Nineteenth-century medicine was characterized by constant competition among three major medical sects: Regulars, Eclectics, and Homeopaths. Each of these medical sects not only meaningfully disagreed on how to treat illnesses and diseases but sought to portray their type of practice as the most effective and scientific. Arguably none of the three sects was superior to the others, but their adherents concluded that their sectarian beliefs were better than their competitors.
Regulars were the inheritors of Galenic tradition and were the largest and most established of the three sects. Homeopaths represented a new approach to medicine with a new unified medical system developed in the eighteenth century. Homeopaths were quite successful in the United States and represented the biggest threat to the Regulars’ dominance of medicine. The Eclectics were true to their name. They were a diverse sect composed of dissident Regulars, herbalists, and medical reformers. While the Regulars were the largest sect, their members constantly worried that they may lose their place at the head of the table of American medicine. In the later portion of the 20th century, Regular physicians would constantly lobby state legislatures to create medical licensing to solidify their place as the preeminent medical sect.
Before 1800, western medical therapeutics changed remarkably little over the last 2,000 years. Traditional Regular physicians (also known as Allopaths) might have viewed themselves as learned professionals, but Galen’s 2,000 year-old “four humoral theory” was the basis for their therapeutic methods. “The body was seen, metaphorically, as a system of dynamic interactions with its environment,” and physicians believed that specific diseases played an insignificant role in the system. During the nineteenth century, this understanding of the human body came under assault because it was not effective in treating human illnesses.