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Last Updated: Friday, 11 July, 2003, 23:22 GMT 00:22 UK
Alternative medicine 'accepted'
The Quack, by Jan Steen - 1626 to 1679
The Quack, by Jan Steen - 1626 to 1679
The growing acceptance of traditional remedies is a return to the values of 500 years ago, researchers say.

In the sixteenth century, it was accepted that people could choose to go to conventionally trained doctors or the village wise woman for advice.

Historians from Warwick and Leicester Universities are looking at how alternative medicine has been viewed over the centuries.

They have been awarded 600,000 by the Wellcome Trust to look at the changing relationship between conventional and alternative medicine throughout the centuries.

And they say opinions have almost come full-circle.

You go from teeth being pulled out by blacksmiths to dentistry becoming a medical profession
Professor Colin Jones, University of Warwick
Professor Colin Jones of the Centre for the History of Medicine at the University of Warwick told BBC News Online: "This more open attitude to healthcare is something we see now, but to a certain extent it was there in the early medieval period too.

"In the eighteenth, nineteenth and twntieth centuries, a very strong medical profession was set up a divide between the 'scientific' and the 'non-scientific'.

"That sort of division is becoming a bit blurred now."

'Lady Bountiful'

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a whole range of people offered health advice.

As well as the university educated doctors, patients could see surgeons or apothecaries (pharmacists).

In villages, they could ask the local wise woman or midwife for advice, or go to the local blacksmith if they had dislocated a joint or needed a tooth extracting.

The Sick Child by Edvard Munch - 1907
The Sick Child by Edvard Munch - 1907
"If people were sick, they would probably first turn to their family, and they would be given the equivalent of today's modern soup," said Professor Jones.

"Then there might be a woman down the road who had some sort of experience with herbs who would offer a remedy.

"Many villages also had a 'Lady Bountiful' who felt it was her social duty to care for the poor.

"The priest often looked after the body as well, as the spirit, and then there was the blacksmith, who people would turn to if they had dislocated a joint."


But there were also quacks and charlatans offering their ineffective - and sometimes dangerous - remedies.

Professor Jones said: "If someone complained of severe stomach cramps, they might take a pair of bellows and place them in his anus, then blow him up until his guts exploded."

But as conventional medicine grew, it took on the roles which had been fulfilled by traditional practitioners.

Professor Jones said dental health was a clear example of this kind of amalgamation.

"When you look at how people dealt with dental problems, you go from teeth being pulled out by blacksmiths to dentistry becoming a medical profession in the 17th and 18th centuries."

Traditional medicine became sidelined - until very recently.

"If you had gone to the British Medical Journal even 15 to 20 years ago and looked up complementary or alternative medicine, you would have found a very antagonistic attitude," he said.

"But now, there is much more interest and tolerance."

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