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Alternative Medicine? A History

Alternative Medicine? A History by Roberta Bivins. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; 2008. Hardcover; 264 pages. ISBN13: 978-0-19-921887-5. $36.50.

As regular readers of HerbalGram are aware, there has been a great surge of interest in natural medicine throughout the globe for the past 2 or 3 decades. It has now become fairly commonplace to visit an acupuncturist for the treatment of various ailments, use flower remedies for trauma or depression, practice yoga and Tai Chi and/or meditation for relaxation, and employ herbal medicine and phytotherapy alongside conventional medical care.

This trend is certainly not as new as some of us would seem to think, but rather has been an ongoing process for many years—especially in various countries of the Western world.

In the same erudite style reminiscent of her late mentor (the great medical historian Roy Porter), Roberta Bivins both lucidly and entertainingly introduces the reader to the complexities of the principal traditional medical systems that are now becoming common in the modern world. What many people may not realize is that these so-called “alternative” practices are in fact the common traditional methods of healing in most of the underdeveloped world.

For such a concise book, it contains a wealth of information regarding the workings of various healing systems, including homeopathy, Ayurveda from India, and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which includes acupuncture, moxibustion, and herbal therapies.

This book consists of 4 chapters, which are preceded by an excellent introduction to the history and development of alternative and complementary medical systems around the world.

Chapter 1, “What is Burning?” deals with the dissatisfaction or disillusionment that many people have felt towards what is known as modern, mainstream, scientific, conventional, orthodox, or allopathic medicine. This dissatisfaction includes, but is not limited to, the high-tech, high-cost, and impersonal aspects of this modality.

Chapter 2, “Health and the New Science,” deals with various European therapeutic modalities in vogue during the late 18th and 19th centuries, such as mesmerism and homeopathy. These and other treatments are also discussed in chapter 4, regarding their impact on healing practices in India.

Chapter 3, “The Chinese Have a Great Deal of Wit,” discusses the basic tenets of TCM and its sometimes erroneous interpretation by European physicians of the 19th century. For example, some European physicians regarded acupuncture as a form of bloodletting (bleeding was a somewhat common practice by some European and American physicians in the 18th and 19th centuries), which clearly shows how much this practice was misunderstood, even though it had been introduced in Europe at least one century before.

Chapter 4, “With our Western Brethren, the Case Seems to be Quite Different,” looks at the historical impact of cross-cultural medical interchanges, with special emphasis on non-Western approaches to healing. Examples of this include pluralistic medical options available in India, which led to the origin of vaccination and the treatment of cholera epidemics in various Asian nations.

This work ends with “Conclusion: The Im(patient) Consumer,” which examines the main differences between the concepts of alternative medicine (such as homeopathy), and complementary medicine (such as herbal therapy). It also describes various natural products that are popular around the world.

Alternative Medicine? A History is an excellent achievement and appears on the scene precisely in an epoch when a plethora of misinformation exists regarding the origin and application of a diverse array of alternative and complementary medical healing systems. For example, homeopathy is sometimes regarded as synonymous with herbal medicine by the lay public. This is clearly not the case since phytotherapy, or the evidence-based approach to herbal medicine, can be regarded as a subspecialty of modern conventional medicine, as is the case in some Western European countries. Homeopathy, on the other hand, is a type of “energetic medicine,” which uses highly-diluted remedies, some of which are herbs, but also employs an array of other items—such as diseased tissue, animal venoms, and minerals—in a very different manner.

Additionally, the ancient healing systems of Ayurveda and TCM are regarded by some critics as “unscientific” because they stem from a cosmological/philosophical worldview (one might say this is also the case with Western “scientific” medicine). These healing systems also do not often conform to the Western perspective of the scientific method—even though controlled clinical trials do exist attesting to the efficacy of some of their remedies or procedures, as exemplified by certain herbal combinations used to treat a variety of ailments.

The book includes various black-and-white photographs and illustrations, which provide a visual attraction for the reader. It will be of great value to both conventional and alternative health practitioners alike in helping to explain the differences, as well as the similarities, between diverse healing modalities practiced around the world today.

—Armando González-Stuart, PhD University of Texas at El Paso and University of Texas at Austin Cooperative Pharmacy Program El Paso, TX