UCL News


Still suckers for a 'natural' cure

18 February 2006

We think we're so clever, don't we? With our multi-billion pound high-tech health service, we imagine that we're light years away from the primitive treatments doled out to our forebears 200 years ago.

But walk among the engrossing exhibits of the Science Museum's newly updated Science and Art of Medicine galleries, and you might change your mind.

Here is the finely wrought paraphernalia surrounding blood-letting and leeches - techniques now being rediscovered to treat fever and to help surgical recovery, as doctors realise that there are simpler solutions than drugs to some clinical problems. Even more strikingly, here are a range of treatments which are increasingly being re-embraced by the rich and holistic as 'natural'. …

Dr Anne Hardy [UCL Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine] says that doing what doctors tell you because the benefits are based on real research is a recent development. The NHS's new emphasis on patients having 'choice' and 'control', plus our interest in complementary therapies that we can self-administer, is in some ways taking us back to the 18th and early 19th centuries - days when doctors simply delivered what their patients wanted.

"You've got to remember," Dr Hardy says, "that medical knowledge did not become limited to a few doctors or scientists until late in the 19th century. Before then, the relationship between a doctor and the patient was much more negotiable.

"There would have been a lot of self-medication, with doctors mediating. There's evidence of that in the records of the early to mid-19th century friendly societies (a pre-welfare state system of medical insurance) that patients were constantly querying doctors' knowledge and opinions. By the end of the 19th century, that's all gone." …

So 'conventional' medicine supplanted alternative approaches for a good part of the 20th century. But today, the wave of medical litigation shows how often doctors' knowledge is once more being challenged. The resurgence of alternative medicine is not coincidental. "It's characteristic of a pluralistic society to have alternative belief systems," says Dr Hardy.

Simon Crompton, 'The Times' 18 February 2006