The Flexner Report of 1910: How Homeopathy Became “Alternative Medicine”

The Flexner Report of 1910 permanently changed American medicine in the early twentieth century. Commissioned by the Carnegie Foundation, this report resulted in the elevation of allopathic medicine to being the standard form of medical education and practice in America, while putting homeopathy in the realm of what is now known as “alternative medicine.”

Although Abraham Flexner himself was an educator, not a physician, he was chosen to evaluate Canadian and American Medical Schools and create a report offering suggestions for  improvement. The board overseeing the project felt that an educator, not a physician, would provide the insights needed to improve medical educational practices.

The Flexner Report resulted in the embracing of scientific standards and a new system directly modeled after European medical practices of that era, especially those in Germany. The downside of this new standard, however, was that it created what the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine has called “an imbalance in the art and science of medicine.”  While largely a success, if evaluating progress from a purely scientific point of view, the Flexner Report and its aftermath caused physicians to “lose their authenticity as trusted healers” and the practice of medicine subsequently “lost its soul”, according to the same Yale report.

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One-third of all American medical schools were closed as a direct result of Flexner’s evaluations. The report helped determine which schools could  improve with additional funding, and those that would not benefit from having more financial resources. Those based in homeopathy were on the list of those that would be shut down. Lack of funding and support led to the closure of many schools that did not teach allopathic medicine. Homeopathy was not just given a backseat. It was effectively given an eviction notice.

What Flexner’s recommendations caused was a total embracing of allopathy, the standard medical treatment so familiar today, in which drugs are given that have opposite effects of the symptoms presenting. If a person has an overactive thyroid, for example, the patient is given antithyroid medication to suppress production in the gland. It is mainstream medicine in all its scientific vigor, which often treats diseases to the neglect of the patients themselves. Long lists of side-effects that diminish or totally annihilate a person’s quality of life are considered acceptable. Regardless of whether the person feels well or doesn’t, the focus is always on the disease-model.

Many patients throughout history have been casualties of their allopathic cures, and these cures sometimes mean living with a new set of equally intolerable symptoms. However, it is still counted as a technical success. Allopathy focuses on sickness and disease, not wellness or the people attached to those diseases. Its focus is on treating or suppressing symptoms using drugs, most often synthetic pharmaceuticals, and despite its many victories over disease, it has left many patients extremely dissatisfied with outcomes.

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After the Flexner Report was issued, homeopathy began to be considered “fringe” or “alternative” medicine. This form of medicine is based on a different philosophy than allopathy, and it treats illnesses with natural substances instead of pharmaceuticals. The basic philosophical premise upon which homeopathy is based was summed up succinctly by Samuel Hahnemann in 1796: “[T]hat a substance which causes symptoms of a disease in healthy people would cure similar symptoms in sick people.”

In many ways, the contrasts between allopathy and homeopathy can be reduced to the difference between working against or with the body to fight disease, with the the former working against the body and the latter working with it. Although both types of medicine have roots in German medical practices, the actual practices involved look very different from one another. Two of the biggest criticisms against allopathy among patients and families of patients relates to the treatment of pain and end-of-life care.

For all its embracing of scientific principles, critics—and oftentimes those stuck with the system of standard medical practice—notice something lacking in allopathic practices. Allopathy generally fails to acknowledge the human body as a complete system. A doctor will study his or her specialty without always having comprehensive knowledge of how the body works together as a whole. In many ways, modern allopaths miss the proverbial forest for the trees, failing to see the body as a whole and instead scrutinizing one part as if it were not connected to the rest.

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While critics of homeopathy put the allopathic model of medicine on a pedestal, many people prefer working with the body for healing instead of battling the body as if it were the enemy. Mainstream medicine has a long history of offering treatments that harm those it claims to be trying to help. No such trend exists in homeopathic medicine. In the 19th century, homeopathic medicine had much higher success rates than standard medicine at the time. In the last few decades, homeopathy has made a strong comeback, even in the most developed of nations.

 

 

 

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