Allopathic Doctors vs Homeopaths or Self-Described Healers

Until the 20th century, the status of allopathic doctors was no higher than that of homeopaths or self-described healers. This is not surprising, given that science—the careful testing of hypotheses in controlled experiments—had yet to gain more than a foothold in U.S. medical schools. Moreover, the United States licensed neither doctors nor medical schools. Instead, and until around 1850, most doctors trained through apprenticeships lasting only a few months. After that date, most trained at any of the multitude of uncertified medical schools that had sprouted around the country, almost all of which were private, for-profit institutions that were unaffiliated with colleges or universities and lacked any entrance requirements beyond the ability to pay tuition. Nor were standards stricter at the few university-based medical schools. For example, in 1871, Henry Jacob Bigelow, a Harvard University professor of surgery, protested against a proposal to require written graduation examinations on the grounds that more than half of Harvard’s medical students were illiterate. Training averaged far less than a year and depended almost entirely on lectures, so few students ever examined a patient, conducted an experiment, or dissected a cadaver. Any student who regularly attended the lectures received a diploma. This situation began to change significantly only in the 1890s and only in the better university schools.

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