Medical Cults: Naturopathy

Martin Gardner
December 20, 2008

Naturopathy, like homeopathy, is a world-wide medical cult which had its origin in Europe. Unlike homeopathy, however, it has no single founder. It simply grew. In essence, it is a complete reliance on “nature” for healing. Medicine and surgery are used as little as possible or not at all. As might be expected, hundreds of strange methods of therapy clustered about the movement, so it is not easy to say exactly what the tenets of naturopathy are.

The earliest naturopaths were European doctors of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Vincenz Priesnitz and Father Sebastian Kneipp were pioneers of hydrotherapy (water cures). Adolph Just’s Return to Nature recommended sleeping on bare ground, walking barefooted on wet lawns and sand, and using clay compresses. Louis Kuhne’s The New Science of Healing opposed all drugs, recommending instead the use of steam baths, sunlight, a vegetarian diet, and whole wheat bread. Heinrich Lahmann was against putting table salt on foods and drinking water at mealtimes. Antoine Bechamp defended the view that disease produces bacteria rather than the other way around.

An early pioneer of naturopathy in the United States was John H. Kellogg, a Seventh Day Adventist who founded the Battle Creek Sanitarium. Kellogg’s most massive work was Rational Hydrotherapy, 1900 a volume of more than 1200 pages. He was responsible for the great importance nature therapy plays in present Adventist beliefs. Another American, Henry Lindlahr, made the “discovery” that disease, instead of being the result of invasion of the body by harmful microbes, was really the body’s natural way of healing something. Finally, there was Benedict Lust, a disciple of Father Kneipp, who perhaps should be regarded as the most important early figure in American naturopathy. He established a school in New York, resort spots in Butler, New Jersey and Tangerine, Florida, wrote many books, edited several magazines (one of which, Nature’s Path, in the hands of Lust’s descendants is still going lustily), and managed to get himself arrested about sixteen times in battles against the “drug trusts.” His advertisements often appeared in Bemarr Macfadden’s health magazines.

Macfadden himself was a great promoter of naturopathy. His monumental five-volume Encyclopedia of Physical Culture, 1912 (subtitled A work of reference, providing complete instructions for the cure of all diseases through physcultopathy), is one of the greatest of all pseudo-medical works. Volume 4 contains 572 pages devoted to an alphabetical listing of all major diseases—including Bright’s disease, polio, cancer, etc.—together with Macfadden’s methods of home treatment. The treatments involve, in most cases, special diets, exercises, and water therapy. Cancer, for instance, is treated with a fast, followed by exercises and a “vitality building regimen.” There is no suggestion that the patient should consult a physician. In fact there is a “Word of Warning” at the beginning of the section which states:

It positively must be remembered that the methods recommended in this work cannot be combined with the internal use of drugs or medicine. An attempt to use drugs while pursuing the treatments here advocated may lead to very serious results, and is to be depended upon under no circumstances.

In fairness to Macfadden it should be said that in later years he has become less extreme in his medical opinions. But not much so.2 He is firmly convinced, for example, that cancer can be cured by a diet of nothing but grapes, and a few years ago offered $10,000 to anyone who could prove it wasn’t so. (The theory that a grape diet can cure all kinds of ailments has long been popular in grape growing areas of Europe, and has a literature as extensive as the literature extolling the “virtues” of goat’s milk.) There is no question that Macfadden’s death from jaundice in 1955 was hastened by a three-day fast, self-imposed in an effort to cure himself without medical aid. Dumbbells and Carrot Strips, an uninhibited biography of Macfadden by his third wife, Mary Macfadden, was published in 1953.

Hundreds of schools calling themselves naturopathic sprang up here and there in the early years of the century. They were as frowsy as could be imagined. Most of them consisted of a few rooms in a walk-up apartment, with classes at night, and gave handsomely engraved diplomas at the close of brief instruction periods. Sometimes several diplomas were given, bearing the names of different schools, all using the same premises and teaching the student simultaneously. When framed, they made an impressive-looking wall for the graduate’s office. There was little unity of beliefs behind these schools. In addition to their strange diets, massages, and water cures, dozens of curious little crackpot movements found their way into the curriculum. We shall glance briefly at two of them—iridiagnosis and zone therapy.

Iridiagnosis is the diagnosis of ills from the appearance of the iris of the eye. This great science was discovered by Ignatz Peczely, a Budapest doctor, who published a book about it in 1880. The art found an immediate response among homeopaths in Germany and Sweden, and was introduced into the United States by Henry E. Lahn, who wrote the first book in English on the subject in 1904. Naturopath Henry Lindlahr, a pupil of Lahn’s, produced a definitive study, Iridiagnosis and other Diagnostic Methods, in 1917, although a few more recent works have appeared.

According to Lindlahr, Dr. Peczely discovered the new science at the age of ten when he caught an owl and accidentally broke the bird’s foot. “Gazing straight into the owl’s large, bright eyes,” writes Lindlahr, “he noticed at the moment when the bone snapped, the appearance of a black spot in the lower central region of the iris, which area he later found to correspond to the location of the broken leg.” Young Ignatz kept the owl as a pet. As the leg healed, the black spot developed a white border, indicating the formation of scar tissue in the bone.

According to iridiagnosticians, the iris is divided into about forty zones which run clockwise in one eye, counterclockwise in the other. The zones connect by nerve filaments to various parts of the body, much in the manner that chiropractic theory connects the body to parts of the spine Spots on the iris are called “lesions.” They indicate malfunctioning of the corresponding body part. Haskell Kritzer, in his Textbook of Iridiagnosis, fifth edition, 1921, carefully explains how to recognize artificial eyes, thus avoiding the embarrassment of basing a lengthy diagnosis on them.

Anyone who thinks no medical movement could be more insane than iridiagnosis, is much mistaken. Zone therapy is even worse. This point of view assumes that the body is divided vertically into exactly ten zones, five on each side of the body, and each zone terminating in an individual finger and toe. Exactly how the parts of each zone are connected is one of the mysteries of this cult, since the ten divisions completely ignore the nerve and blood vessel systems. Zone therapists suspected that some hitherto undiscovered submicroscopic network was involved.

Without going into detail, the zone therapists believed that almost every type of body pain could be checked, and in many cases the cause of the pain removed, by putting pressure on the proper finger or toe, or some other part of the affected zone. This pressure was applied by various means—chiefly rubber bands (worn on a finger or toe until it turned blue), spring clothes pins, or the teeth of a metal comb pressed into the flesh.

The inventor of zone therapy was Dr. William H. Fitzgerald, a graduate of the University of Vermont, and for many years the senior nose and throat surgeon of St. Francis Hospital, Hartford, Connecticut. His associate, Dr. Edwin F. Bowers, first introduced the new science in a series of popular articles in Everybody’s Magazine, where they were enthusiastically endorsed by the editor, the late Bruce Barton. Later, in 1917, Fitzgerald and Bowers collaborated on a book titled Zone Therapy. Many subsequent books appeared by other authors, of which the most notable was Zone Therapy, by Benedict Lust, the father of American naturopathy.

Lust’s book describes how to treat most of the common ills, including cancer, polio, and appendicitis. Goiter requires pressure on the first and second fingers, but if “the goiter is very extensive, reaching over into the fourth zone, it may be necessary to include the ring finger. . . . ” Eye pains and disorders also call for pressure on first and second fingers, but deafness requires a squeezing of the ring finger or the third toe. “One of the most effective means of treating partial deafness,” Lust writes, “is to clamp a spring clothes pin on the tip of the third finger, on the side involved in the ear trouble.”

Nausea is relieved by pressing a metal comb against the backs of both hands, and childbirth is rendered painless if the mother clasps a comb in each hand so she can press the tips of all fingers against the teeth. “Also,” Lust adds, “rubber bands around the great toe and the second toe afford a gratifying help.” For dentists, zone therapy is invaluable. No need to use anesthetics—merely attach tight rubber bands to whatever fingers relate to the zone including the tooth, and the tooth becomes insensitive to pain.

For falling hair, Lust recommends a method which he correctly describes as “simplicity itself.” It consists of “rubbing the fingernails of both hands briskly one against the other in a lateral motion, for three or four minutes at a time, at intervals throughout the day: This stimulates nutrition in all the zones, and brings about a better circulation in the entire body, which naturally is reflected in the circulation of the scalp itself.”

The tongue, throat, and roof of the mouth also have the tenfold division, hence many therapeutic measures involve pressure in these regions. Headaches, for instance, are cured by pressing the thumb against the roof of the mouth. Menstruation difficulties are relieved by pressures on certain parts of the tongue. Whooping cough is cured in three to five minutes by pressing a certain spot on the back of the throat. “In an experiment with several hundred cases of whooping cough,” wrote Fitzgerald and Bowers, “we have not yet seen a failure from the proper application of zone therapy.”

It seems inconceivable that this cult would attract a following, nevertheless hundreds of naturopaths took it seriously and reported astonishing results. Books dealing with the art are filled with case histories of patients who found immediate relief from intense pain, and eventually a complete recovery from long-standing and serious ailments.

Today, the shrewder schools of naturopathy have abandoned iridiagnosis, zone therapy, and other wilder aspects of the movement, but all of them agree that the chief cause of disease is not bacteria from outside but a violation of natural laws of living. And all of them believe that drugs are harmful. Dr. Robert A. Wood, a Chicago naturopath and former president of the American Naturopathic Association of Illinois, expresses the creed as follows:

Naturopaths do not use drugs of any kind, nor do they use inorganic substances that may injure the system. Instead, they rely on vitamins, minerals, chlorophyll, vegetable and fruit juices, raw cow’s milk, and a balanced diet. With all diseases, the allopath suppresses but does not cure. His sole aim is to kill pain, to give temporary relief. He uses antipyretics to suppress all fevers—quinine, aspirin, salicylate, and other coal-tar products which suppress the fever, but leave the toxins which cause the fever inside the system. The naturopath aids the fever, however, or reduces it physiologically with natural methods—distilled water with lemon juice; lots of fresh, raw fruit juices; wrapping the body in hot, wet bath towels; and last, but not least, the greatest fever reducer of all—colonic irrigation.

Naturopaths are fond of using enemas to rid the body of poisons. Apparently they feel it is quite “natural” to insert a tube into the rectum and pour large quantities of water into the lower intestines. On the other hand, it is “unnatural” to take a drug which in many cases is merely a compound found in nature, but purified so its effects are stronger.

More than 85 per cent of all cases of appendicitis, according to Dr. Wood, can be relieved by fasting for a short period, then taking a cold-water enema every day for four days, followed by a special diet. The use of drugs to cure syphilis, he says, not only does not cure, but also causes locomotor ataxia. In an article in the American Mercury, May, 1950 (from which the above views and quotations are taken), he boasts of having cured a man of sixty-five who contracted syphilis at the age of sixteen and had not been treated since. “I used no mercury, nor any other allopathic ‘guesswork’ remedies,” he states.

On another occasion, Dr. Wood went to work on a boy of five who suffered from tuberculosis of the pelvic bone. The disease had eaten two holes through the bone. “With the exception of the tuberculosis holes,” Dr. Wood writes, “a slight spinal curvature, and the fact that one leg had become shorter than the other, he was in fairly good condition. His diet was given priority, with natural foods supplemented by natural calcium. Sitz baths, sun baths, cold sprays, hot packs, infra-red, vibrations, exercise, manipulations, colonic irrigations, and other natural remedies were used. The last X-rays showed the condition completely healed.”

The naturopath’s opposition to the bacterial theory of disease is, of course, shared by many religious groups. Christian Science, New Thought, and Unity head the list, not to forget Jewish Science, founded in 1922 by Rabbi Morris Lichtenstein, of New York City. He is the author of numerous works on the subject, including Jewish Science and Health, a fair imitation of Mrs. Eddy’s famous text. Among prominent individuals who opposed the germ theory, George Bernard Shaw was perhaps the most notable. In one of his last books, Everybody’s Political What’s What, 1944, you will find a witty defense of naturopathy. Drugs merely suppress symptoms, he writes. The disease usually breaks out again unless the person is healthy enough to let nature cure him in spite of the drugs. Like Antoine Bechamp, a French chemist and contemporary of Pasteur, Shaw rejects the theory that diseases are caused by air-borne germs. Germs -according to Bechamp, Shaw, and most of the men mentioned in this chapter–are the products of disease. They develop within ailing body cells. Once developed, however, they are infectious. Shaw was convinced that most epidemics were traceable to laundries where microbes from a sick person’s handkerchiefs and clothing would infect the clothes of others. As might be expected, Shaw was also a lifelong opponent of vaccination, vivisection, the eating of meat, Caeserean operations, and the removal of the tonsils and appendix.

Eugene Debs, the famous Socialist labor leader, died in the Lindlahr Naturopathic Sanitorium, Elmhurst, Illinois. Morris Fishbein, in his Fads and Quackery in Healing, 1932 (from which much of this chapter is drawn), tells the tragic story. Debs had recently been released from prison, and finding himself ailing, had gone to the sanitorium for a rest. One day he visited Carl Sandburg, who lived nearby, and on his way back lapsed into unconsciousness. After two days of treatment at the sanitorium, Debs’ brother asked Dr. Fishbein to check on the labor leader’s condition. Fishbein found Debs in a coma, the pupil of one eye dilated and the other contracted—a fact not noticed by the staff, and which indicated a brain disturbance. His body was badly dehydrated. Being unconscious, he 1Iad not asked for a drink in two days, and so no one had given him one. He was suffering from malnutrition, having been on a fasting cure then being recommended by Bernarr Macfadden and Upton Sinclair. When Debs’ heart began to falter, the “doctors” administered a nature remedy—totally worthless—made from cactus. After this failed, they tried electric treatment, badly burning Debs’ skin. In final desperation, they made a crude attempt to inject digitalis, a drug which properly administered might have had beneficial effects. But Debs was beyond help and died the following day. His treatment was typical, Fishbein reports, of naturopathic methods.

It is difficult to say how many naturopaths are operating in the United States today—probably not more than a few thousand. Several health magazines follow the naturopathic line, and dozens of mail order pharmacies continue to supply “natural” remedies in the form of mineral salts, vitamin compounds, yeast foods, herb products, and so on. Many of these firms operate in a semi-undercover fashion, blaming their “persecution” on the American Medical Association and the “drug cartels.”

It is equally difficult to estimate how much harm naturopaths do. Their opposition to vaccination, fortunately, has not influenced enough people to prevent the astounding health gains it has made in recent years. Another decade, and smallpox, diphtheria, and whooping cough may be completely wiped out as native diseases. Tens of thousands used to die annually of these preventable scourges. The return to raw milk would bring with it new epidemics of scarlet fever, typhoid, tuberculosis, and other disease against which pasteurization has made unbelievable strides. Rejection of sulfa drugs and penicillin (which attack germs, not symptoms) has probably caused the deaths of untold numbers of naturopathic patients for whom colonic irrigations caused only harm.

Perhaps the best insight into the medical knowledge of a naturopath can be gained from the following statement by Dr. Wood in a letter to the American Mercury, August, 1950: “If atmospheric bacteria bring about disease as claimed by the medical profession, then why is it millions of Indians . . . bathe daily in the filthy Ganges river, a river teeming with billions of germs? . . .  To my knowledge, there has never been a serious epidemic outbreak of any disease.” To which Dr. Joseph Wassersug politely replied by pointing out that the death rate from infectious diseases in India is higher than almost anywhere else in the world, and that deadly epidemics of cholera, in some cases great enough to become world-wide, have been directly traced to bathing festivals in the Ganges. There is no indication, however, that this newly gained knowledge of India has induced naturopaths to stop flushing colons and pocketbooks.

Mr. Gardner is a prominent science writer. This article was excerpted from the chapter on medical cults in his book, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (Dover, 1957), which is still in print.

This page was posted on December 20, 2008