History of Naturopathic Medicine

Naturopathic medicine, sometimes called “naturopathy,” is as old as healing itself and as new as the latest discoveries in biochemical sciences. In the United States, the naturopathic medical profession’s infrastructure is based on accredited educational institutions, professional licensing by a growing number of states, national standards of practice and care, peer review, and an ongoing commitment to state-of-the-art scientific research. Modern American Naturopathic Doctors (NDs) receive extensive training in and use therapies that are primarily natural (hence the name naturopathic) and nontoxic, including clinical nutrition, homeopathy, botanical medicine, hydrotherapy, physical medicine, and counseling. These contemporary NDs, who have attended naturopathic medical colleges recognized by the US Department of Education, practice medicine as primary health care providers and are increasingly acknowledged as leaders in bringing about progressive changes in the nation’s medical system.

The word “naturopathy” was first used in the US a little over 100 years ago. But the natural therapies and the philosophy on which naturopathy is based have been effectively used to treat diseases since ancient times. As Rene Dubos noted in The Mirage of Health (1959), the word “physician” is from the Greek root meaning “nature”. Hippocrates, a physician who lived 2400 years ago, is often considered the earliest predecessor of naturopathic doctors, particularly in terms of his teaching that “nature is healer of all diseases” and his formulation of the concept vis medicatrix naturae — “the healing power of nature”. This concept has long been at the core of indigenous medicine in many cultures around the world and remains one of the central themes of naturopathic philosophy to this day.

The earliest doctors and healers worked with herbs, foods, water, fasting, and tissue manipulation — gentle treatments that do not obscure the body’s own healing powers. Today’s naturopathic doctors continue to use these therapies as their main tools and to advocate a healthy dose of primary prevention. In addition, modern NDs conduct and make practical use of the latest biochemical research involving nutrition, botanicals, homeopathy, and other natural treatments.

For many diseases and conditions (a few examples are ulcerative colitis, asthma, menopause, flu, obesity, and chronic fatigue), treatments used by naturopathic doctors can be primary and even curative. Naturopathic doctors also function within an integrated framework, for example referring patients to an appropriate medical specialist such as an oncologist or a surgeon. Naturopathic therapies can be employed within that context to complement the treatments used by conventionally trained medical doctors. The result is a team-care approach that recognizes the needs of the patient to receive the best overall treatment most appropriate to his or her specific medical condition.

Recent History
Naturopathic medicine was popular and widely available throughout the US well into the early part of the 20th century. Around 1920, from coast to coast, there were a number of naturopathic medical schools, thousands of naturopathic doctors, and scores of thousands of patients using naturopathic therapies. But the rise of “scientific medicine”, the discovery and increasing use of “miracle drugs” like antibiotics, the institutionalization of a large medical system primarily based (both clinically and economically) on high-tech and pharmaceutical treatments — all of these were associated by mid-century with the temporary decline of naturopathic medicine and most other methods of natural healing.

By the 1970s, however, the American public was becoming increasingly disenchanted with conventional medicine. The profound clinical limitations of conventional medicine and its out-of-control costs were becoming obvious, and millions of Americans were inspired to look for “new” options and alternatives. Naturopathy and all of complementary alternative medicine began to enter a new era of rejuvenation.

Looking to the Future
Today, licensed naturopathic doctors are experiencing noteworthy clinical successes, providing leadership in innovative natural medical research, enjoying increasing political influence, and looking forward to an unlimited future potential. Both the American public and policy makers are recognizing and contributing to the resurgence of the comprehensive system of health care practiced by NDs. In 1992, the NIH’s Office of Alternative Medicine, created by an act of Congress, invited leading naturopathic doctors (educators, researchers, and clinical practitioners) to serve on key federal advisory panels and to help define priorities and design protocols for state-of-the-art alternative medical research. In 1994, the NIH selected Bastyr University as the national center for research on alternative treatments for HIV/AIDS. At a one-million-dollar level of funding, this action represented the formal recognition by the federal government of the legitimacy and significance of naturopathic medicine.

Meanwhile, the number of new NDs is steadily increasing, and licensure of naturopathic doctors is expanding into new states. By April of 1996, eleven of fifty states had naturopathic licensing laws (Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, and Washington). Recently, the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands also adopted naturopathic licensing laws. A number of other states are likely to enact naturopathic licensing in the near future.

Naturopathic medical education is growing by leaps and bounds. Three of the four U.S. naturopathic medical schools - National College of Naturopathic Medicine, Bastyr University, and Southwest College are accredited. The fourth, the University of Bridgeport College of Naturopathic Medicine, is an applicant for accreditation. Within the past several years, all three U.S. naturopathic medical schools and the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto moved to considerably larger campuses in order to meet the accelerating demand on the part of prospective naturopathic medical students.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, 100 years after it was founded in North America, naturopathic medicine is experiencing a renaissance.