Disease Is Remedial Activity
By: Herbert M. Shelton
"Polio has struck twice within six days in the family
of..." These words formed the first part of a
statement in a news item published a few years ago,
and brings up the question once again: "What is
This language implies that disease is an entity, a thing that has an existence,
per se, that is capable of striking. It struck one child and, not being satisfied
with the havoc it wrought, it struck another child in the same family six days
later. In this instance, the disease was the variety or species known as
The ancient idea that the sick are possessed of devils lingered on in the minds
of the people and in the practices of the priests and physicians for ages after it
should have passed into oblivion. All during the Middle Ages and even today
in some sects of America and Europe, this doctrine of demonic possession
was held to be abundantly proved by the Bible.
Jesus is said to have cast out devils and during the Middle Ages it was held
that to doubt demonical possession was to overthrow the entire structure of
The doctrine of demonic possession was as well grounded in the Scriptures,
as was a belief in witches and witchcraft. This belief in demons that infest the
air and take possession of the bodies of man and beast is far older than the
Paracelsus, the vagabond quack of a little over four hundred years ago, whose
star of popularity is again rising, held that the air was so full of devils that you
could not get a hair between them.
Paracelsus was a Cabalist and held to a lot of other ancient and mystical
nonsense. He believed devils to be more plentiful than his modem medical
successor believes microbes to be.
During the long dark night of Christian ascendancy, it was held that the insane
are possessed of devils and the only care these miserable beings received
was intended to scare away or drive out the devils that had taken possession
They were chained in loathsome dungeons and tortured and beaten with a
brutality that we do not understand today. Sometimes they were kept awake
for a week or more in the effort to exorcize the demon. The demons were
cursed in the most elaborate theological blasphemy ever devised, and the
mentally sick were compelled to drink the most nauseating and disgusting
Exorcising devils was done by priests, cabalists, physicians and others. The
Jesuits of Vienna, in 1583, boasted that they had cast out no less than 12, 652
Devil-chasers were common in those benighted days and devil-chasing was
as popular as microbe slaying is today. Historically and psychologically, the
words possession and infection represent only different rationalizations of the
same superstition; they stand for identical delusional mental processes and
deluding etiological speculations.
The medieval wizard who chased devils has evolved into the modem
serologist who chases microbes.
The belief in devils or demons is by no means dead. Millions of people in
Africa, China, India, Burma, Tibet, and other parts of the world believe in the
existence of these "unseen powers and principalities of the air" and the
practice of devil-chasing is as popular among these people as it was two
thousand years ago.
But we do not have to go to the more backward sections of the earth to find a
belief in devils and witchcraft still surviving. We have plenty of people in
America who believe in witchery or "hexing " in haunted houses, spirit
communications, and in the existence of great numbers of demons that infest
earth's atmosphere and seek to gain control of the bodies and minds of man.
The founder of one of the newer sects, some years ago published a book on
spiritism, in which he showed from the Scriptures, that spirit mediums do not
talk with the spirits of the departed dead, but with demons or "fallen angels"
that inhabit the atmosphere.
In this book, he describes the procedures adopted by him to exorcize devils
from the bodies of those who were possessed. This man was a well-educated
ex-atheist, who lived and wrote in the early years of this century. He lived, not
in far away superstition-ridden Tibet, but in enlightened America.
I am assured by one of the members of this sect, which now numbers many
thousands of adherents throughout the world, that its members still believe in
demons and in demonical possession. This reminds me of the little
Sunday-school boy's statement that, "Faith means believing what you know
This very old idea that disease is an entity that attacks the body and wreaks as
much havoc therein as possible has taken several forms through the ages and
is incarnated in the germ theory that holds sway today.
Hippocrates was the first to break away from the theory that disease is a divine
punishment, but he was unable to fully emancipate himself from the belief that
it is an attacking entity.
His humoral pathology was a crude biochemistry and he sought for the cause
of disease in an unbalanced chemistry of the body, but at the same time, he
held that disease is a positive entity or substance, which has to be expelled by
hammer and tongs.
According to Pliny, Acron was the first to apply philosophical reasoning to the
problems of disease. He held that there is an "active cause" of disease
possessed of a riotous disposition.
Galen regarded disease, as: "additional forces, foreign and inimical to the
animal, with a birth, prime, and decline, like those of a physiological nature."
He is supposed to have borrowed the idea from Plato, but, since the idea was
ancient when Plato was born, this presumption seems unnecessary. In the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the idea still prevailed that disease is a
positive and organized entity.
Hufland said: "The intestinal canal is, in the great majority of cases, the
battle-field where the issue of most disorders is decided."
Hufland declared: "We must introduce the only medicine of which we are
thoroughly convinced that it possesses the power of efficiently striving with the
enemy, who, by subtle means, has now effected an entrance within our
Stille asserted that: "the whole of life is a perpetual struggle with an enemy to
whom we must at last succumb."
The present day physician would say: "The whole of life is a perpetual struggle
with malignant microbes that will eventually destroy us."
A hundred years ago it was freely admitted that the nature and essence of
disease was unknown. Many leaders of medical thought frankly expressed
the opinion that its nature can never be understood.
Prof. George B. Wood, of Jefferson Medical College said in Wood's Practice of
"Efforts have been made to reach the elements of disease; but not very
successfully; because we have not learned the essential nature of the healthy
actions, and cannot understand their derangements."
There is inherent in this statement the idea that disease is "disordered
physiology." It was so defined by certain medical authorities in Wood's time.
The present views of the profession on the nature of disease are not easy to
determine. The subject is never discussed in their textbooks of pathology,
nor in their works on the practice of medicine.
By common consent they seem to have agreed to ignore the subject.
Disease is now listed among the "seven modern mysteries."
Sir James McKenzie, one of the greatest clinicians of modem times, said a few
"The knowledge of disease is so incomplete that we do not yet even know what
steps should be taken to advance our knowledge."
In spite of this, medical men do have some idea of what disease is, as may be
gained from their statements concerning it.
It is said to attack us, to run its course, to be very malignant, or quite mild, to
ravish the patient, to persistently resist all treatment, to yield readily to
treatment, to be seated within us, to be self-limited, to supervene, to retreat, to
set in, to travel from part to part, to stimulate each other, to change type, to
sweep over the country like a fire, to travel from one place to another, to ride
the air lanes, to be carried about, etc.
They talk of banishing a disease, of wiping it out, of conquering it, or of
destroying it. They meet its onslaught with active measures.
All of these expressions and many more like them refer to disease as an entity
or thing that exists per se. They are consistent with the ancient theory that
disease is an organized substance or force existing outside the organic
domain and that it is at war with life.
Even if, at present, they be regarded as metaphorical they indicate the kinds of
operations sought to be carried out in treating the sick. Medical men are still at
war with unseen principalities and powers of the air.
The medical historian, Shyrock, tells us in his The Development of Modern
Medicine, that a new etiology based on bacteriology "showed that the cause of
tuberculosis-if not the malady itself-were indeed definite realities. It proved that
there was, in the case of tuberculosis, something there that acted as if it were
He also points out that today a diphtheria epidemic in a community is
interpreted by the board of health to indicate the presence of a definite
intruder. Thus the old idea of disease as an entity is still with us, and the
foregoing expressions about disease are not to be regarded as metaphors
today, any more than they were when they were first used. They accurately
express prevailing medical views of the nature and essence of disease.
The medical profession never had a theory of the essential nature of disease
that would bear criticism. It never had one that it could stand by. It never had
a theory of disease that somebody did not explode.
No sooner did some distinguished professor present them with a new theory,
which had cost him the work of half a lifetime to evolve, than some ambitious
rival would demolish it in a criticism that required but half an hour to write.
The profession seems content today to "rock along" without any well-defined
theory of the essential nature of disease, while continuing to treat the patient
as though he is the victim of an attack by malignant entities.
The nearest approach to an explanation of the nature of disease that has been
offered by medical men within recent years is the one that a few years ago
came out of Russia.
Although it represents a step in the right direction, this one is very incomplete.
The Russian experimenters have found that the disease is the body's own
actions-they say "reaction."
But, having failed to discern the purposive or remedial character of these
actions, they are working on the development of a mode of treatment that
represents a return to the deadly narcotic practice of a hundred years ago.
Instead of malignant spirits or malignant bacteria, they are fighting malignant
reflexes. Mary Baker Eddy tussled with malignant animal magnetism.
It is the law of life that the body resists and expels whatever it cannot use.
Disease is vital resistance to non-usable, therefore, injurious substances.
The living body grows and reproduces itself. It develops its parts and extends
itself by selecting from its environment such materials as it has the capacity to
incorporate into its own structures, and rejects and refuses all others, as both
unnecessary and injurious.
The power of refusal and rejection is a necessary condition of its vital integrity.
Refusal and rejection are constant actions in both the plant and animal world.
The organism equally serves its own interest by either act.
A plate of strawberries and cream, when taken into the stomach, occasions the
vital actions called digestion. Following digestion, the food is absorbed,
circulated and assimilated.
When used so that its elements are no longer useful, the waste is carried to the
eliminating organs and eliminated. This is physiological or healthy action.
A dose of lobelia, when swallowed, occasions the vital actions called vomiting.
This is the means by which the body expels it. A dose of salts occasions the
vital action called diarrhea. This is the means by which the body expels the
salts. By diuresis, the body expels other substances.
Now the acts of digestion and of vomiting are equally vital and they differ only
as the objects to which they relate differ. One is conservative, the other
remedial. One is physiology, the other pathology. One has as its object the
expulsion of noxious substances.
All the actions performed by the vital organs are vital actions. Vital actions are
either normal or abnormal.
The difference between health and disease is simply this: Health is the regular
or normal performance of the functions of the body it is normal action
physiology. Disease is irregular and abnormal action of the body in expelling
injurious substances and repairing damages-pathology.
Health expresses the aggregate of vital actions and processes that nourish
and develop the body and all its organs and structures and provide for
reproduction; in other words, health is the action of the vital powers in
building up and replenishing the organic structures; or in still plainer words,
the conversion of the elements of food into the elements of the body's tissues,
and the elimination of waste.
Disease is the aggregate of vital actions and processes by which poisons are
expelled and damages repaired; it is the action of the same powers that are
active in health, in defending the organism against injurious or abnormal
agencies and conditions.
The nature of disease is explained in the same way that the modus operandi of
drugs is explained. The immediate effect of the introduction of a poison into
the body is morbid vital action. This is disease.
The action of the organism against any repugnant or poisonous substance is
defensive-it is an effort to dispose of the offending material.
Purging occasioned by a drug is a perfect illustration of diarrhea and
dysentery. Vomiting from an emetic is carried on in the same way, and for
the same purpose, that vomiting from any other cause is carried on.
The excitement occasioned by alcohol is precisely similar to the excitement
occasioned by danger, by the cry of fire at midnight, or the discovery of a
burglar in the house.
Symptoms are evidences of vitality-dead bodies do not produce symptoms.
Deprive the living organism of its ability to manifest its repugnance to
incompatible things, its power to reject and resist these, in the defensive
manner that we call disease, and you deprive it of life itself.
If the organism does not act abnormally under sufficiently powerful abnormal
conditions, this will be proof positive that it has lost its vitality and is dead, or
Disease is a product of life. Vitality is as necessary an element of disease as
water is of steam. Existing only where life exists, it does so subject to the
great laws of life.
It is not "disordered physiology" but re-directed vital activity. Its essential
nature is not altered one bit by the fact that it often fails of its object. If a man
fails in his object to acquire a million dollars, this does not alter the nature of
The word disease is a generic term and covers a multitude of phenomena,
some of these being of opposite character to others. It is quite obvious that
blindness, deafness, paralysis, emphysema, cancer and other degenerative
diseases are not remedial activities.
This does not invalidate our theory of the essential nature of disease but it
does emphasize the need for a new terminology, one that more precisely
classifies the different phenomena that are now confusingly jumbled together
under the rubric disease.
I have suggested the term, which I coined, biogony, for those elements of
disease as now understood that are remedial in character.
Biogony is a combination of two Greek roots-bios meaning life and agony
meaning struggle. Although I coined this word and gave it to the world nearly
forty years ago, it has not been accepted, perhaps because our theory of the
essential nature of disease has not been accepted.
By: Herbert M. Shelton
Article: Disease Is Remedial Activity