What on earth is an “eclectic” physician?

hiram hampton  I remember stumbling upon the photo of Dr. Hiram Hampton about 6-7 years ago. Two things stood out at the time. First, the juxtaposition of a medical handbag and a holstered revolver grabbed my attention immediately. Maybe Hiram posed as a pistol-packing physician strictly for the sake of a fun photo? Or perhaps the pose reflected a rough-n-tumble aspect to ca. 1900 Florida now lost to our modern perception of state for its beaches, bikinis, retirees and Disney World.

The second element that struck me was Hiram’s identification as a member of the Florida Eclectic Board of Medical Examiners. I had some notion of the various ‘schools’ or philosophies that characterized 19th century medicine in the United States…but the eclectics still puzzled me somewhat. They originated in the 1840s as a reaction to the more extreme aspects of the medical orthodoxy of the day–in particular, the “heroic” medicine on the early 19th century which drew so heavily upon toxic minerals (e.g., calomel) and bloodletting. Eclectic physicians saw themselves as reformers championing a milder, therapeutic regimen, usually a botanic or herbal-based medicine.

But rather than allow themselves to become slaves to any  medical “-ism” or orthodoxy, eclectic physicians vowed to embrace any and all therapeutic regimens and practices that placed a premium on letting nature take the lead in healing the human body. Thus, the term “eclectic” took hold as a sign of their medical open-mindedness and liberal intellectual spirit. Of course, what eclectics saw as a virtue, their critics attacked as evidence of intellectual softness–in essence, disparaging their lack of a rigid theory or philosophy for the practice of medicine.

It is perhaps this aspect of 19th century medicine (its speculative philosophy) that seems most alien to us today. In a way, however, it made perfect sense for the time. Because there was so little that could be demonstrably proven in medicine, practitioners tended to coalesce into schools or philosophies of medicine (e.g., allopathy, homeopathy, osteopathy, eclecticism) most of which featured deeply structured, intellectually-rigid principles.  Because physicians of the day remained captive to a limited scientific framework for adjudicating the best methods of diagnosis and treatment, medical disagreements of the era often degenerated into passionate, rancorous arguments that were largely speculative and ultimately non-provable—the nineteenth century equivalent of medieval theologians arguing over the nature of angels, i.e., whether they possessed a material or corporeal nature. The historian Owen Whooley characterized medicine during this period as an “exercise in philosophizing rather than scientific researching.”

Eclectic physicians triumphed often enough in these battles to gain legislative recognition. A number of state legislatures mandated that representatives from the various schools of medicine (e.g., regular, homeopaths, eclectics) serve on a composite medical board. In more than a dozen states, separate medical boards were established for licensing physicians identified with these various schools of medicine. Thus, Florida’s eclectic medical board and Dr. Hiram Hampton.

Florida disbanded its eclectic medial board by the 1920s after a scandalous turn of events in the issuance of licenses. But I’ll save that for another day.