Surprising Lessons from Medical History

Did you ever wonder what healthy living meant to people living in the 1800s in America?

Erika Janik did. For her new book Marketplace of the Marvelous, she delved into the history books and unearthed a barrel full of eccentric compounds, remedies, suggestions, cures, and ideas.

Not only are these ideas really fun to read, but they’re provocative and offer insights because they are the precursors of today’s notions of healthy living. And they offer real insights into our understanding of medicine today. Pioneers of what we now call alternative medicine made significant contributions by responding to serious failings and popular outrage about “regular medicine.” Janik shows us how they fostered an openness for new research, ideas, and treatments. They were innovative. They viewed health as an attainable goal, advanced modalities that demonstrated healing did not have to hurt, and uncovered important discoveries that we take for granted today.

Early Americans were stubbornly self-reliant, believed they had the common sense to take care of themselves, and had a justifiably cynical attitude towards doctors and the conventional medicine of the time. It didn’t matter that medical schools had minimal requirements, because most doctors attended no school at all.

A wide variety of alternative medical theories and systems sprouted up and were embraced by many of the leading thinkers of the time, including Thomas Edison, John D. Rockefeller, Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, and Henry David Thoreau.

We’ll also talk about the role of women in medicine. Next to teaching, medicine attracted more women than any other profession of that time.

Now you know this is going to be a really fun show.

Erika Janik is “curious about everything” and we are the fortunate beneficiaries of her twin passions: writing and history. Erika is the producer and editor of the Wisconsin Public Radio series Wisconsin Life. She is the author of four award-winning history books. Her work has appeared in Smithsonian, Mental Floss, and Midwest Living, among other publications.

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