The Eclectic Physician
By Mort Laitner
In my office, I prepared the Miami-Dade Health Department’s TB doctor for direct and cross examination for an upcoming commitment hearing. Testing this whippersnapper’s knowledge of the history of his profession, I asked, “Doc, have you ever heard of eclectic physicians?”
The handsome young TB doctor smiled and replied, “I once sat in a colleague’s waiting room which was a mixture of Danish modern, French colonial and early Frank Lloyd Wright.”
“Pretty eclectic, wise guy,” I replied. “Well, I read an article on the net about eclectics. In 1915 there were 12,000 of them practicing in the United States and eight medical schools to train them. The eclectics used of botanical remedies and physical therapy practices.”
To my surprise, Doc added, “They also opposed bleeding, chemical purging and the use of mercury compounds which the allopaths were prescribing. The term eclectic was coined by Constantine Rafinesque, a doctor who lived among Indian tribes, and observed their use of medicinal plants. His healing philosophy called for an alignment with nature. He used the term ‘eclectic’ to refer to doctors who employed whatever was found to be beneficial to their patients.”
I retorted, “I’m impressed but did you ever hear of Dr.Victor von Unruh?”
“Nope, who is he?”
“Well in 1917, this eclectic healer wanted to build a new sanitarium for consumptives in Liberty, New York. Liberty was, and still is, a small town located in Sullivan County. I know because I grew up in Sullivan County. Liberty was the home of world famous Catskill Grossinger’s Hotel and Katz’ Bakery. These Borsht Belt Mountains with blanketed with clean air were covered with TB facilities. Medical doctors ordered their patients to remain in the mountains in a state of rest.
Dr. von Unruh spoke to the Liberty Town Board and claimed he had five years worth of studies concerning his cure. The studies proved the cure arrested the progress of the disease 100% in incipient cases and up to 80% in the more advanced cases of TB.”*
“What was his cure?” Doc asked.
“He created a compound of two plants, Echinacea and inula helenium which he administered daily by intramuscular injections.”
Doc inquired, “What happened next?”
“The allopaths jumped into action in a town hall meeting to decide the fate of the proposed sanitarium. They called von Unruh’s claims unprofessional, unsupported and unscientific. They compared the Echinacea cure to a popular mountain remedy for TB — swallowing beating rattlesnake hearts.”
Doc broke in, “Pretty ironic that in1917 when millions dollars were being spent by doctors on the construction of sanitariums where they prescribed the ‘rest cure’ without a single clinical study conducted to demonstrate its efficacy.”*
“I bet there weren’t any studies on the eating-rattlesnake heart either.” I hissed.
“What happened to Doctor von Unruh and his proposed facility?” Doc queried.
“Well the town board rejected his plan and the eclectic doctor was sent packing, never to be heard from again.” I quipped.
“You know what happened to those eclectic schools? By 1939 the last one shuttered its doors as tight as a rattle snakes fangs in the leg of a mountain hiker.”
Doc listened, looked into my eyes and asked, “But do you know what happened to eclectic medicine?”
“No. I’ll bite” I replied.
“Well, eclectic medicine is now practiced in a modernized form not by MDs but by medical herbalists. You know that plant Echinacea you mentioned? Today some scientists believe when taken at the first sign of a cold, it reduces symptoms or shortens a cold’s duration.”
Doc intentionally darted his tongue from his mouth, “Funny, how some things come full circle. I can’t wait to find out the medicinal benefits of rattlesnake heart. Now let’s get back to my cross-examination prep.”
*Special thanks to John Conway for his article entitled, “Von Unruh and his Cure Head Elsewhere”