Naturopathy’s Early History

Stephen Barrett, M.D.
October 18, 2018

Naturopathy as practiced today can be traced to the concepts of Sebastian Kneipp (1821-1897), Benedict Lust (1872-1945), Henry Lindlahr (1853-1925), Bernarr Macfadden (1868-1955), and John H. Tilden, M.D. (1851-1940). Father Kneipp, a German priest, opened a “water cure” center after becoming convinced that he and a fellow student had cured themselves of tuberculosis by bathing in the Danube River. Kneipp also developed herbal methods using whole plants. Lust, also German, was treated by Kneipp and in 1892 was commissioned to establish Kneipp’s practices in the United States. In 1895, he opened the Kneipp Water-Cure Institute in New York City and began forming Kneipp Societies whose members had been using Kneipp’s methods or other “drugless therapies.” Subsequently, he acquired degrees in osteopathy, chiropractic, homeopathic medicine, and eclectic medicine [1].

In 1901, Lust organized a national convention and chaired a committee that endorsed the use of massage, herbs, homeopathy, spinal manipulation, and various types of occult healing. In 1902, he purchased the rights to the term “naturopathy” from John H. Scheel, another Kneipp disciple, who had coined it in 1895. That same year, he began referring to himself as a naturopath, opened the American Institute of Naturopathy, and replaced the Kneipp Societies with a national naturopathic organization. Lindlahr further systematized naturopathy and opened a sanitarium and a school in a Chicago suburb. Macfadden popularized exercise and fasting. Tilden contributed notions about “auto-intoxication” (said to be caused by fecal matter remaining too long in the intestines) and “toxemia” (alleged to be “the basic cause of all diseases”). [2] Naturopathy’s founders were uniformly opposed to vaccination, which they considered to be unnatural [3].

Cultist Practices

Naturopathy’s grandiose claims attracted the sharp pen of Morris Fishbein, M.D., who edited the Journal of the American Medical Association and spearheaded the AMA’s antiquackery campaign for several decades. He noted:

Whereas most cults embrace a single conception as to the cause and healing of disease, naturopathy embraces everything in nature. . . .

The real naturopaths were, of course, such healers as Father Kneipp . . . and others who advocated natural living and healed by use of sunlight, baths, fresh air, and cold water, but there is little money to be made by these methods. Hence the modern naturopath embraces every form of healing that offers opportunity for exploitation. [4]

The practices Fishbein debunked included:

  • Aeropathy: baking the patient in a hot oven
  • Alereos system: spinal manipulation plus heat and mechanical vibration
  • Astral healing: diagnosis and advice based on reading the patient’s horoscope
  • Autohemic therapy: giving a solution made by modifying and “potentizing” a few drops of the patient’s blood
  • Autotherapy: treating infections with potions made from the patient’s infected tissues or excretions
  • Biodynamochromic diagnosis and therapy: administering colored lights while thumping on the patient’s abdomen
  • Bloodwashing with herbs
  • Chromopathy: healing with colored lights
  • Electrotherapy with various devices
  • Geotherapy: treating disease with little pads of earth
  • Irido-diagnosis: diagnosis based on eye markings—now called iridology
  • Pathiatry: self-administration of spinal adjustment, massage, and traction
  • Porotherapy: treatment applied through the pores of the skin to the nerves said to the control internal organs
  • Practo-therapy, a fancy term for intestinal irrigation
  • Sanatology, based on the notion that acidosis and toxicosis are the two basic causes of all disease
  • Somapathy: spinal adjustment followed by applications of cold or extreme heat
  • Tropo-therapy with special nutritional foods
  • Vit-O-Pathy, a combination of 36 other systems
  • Zodiac therapy, combining astrology and herbs
  • Zonotherapy (now called reflexology): pressing on various parts of the body to heal disease in designated body “zones.” [4]

Most of these methods disappeared along with their creators, but some (or their offshoots) are still used today.

Inferior Education

A 1927 AMA study listed 12 naturopathic schools with fewer than 200 students among them [5]. During the 1920s and 1930s, about half the states passed laws under which naturopaths and/or “drugless healers” could practice. However, as modern medicine developed, many of these laws were repealed and all but a few mail-order schools ceased operations. The doctor of naturopathy (N.D.) degree was still available at several chiropractic colleges, but by 1957, the last of these colleges stopped issuing it. The National College of Naturopathic Medicine (NCNM) was founded in 1956 in Portland, Oregon, but, until the mid-1970s, had very few students. From 1960 through 1968, the average enrollment was eight and the total number of graduates was 16 [6]. The leading accredited school, Bastyr University, in Seattle, Washington, was founded in 1978.

In 1987, the U.S. Secretary of Education approved the Council on Naturopathic Medical Education (CNME) as an accrediting agency for the full-time schools. As with acupuncture and chiropractic schools, this recognition was not based upon the scientific validity of what is taught but on such factors as record-keeping, physical assets, financial status, makeup of the governing body, catalog characteristics, nondiscrimination policy, and self-evaluation system.

Today, within the United States, a “doctor of naturopathy” (N.D.) or “doctor of naturopathic medicine” (N.M.D.) credential is available from five full-time schools of naturopathy and several nonaccredited correspondence schools. Training at the full-time schools follows a pattern similar to that of chiropractic schools: two years of basic science courses and two years that include working in outpatient clinics. However, the quality of naturopthic education is vastly inferior to the quality of medical education. Medical school faculties are much larger and better trained, and the scope and depth of clinical experience are much greater because people going to medical school clinics encompass the full gamut of disease. Some naturopathic graduates take an additional year of postgraduate training where they work in an outpatient setting. However, most go directly into practice. Nearly all medical school graduates undergo 3-6 years of additional full-time specialty training that includes work with hospital inpatients. The naturopathic programs offered by correspondence schools span much less time and include no experience with actual patients.

In 1968, the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) recommended against Medicare coverage of naturopathy. HEW’s report concluded:

Naturopathic theory and practice are not based upon the body of basic knowledge related to health, disease, and health care which has been widely accepted by the scientific community. Moreover, irrespective of its theory, the scope and quality of naturopathic education do not prepare the practitioner to make an adequate diagnosis and provide appropriate treatment [7].

Although some aspects of naturopathic education have improved in recent years, I believe this conclusion is still valid.

  1. National Association of Naturopathic Physicians. Outline for study of services for practitioners performing health services in independent practice. Portland OR: NANP, Sept 10, 1970. In Social Security Amendments of 1970. Hearings before the Committee on Finance, United States Senate, Ninety First Congress, Second Session, on H.R. 17550. September 14, 15, 16, 17, and 23, 1970. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970, pp 734-754.
  2. Tilden JH. Appendicitis: The Etiology, Hygienic and Dietetic Treatment. Denver: self-published, 1909.
  3. Czeranko S. Vaccination and Naturopathic Medicine: In Their Own Words. NUNM Press, Portland, Oregon, 2015.
  4. Fishbein M. Naturopathy and its professors. Fads and Fallacies in Healing. New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1932, pp 117-139.
  5. Baer HA. The potential rejuvenation of American naturopathy as a consequence of the holistic health movement. Medical Anthropology 13:369-383, 1992.
  6. National Association of Naturopathic Physicians. Outline for study of services for practitioners performing health services in independent practice. Portland OR: NANP, Sept 10, 1970. In Social Security Amendments of 1970. Hearings before the Committee on Finance, United States Senate, Ninety First Congress, Second Session, on H.R. 17550. September 14, 15, 16, 17, and 23, 1970. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970, pp 734-754.
  7. Cohen W. Naturopathy. In Independent Practitioners under Medicare: A Report to Congress. Washington, D.C, 1968, US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, pp 126-145.

This article was posted on October 18, 2018