Historical Aspects of Unconventional Medicine: Approaches, Concepts, Case Studies (review) Academic Article uri icon


  • In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content: Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 57.4 (2002) 499-501 Book Review Historical Aspects of Unconventional Medicine: Approaches, Concepts, Case Studies Robert Jütte, Motzi Eklöf, and Marie C. Nelson, eds. Historical Aspects of Unconventional Medicine: Approaches, Concepts, Case Studies. Sheffield, England, European Association for the History of Medicine and Health Publication, 2001. xii, 288 pp. £34.95. Several collections on various aspects of unconventional medicine have been published in the last decade. Compared to previous work in this field, these volumes are broader in scope and assume that the perspectives and methodologies of disciplines such as anthropology, cultural studies, and social history should support traditional medical history. This excellent collection reinforces this welcome trend. The volume is based on a selection of fourteen papers presented at an international conference held in Norrköping, Sweden, in 1998. The declared aim of the conference was “to provoke a general rethinking of the causes and origins of the formation of boundaries between regular and unconventional medicine and marginalisation in medicine” (p. 1). The collection has four parts. The first, which is the finest in my opinion, includes four general, methodological essays. Both Robert Jütte and Claudine Herzlich draw our attention to the power of language to shape disciplinary and professional practices in medicine and health care. Being attentive to terminology and how it changes over time and place can help us to reconstruct the constant boundary-making effort that characterizes the relationship between conventional and unconventional medicine. Herzlich’s paper also draws our attention to how differently the discourse has been constructed in France, as can be attested by the terms used there: médecines parallèles and médecines douces. A call for a comparative approach is Martin Dinges’ main argument, as he exemplifies in the case of homeopathy. The excellent paper by Marijke Gijswit-Hofstra analyses the various gender perspectives that should be taken into consideration when writing histories of illness and healing alternatives. The other three parts, divided artificially into the social history of 'quackery’; professionalization, medical science and the “other”; and medical concepts, science, and alternative medical systems, present a diverse collection of case studies in terms of periods (from eighteenth to late twentieth century), geographical regions (Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Iceland, and Britain), and healing methods (folk healers, 'quacks,’ homeopathy, Chinese medicine, acupuncture, 'occult’ practices). In general, these papers successfully blur several simplistic dichotomies between unconventional/conventional healing practices. One important insight is that throughout history, eclectic use of various healing practices has characterized our health-seeking behavior. Patients and healers alike used various healing systems that, at least according to the rhetoric found in polemical writing, were considered incommensurable. To get a better grasp of what the daily practices of the various practitioners and patients actually were and the diverse concrete, empirical contexts of these practices, a wide range of historical sources needs to be investigated. Patients’ letters, court cases, and advertisements are just a few examples of sources used in this collection that can help us attain this goal. Another recurring theme is that in contrast to the traditional notion of a struggle between conventional and unconventional healing systems, several papers in the collection point to various degrees of cooperation (overt or covert) between the establishment and the 'quacks.’ The reasons are varied and need careful analysis of the local context. Sometimes constraints such as scarcity of physicians and sparse population in remote regions forced the medical establishment or the government to give formal recognition to unconventional healers. Sometimes the need to cooperate in the face of what was perceived by conventional healers as even more dangerous 'quackery’ instigated this cooperation. While in general the reader could find this a very useful collection, both in terms of current methodological questions and in terms of the specific case studies, as in many collections, not all the papers are on same level. Also, in such a diverse collection, a more integrative essay addressing issues presented in the first part of the book would have been appreciated. As Jütte rightly observes, “medical historians thus far have preferred compiling anthologies rather than writing books on the...

publication date

  • January 1, 2002