 19th century
was the philosophical movement that dominated American society-Romanticism.
Romanticism came to America from Europe between 1812 and 1861 as a revolt
against the Age of Reason. Rather than rational empirical thought,
Romanticism emphasized feeling, sensitivity, and the supernatural. As
Romanticism mixed with Jacksonian democracy in the 1820s and 1830s, it
developed many uniquely American traits, one of them being religious

Jacksonian religious evangelicalism took religion from the privileged few to
the masses. Religious thought was dominated by the impending coming of the
millennium, which would begin when Christian principles triumphed and would
produce a holy utopia in the promised land of America. To bring about
Christ's glorious second coming, Americans had to reform. The common man had
to improve himself by purifying his body and soul, and the country would do
the same.

Since the scientific community was doing little to improve medicine, and the
public was rebelling against the painful and debilitating treatments of
heroics, a void developed in medical treatment. Lay health reformers and
practitioners, filled with the millennial, democratic spirit, rushed in with
"theories" of their own. Their treatments included water, electricity,
manipulation of animal magnetism, and vegetable compounds. Many of the
quackery theories took on qualities of social reform and religious
revivalism to become movements of their own.

It was not until the end of the century that scientific advances began to
catch up with the medical needs of the public. Civil War hospital
experiences and the new theories of bacteriology slowly produced fundamental
changes in medical practice. Medical training adapted to the growing
knowledge base of the profession, and by the end of the century, America was
well on its way to having the best medical care in the world.

This exhibit grew out of the Ward M. Canaday Center's "Women's Collection"
of 19th century popular culture books which were collected to support the
study of women's history. But the collection documents much more than
women's history, as this exhibit hopefully shows. Through these printed
works, researchers could study almost every aspect of 19th century American
culture-including medicine.

Because the Center's collection is strongest in popular books, this exhibit
has drawn on works from other repositories to fill in areas where lacking.
Thanks are due to the Mulford Library, Medical College of Ohio at Toledo,
and director David Boilard, for permission to borrow some pivotal materials
from both the rare book and general collections of the library. Items listed
in this exhibit from this institution are noted with the designation "MCO"
in the bibliographic citation. All other items are from the collections of
the Ward M. Canaday Center, and are available for use in the Center during
regular business hours. For more information, please call (419)537-2170.

Financial contributions by the Friends of the University of Toledo Libraries
provided needed funding to produce this exhibit as it was displayed in the
Ward M. Canaday Center, University of Toledo Libraries, from October
12-December 30, 1994.

The artwork for the exhibit introductory image was designed by Sue Benedict,
UT Audio-Visual Services. Thanks to her, and to Alan Hogan and David Reiman
from UT Libraries' Technical Services Department for assistance in
converting this exhibit from an actual one into a virtual one.

And a special word of thanks to my co-authors and research assistants: Judy
Friebert, Kerri Hagan, Jamie Wraight, and Hannah Carter. Their contributions
to the necessary background research and writing made this exhibit possible.
Barbara Floyd, University Archivist, University of Toledo

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