Alternative Medicine, by Roberta Bivins

An alternative history of medical care
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The Independent Culture

In the West, we think of orthodox bio-medicine as the gold standard of medical care and all other systems – homoeopathy, acupuncture, herbal medicine – as "alternative" to this orthodoxy. But in most parts of the world, and for most of history, so-called "alternative medicine" is, and has been, the dominant kind.

Roberta Bivins grew up in Nigeria and, until the 1970s, when a medical clinic opened in her remote village, traditional medicine was the only kind. Modern medicine arrived in the West a little earlier, but not much. Only in the 19th century did the idea that medicine should be scientific take hold. Only between the wars did it achieve the status of orthodoxy.

The various medical systems espoused by their differing practitioners were all competing for dominion, because their theories were mutually exclusive. As medical practitioners sought to assert their authority they began to displace the patient's own experience of their illness and replace it with observation and measurement.

By the end of the 19th-century scientific medicine was ascendant; in the 20th it became industrialised, with a rapid increase in complexity and technology. The patient, and their unique experience, was lost.

At the same time the focus shifted from infectious disease, against which scientific medicine had scored significant successes, to chronic disease, where it was much less effective. On both these grounds, scientific medicine was shown to have shortcomings and its practitioners accused of arrogance and greed. That left a gap for alternative medicine to flourish – and flourish it has.

Conventional medicine – especially surgery – was brutal. Homoeopathy, by contrast, was gentle; it did not aim to produce instant or dramatic effects and was rooted in experience rather than materialistic changes.

One of the great puzzles of alternative medicine is how it survives in the scientific age. One answer is that in Western biomedicine, patients have become increasingly depersonalised, their treatment standardised and "evidence-based", and their management moved from home to ever larger and more disorienting hospitals.

Medicine, says Bivins, became macho again, with practitioners dreaming of magic bullet cures and medical firsts – but in the process becoming slaves to the lab and neglecting patients. On top of that were the failures – thalidomide, side effects, complications, MRSA.

This compact, densely written history effectively demonstrates how alternative medicine has survived and prospered in the 21st century. Those of a scientific bent will rail at its continued encroachment into modern life. But it indisputably fills a human need – for care and attention, the "soothing hand on the brow", as much as for tinctures of uncertain provenance.

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