How Far Is Too Far?
By: Herbert M. Shelton
Hygienic Review 1972
On the next and succeeding
pages we are presenting an
article from the last four
chapters of Forty Years in the
Wilderness of Pills and Powders,
by Dr. William A Alcott, first
published in 1859.
In this will be found a brief biographical
sketch of the life and activities of Dr. Isaac Jennings. The story as given
therein, about Dr. Jennings' desertion of the drugging practice and his
adoption of what he called the "no-medicine plan" of caring for the sick, is all
too brief, but enough quotations from other medical men of the period and
enough facts about the practices of many of them are recounted to
demonstrate the fact that there was much skepticism among medical men of
That there was more skepticism of the value of drugs in treating the sick
among the professionals than among the laity is quite evident from the
manner in which Dr. Jennings' former patients treated him when he revealed
the secret of his unparalleled success.
It will be noted, however, that he did not receive understanding treatment from
his medical brethren. Instead of eagerly grasping the truth he had unfolded to
them and using these in caring for their patients, they appealed to the
ignorance, prejudices, and fears of his patients in order to discredit him.
A few physicians agreed with him in part but they were unwilling or unable to
go all the way. They were willing to admit that too many drugs were often
given, but unwilling to concede that no drugs at all was the ideal. Their most
common complaint against Jennings was that he went "too far. "
In the preface of his second book The Philosophy of Human Life (1852),
Jennings briefly discusses this objection in the following words:
"You go too far. We have all been on one extreme, have given too much
medicine, and have not trusted sufficiently to the curative efforts of nature.
But you have gone over to the other extreme.
Very well; there are but two extremes the extreme of right, and the extreme of
wrong; and who would not prefer standing on one of these extremes to
occupying a position about halfway between them? Fundamental truth and
fundamental error, as general principles, are the extremes here referred to.
It may be true under given circumstances, that no medicine on one hand, and
much medicine on the other are extremes, and that moderate medication is 'the
golden, happy medium, but that is not the great fundamental question now
The first and main point to be settled is this: Is man so constituted in his
structural arrangement, the organic and functional laws of his system, the
nature, mode of supply, application and operation of the principle of life, that
when he is prostrate under what is called disease, his restoration to health can
be secured by the agency of medicine, as a general rule, founded on a general
principle in pathology, such as wrong action, wrong tendency, or the like?
That medicine has been pushed to one extreme is quite certain, and that this
extreme lies in the domain of delusion and error, there is good reason for
Whether the other extreme of no medicine presents the truth as a general truth,
remains to be elucidated and confirmed. One thing however is clear:
Physicians must find a 'solid bottom' somewhere before they can establish a
just and reliable system of practice.
And this foundation must be laid in a thorough and correct knowledge of
general pathology. Physicians must understand the true nature and tendency
of that state of the vital organism which is denominated disease."
Dr. Trall repeated over and over again that: "truth never lies between two
extremes. It is always one extreme or the other." In the foregoing quotation
from Dr. Jennings's work he substantially agrees with Trall.
At one extreme he places good, at the other extreme he places evil. At what
point between these two extremes can one find a desirable place to stand? In
like manner at one extreme he places heavy drugging, at the other extreme, no
drugging. At what point between these two extremes can one find a point on
which to rest a practice of moderate drugging?
Either drugs are useful or they are not; they either heal or they don't; they
either do mischief, or they do good. There is no middle ground.
Continuing in his discussion, Jennings says:
"It will be the object of the following pages, in a plain familiar way, under a
variety of aspects, by deductions from the Science of Physiology and reference
to facts and the laws and analogies of nature, to show the unity of human
physical life; that its tendency is always upward towards the highest point of
health, in the lowest as well as in the highest state of vital funds; that what is
called disease is nothing more nor less than impaired health, feeble vitality; that
recovery from this state is effected, when effected at all, by a restorative
principle, identical with life itself, susceptible of aid only from proper attention to
air, diet, motion, and rest, affections of the mind, regulation of the temperature,
etc., with occasional aid from what may justly be denominated surgical
operations and appliances; and that medicine has no adaptation nor tendency
to 'help nature' in her restorative work."
A proper recognition of the unity of organic life leads inevitably to the
conclusion that what the body does not need and cannot use in health is
equally unneeded and unusable in disease.
For example, a drug that was as popular when Jennings wrote, as penicillin is
today and was used in as wide a variety of diseases as the latter drug is
Mercury is not a constituent of any of the fluids and tissues of the body and is
not usable in the performance of any of the body's functions. It is equally as
unusable in a state of illness as in health.
The recognition of the unity of life led equally inevitably to a recognition of the
fact that only those things that are useful in health can be useful in disease.
The proper care of the sick organism is, therefore, not a collection of
treatments with adventitious and exotic substances, but the adjustment of the
normal means of life to the needs and capacities of the sick. These needs and
means are Hygienic, not therapeutic.
Further continuing his explanation, Jennings says:
"An assumption that disease is antagonistic to health, involving some quality
or property that tends to the destruction of life, something that must be
counteracted by nature or art, or both, or life will be the forfeit.
On this foundation, the whole fabric of Medicine in all its multitudinous forms
has ever rested. As often as new systems have been erected on the ruins of
old ones, they have been reared on this unstable foundation as their common
Indeed, the correctness of this assumption seems never to have been called in
question, and the difficulties that have constantly obstructed the course, and
frustrated the designs of physicians, in their endeavors to raise 'therapeutics'
from 'its merest infancy,' or drag it from 'the domain of empiricism,' have been
sought for in all other sources, while this, the true source of all their
embarrassment, has remained unsuspected."
By: Herbert M. Shelton
Article: How Far Is Too Far?