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Pseudo-Science and Society in 19th-Century America

Pseudo-Science and Society in 19th-Century America

Copyright Date: 1987
Pages: 256
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    Pseudo-Science and Society in 19th-Century America
    Book Description:

    Progressive nineteenth-century Americans believed firmly that human perfection could be achieved with the aid of modern science. To many, the science of that turbulent age appeared to offer bright new answers to life's age-old questions. Such a climate, not surprisingly, fostered the growth of what we now view as "pseudo-sciences" -- disciplines delicately balancing a dubious inductive methodology with moral and spiritual concerns, disseminated with a combination of aggressive entrepreneurship and sheer entertainment.

    Such "sciences" as mesmerism, spiritualism, homoeopathy, hydropathy, and phrenology were warmly received not only by the uninformed and credulous but also by the respectable and educated. Rationalistic, egalitarian, and utilitarian, they struck familiar and reassuring chords in American ears and gave credence to the message of reformers that health and happiness are accessible to all.

    As the contributors to this volume show, the diffusion and practice of these pseudo-sciences intertwined with all the major medical, cultural, religious, and philosophical revolutions in nineteenth-century America. Hydropathy and particularly homoeopathy, for example, enjoyed sufficient respectability for a time to challenge orthodox medicine. The claims of mesmerists and spiritualists appeared to offer hope for a new moral social order. Daring flights of pseudo-scientific thought even ventured into such areas as art and human sexuality. And all the pseudo-sciences resonated with the communitarian and women's rights movements.

    This important exploration of the major nineteenth-century pseudo-sciences provides fresh perspectives on the American society of that era and on the history of the orthodox sciences, a number of which grew out of the fertile soil plowed by the pseudo-scientists.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6503-5
    Subjects: Health Sciences, Sociology, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Arthur Wrobel
  4. 1. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    Recent studies about the nineteenth-century pseudo-sciences—primarily phrenology, mesmerism, spirtualism, hydropathy, and homoeopathy—have assumed a new character. Instead of being polemics by either partisans or opponents, or mere journalistic histories recounting the sensational and eccentric, these studies range from the popular and biographical to the intellectually esoteric. They are also interpretive. Scholars are discovering that these disciplines were warmly received during their heyday, not only among the uninformed and credulous but also among the respectable and educated, and that the diffusion and practice of these disciplines intertwined with all the major medical, cultural, and philosophical revolutions in nineteenth-century America....

  5. 2. Robert H. Collyer’s Technology of the Soul
    (pp. 21-45)

    Back in 1958 two computer scientists could write: “There are now in the world machines that think, that learn and that create. Moreover, their ability to do these things is going to increase rapidly until—in the visible future—the range of problems they can handle will be coextensive with the range to which the human mind has been applied.”

    The blurb for a book published in 1983 goes further: “Are computers alive? Yes! and today they truly represent an emerging family of living species in the world—thatis the startling argument of this landmark book.”¹

    At funeral services...

  6. 3. “Nervous Disease” and Electric Medicine
    (pp. 46-73)

    Browsing through popular and even learned periodicals from the late nineteenth century, a modem researcher is apt to be both amused and amazed by advertisements asserting that a device prefixed by “electric” will cure most of the ailments known to man. In theIllustrated London Newsfor April 10, 1886, for instance, the Medical Battery Co., Ltd., describes its “electropathic (Battery) belt”(figure 3.1 ), just 21 shillings. The company claims unreservedly that the device has taken care of “over a quarter of a million patients,” who have been “successfully treated for rheumatism, lumbago, sciatica, gout, kidney complaints, paralysis, indigestion, constipation,...

  7. 4. Hydropathy, or the Water-Cure
    (pp. 74-99)

    The principles of hydrotherapy have occupied a time-honored position in man’s arsenal against disease and infirmity. Hydropathic remedies have enjoyed a continuum in the annals of medical practice from antiquity to the present. But never has so much emphasis been placed on the value of hydrotherapeutics as in the period 1820-60, when its practitioners developed their own unique “system,” known as Hydropathy or the Water-Cure. To persuade the uninitiated of the soundness and legitimacy of their new “discovery,” the hydropaths produced an elaborate structure of methodology and a vast panoply of “scientific” literature. Negatively, hydropathy, like Thomsonianism, homoeopathy, and other...

  8. 5. Andrew Jackson Davis and Spiritualism
    (pp. 100-121)

    Among the popular movements which characterized society in mid-nineteenth century America was spiritualism. The discovery of a new science by which communication with the dead could be achieved did not seem improbable to many optimistic Americans who viewed innovative technical inventions and listened to lecturers extol the limitless horizon of the human mind. Spiritualism benefited, too, from the theories of Emanuel Swedenborg, whose works portraying a progressive spiritual world were frequently perused by curious Americans. Although Shaker communities had experienced epochs of “spiritual visitation,” the national interest and the magnitude of the phenomenon which erupted in 1848 were unprecedented.¹ In...

  9. 6. Phrenology as Political Science
    (pp. 122-143)

    During his 1838-40 lecture tour of most of the major cities of the east coast, George Combe, the noted Scottish phrenologist and founder of the prestigious Edinburgh Phrenological Society, spoke thirteen times on “The Application of Phrenology to the Present and Prospective Conditions of the United States.” Combe’s address was an exceptionally able piece; it avoided Frederick Marryat’s bemused detachment and Harriet Martineau’s officiousness in describing American life and prospects. A candid and even-handed critic of American society, Combe tempered criticism with modest optimism about the future of American democracy. He described American national character, assessed the strength of democratic...

  10. 7. Sexuality and the Pseudo-Sciences
    (pp. 144-165)

    In 1862 Eliza Farnham named the established “truths of the age … in their chronological order” as “Reformed Medical Practice, Phrenology, Magnetism, Woman’s Rights, [and] Spiritualism.”¹ To this list I would add the “truth” of evolutionary eugenics, which, like all pseudo-sciences, formulated supposedly immutable “laws” of personal and racial improvement by combining scientific fact, millennial optimism, and a mechanistic approach to change. Formulas to perfect body and spirit through sexual means co-existed with the other pseudo-sciences and were a common denominator in many of them. Obsessed with health and generally assuming that one’s bodily condition reflected one’s spiritual state, Victorian...

  11. 8. Washington Irving and Homoeopathy
    (pp. 166-179)

    Homoeopathy was “significant in its faddish popularity among the upper classes,” notes John S. Haller, Jr., inAmerican Medicine in Transition, 1840-1910, and “it also represented the last of the major systems to flourish before the onrush of extensive advances in germ theory, treatment of infection, pathology, and pharmaco-therapeutics.”¹ Homoeopathy was, however, only one of several systems opposed to traditional medicine: watercures, Mesmerism, faith cures, fads, and other isms proliferated in the United States and Europe in the nineteenth century. The battles among the various schools of medicine were bitter and protracted. Patients were often unable to evaluate the charges...

  12. 9. Sculpture and the Expressive Mechanism
    (pp. 180-204)

    Writing in theAmerican Phrenological Journal, Orson S. Fowler predicted in 1846 that the “genial rays of truth” would soon replace the errors and prejudices of the past.¹ Fowler’s confident prognostication reflected his age’s certainty that triumphant advances in fields ranging from technology and the pure sciences to poetry; philosophy; and the arts would soon transform American life and culture. American sculpture was no less expectant and, for a brief time, its theory and practice did indeed keep pace with advances in science. To enhance the validity of their work, American sculptors experimented with the disciplines of mathematics, phrenology, and...

  13. 10. Mesmerism and the Birth of Psychology
    (pp. 205-222)

    Mesmerism is undoubtedly the least studied of the many nineteenth-century “sciences of human nature.” Derived from the healing techniques and so-called science of animal magnetism employed by the Viennese physician Franz Anton Mesmer, mesmerism developed in American culture in ways that have made it an unlikely candidate for sustained historical analysis. For although evidence suggests that the American mesmerists were remarkably successful healers, few seemed to be interested in establishing a medical science. Instead, most gradually abandoned their mental healing practices to become spokesmen for a metaphysically inclined psychological theory. As a consequence, the actual practice of mesmerism languished through...

  14. 11. Afterword
    (pp. 223-233)

    The hope of Alfred Russell Wallace, the eminent biologist and co-discoverer of evolution—that orthodox science would eventually accord phrenology, mesmerism, and psychical research the status of legitimacy—was never realized. Without denying them their many successes in effecting cures and without impugning the veracity of eye-witnesses and of personal testimonials about psychic encounters or character analyses, new generations found the explanations or theories for these phenomena nothing short of bizarre. Explanations in terms of animal magnetism, or of correlating highly individualized mental capacities with brain architecture, or of explicating the laws of universal correspondence between the lower and upper...

  15. Contributors
    (pp. 234-236)
  16. Index
    (pp. 237-245)