Michigan's Homeopathic Hospital
Doomed North Hall recalls the decades when medical rivals shared the U-M campus.
by Margaret F. Wagner
In December 1901, University of Michigan professor Royal S. Copeland gave a rousing speech at the opening ceremony of the university's Homeopathic Teaching Hospital. "The history of medicine is a history of revolutions, rebellions, civil wars, and inquisitions," said Copeland. "Every medical reform, like every reform in religion, has been inaugurated by bloodshed, mental if not real ... tonight, if words mean anything, there is gladness in the hearts of homeopathic physicians and homeopathic patrons from the copper hills of Keweenaw to the lotus swamps of Monroe."
It was a time of great pride for U-M's homeopathy faculty and students. After decades of philosophical and political wrangling with the Department of Medicine and Surgery, the regents, and the state legislature, they now had a magnificent teaching hospital.
Homeopathy was developed in the late 1700s by German physician Samuel Hahnemann. After experimenting on himself and his family, he developed the theory of "like cures like." A substance that causes nausea in a healthy person, he concluded, will, in diluted form, cure nausea in a sick person. On that basis homeopathic "remedies" were developed for all types of maladies.
The new hospital was prominently situated along one of Ann Arbor's two streetcar lines, with an apple orchard in back and a wide lawn shaded by oaks in the front. In hindsight, however, its opening marked the zenith of homeopathy's time at Michigan. By 1921, the College of Homeopathy would cease to exist. The building that once filled homeopaths with pride became an adjunct to the rival medical school. Later, as North Hall, it housed the Reserve Officer Training Corps. It is scheduled for demolition in June.
Homeopathy was one of several alternative forms of medicine jostling with one another and with traditional medicine for dominance--or mere survival--over the course of the nineteenth century. But homeopathy presented the most potent challenge to the traditional physicians Hahnemann dubbed "allopaths." The battle lasted decades, complete with casualties, intrigue, and even excommunication: any traditional physician who
consulted with a homeopath lost his membership in the American Medical Association.
The passionate conflict played out on a smaller scale in Ann Arbor, where Michigan homeopaths sought to establish a professorship in the university. To do so required persuading the faculty of the Department of Medicine and Surgery, the regents, legislators, and others--whose reputations could take a hit if they supported the wrong side in the heated medical controversy.
Looking back at traditional medicine in the 1800s, it's not hard to see why homeopathy became popular. Allopathic methods were often painful and even dangerous. Physicians prescribed purgatives and vomitives and perhaps some mercury for typhoid fever or parasites or a tonic containing lead for intestinal troubles. And though the practice of bloodletting peaked around 1800, it was still performed for much of the century.
Homeopathy was much gentler. Hahnemann developed his treatments by diluting plant and mineral substances in a base of alcohol, water, or both. He was also a proponent of holistic care--treating the patient physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Homeopathy made its way to the United States in 1825, and by the end of the nineteenth century there were twenty-two homeopathic medical schools and more than 100 homeopathic hospitals. Notable patrons included Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, John D. Rockefeller, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The fledgling mail order company Montgomery Ward had a team of homeopaths on staff. Ann Arbor had many adherents, including some of the city's elite. Judge Thomas Cooley and university presidents Henry Tappan and James B. Angell had homeopathic physicians.
The earliest attempt to bring homeopathy to the university was in 1847, when the Michigan Institute of Homeopathy tried unsuccessfully to convince the Michigan legislature. For the next twenty-five years, supporters bombarded the legislature with petitions to bring homeopathy to the U-M, laws were repeatedly passed to do so, and the regents refused to comply.
The medical faculty's aversion to homeopathy was matched in strength only by the homeopaths' unrelenting determination. The struggle was heavily political, and it nearly cost Tappan his chance at the university's presidency. In 1852 regent Dr. Zina Pitcher, later president of the AMA, used a fake name to write to Tappan's homeopathic physician, Federal Vanderburgh, asking whether the philosophy professor had favorable views of homeopathy. Vanderburgh replied yes, and the regents threw out Tappan's candidacy. In the end, though, the second in line for the presidency, Rev. William Adams, wasn't interested, so Tappan was appointed after all.
In 1855, the Michigan legislature passed an act demanding the appointment of at least one professor of homeopathy in the Department of Medicine and Surgery. The regents didn't follow through, so in 1866, the homeopaths appealed to Michigan's Supreme Court. The court declined to force the university to comply.
The homeopaths next tried to tie their cause to the university's funding. After several years of failed attempts, a law was passed in 1867 that gave the university one-twentieth of a mill from each dollar of property taxes the state collected--and included a provision voiding the appropriation unless at least one professor of homeopathy was hired. Many allopaths were so angry they threatened to resign. Again, the regents took no action.
Defenders of allopathy not only opposed homeopathic theory but feared the rival therapy would attract more students than traditional medicine. In March 1873, a committee of the House of Representatives investigated the idea of putting a homeopath in the medical department. Nineteen faculty members, including President Angell, testified that trying to put the disputatious doctors together would be a grave mistake that might kill the department.
Finally, the homeopaths gave up on getting into the department and shifted their efforts to creating a separate homeopathic college under the university's auspices. This was less controversial, and the regents agreed to the concept if funding was found. But there was one final snag: in those days, graduates' diplomas were signed by their professors--and the plan called for basic courses, such as anatomy, to be shared by both colleges. The AMA declared that it would not recognize any graduates of U-M's traditional medicine program if professors of homeopathy signed their diplomas.
The homeopaths went to the Michigan Supreme Court three more times to try to get past these last hurdles. Finally, a compromise was reached: the legislature would OK funds for a homeopathic hospital as long as the university hired two professors of homeopathy. Graduates' diplomas would be signed by the president and the secretary of the university, not homeopathy professors.
The allopaths were aghast. According to medical historian Harris Coulter, "almost every medical journal in the country urged the Michigan medical faculty to resign rather than participate in the training of homeopaths." An attendee at a traditional medical conference wrote, "The great eye-sore is homeopathy in the university. At present the air is full of the spirit of slaughter, and the demand for blood is emphatic."
Finally, in April 1875, the compromise was passed. In what President Angell and the regents called "the experiment," the university established the College of Homeopathy, and two professors were hired--one to teach the theory and practice of homeopathy, the other materia medica and therapeutics.
At first the new Homeopathic College used part of the existing allopathic hospital. But, as homeopathy's popularity increased, the college moved several times to larger buildings. One hospital was completed in 1891, but soon more space was needed. In 1901, the new hospital was built, with 140 beds, surgical rooms, a dispensary, and training and office spaces. Sun coming through large windows illuminated the interior's glistening red oak woodwork, and wide glass doors at either end of the main hallway opened into the patient wards. Baseboards and other features were curved, so no corners or crevices could collect germs. It's likely that the basement contained a morgue, or at least that's what the ROTC students later claimed during Halloween haunted houses.
The new hospital also had a laboratory whose walls were covered with dried plants, many of which the students collected on field trips with Professor Dewey. In the lab--which homeopathy dean Wilbert Hinsdale called "Dewey's Weed Room"--students prepared and tested dilutions and learned how to administer them.
The students also served as investigators and subjects in the college's research. In a 1904 experiment to find a new treatment, sixteen or so students collected and consumed large amounts of Stellaria media, commonly known as chickweed. A report lists the effects: "steady, hard, merciless headache, pain in the eyes with nausea, becoming intensified through the morning. Loss of appetite. Hand unsteady. Soreness and smarting of the eyes. Headache becomes a cutting pain, forming a semi-circle from temples through the frontal eminences ... Several of the testers had an intense desire to sleep. Weakness in legs. Feet go to sleep easily. Irritability. Constant thirst. Often pains predominated on the left side."
In its conclusion, the twenty-plus-page report states that the testers had succeeded in bringing the world a remedy for gout and rheumatism. A few other maladies were listed as well.
Only two other American universities had both allopathic and homeopathic colleges. The frantic struggles and lobbying stopped after the College of Homeopathy became official, but relations between the two camps at U-M were never harmonious. This was apparent in 1902, when two professors of homeopathy examined a patient in the care of the allopathic hospital. Seneca Litchard had sustained a serious head injury and was incapacitated. Doctors proposed putting him in an asylum, but Washtenaw County judge Willis Watkins wanted a second opinion and ordered the homeopaths to see the patient. The Detroit Free Press reported: "At 2 o'clock this afternoon 1902 Feb 12, two homeopaths marched upon the allopath stronghold. They were admitted and found the air quite frigid. The examination was very short and throughout its progress the medical students stared suspiciously at the enemy." The homeopaths evidently concurred with the allopaths, since Litchard was consigned to the Pontiac State Asylum.
Despite the ill will, the two therapeutic approaches were no longer so far apart. Traditional medical doctors had thought most diseases could be cured by a handful of methods, such as bleeding, but toward the end of the nineteenth century they began to rely more and more on scientific evidence to determine which therapies worked. In what came to be known as the "therapeutic revolution," knowledge about cell pathology, physiology, and effective treatments grew exponentially. The late nineteenth century has been described as the time when medicine began to work.
The homeopaths also altered their practice. In fact, after homeopathic treatments were exhausted, they even sometimes turned to surgery. As part of the hospital's opening ceremony, Professor Copeland invited the guests into the hospital's state-of-the art aseptic amphitheater with its iron railings, solid marble seats, and rubber floor mats. Then, patients were brought in, and he demonstrated some difficult eye operations.
By then, Paul Starr writes in The Social Transformation of American Medicine, "The sectarians [homeopaths] shared most of the fundamentals of medical science in common with the regular profession; as scientific knowledge advanced into the area of therapeutics, their differences tended to diminish. The growth of science thus reinforced the effect of the new institutional relations, laying the ground for a new professional consensus."
After the turn of the century, medical science advanced rapidly while homeopathy lost adherents. Homeopathic hospitals and teaching colleges around the country closed down or switched to medical curricula. Homeopathy didn't disappear--it still has adherents around the world--but it never again achieved the level of institutional and political support it enjoyed in the nineteenth century.
The U-M College of Homeopathy had one last success, adding a children's clinic in a small building nearby in 1919. But just two years later, it ceased to exist as an independent entity. Only two homeopathic courses survived the merger with the allopathic school, and they soon disappeared. Dean Hinsdale joined the staff of the Museum of Anthropology, where he became known for his interest in Native American archaeology.
The 1901 hospital served as a medical school annex until 1940, when it was turned over to the ROTC. In the Vietnam era, North Hall was a regular target of protests against the presence of a military training program on campus.
Now, the building is nearing the end of its life. In February, the regents voted to demolish North Hall and the adjacent Museums Annex--the former children's ward--to build a $261 million biology building. With it will disappear the last trace of the homeopaths' hard-fought, but short-lived, victory over traditional medicine.
[Originally published in April, 2014.]