Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) showed a special interest in and appreciation for homeopathic medicine. In 1854, before Lincoln was elected president, he was retained as a lawyer to prepare a state legislative proposal to charter a homeopathic medical college in Chicago. Because Chicago was the home of the American Medical Association, which had been founded in 1847 in part to stop the growth of Homoeopathy, Lincoln’s job was no simple effort. However, many of Chicago’s most prominent citizens and politicians participated on the board of trustees of the proposed Hahnemann Medical College, including Chicago’s mayor, two congressmen, an Illinois state representative, a Chicago city councilman, the co-founder of Northwestern University, the founder of Chicago Union Railroad, and several medical doctors who were homeopaths (Spiegel and Kavaler, 2002). Despite significant opposition, Lincoln was successful in obtaining a charter for the homeopathic college.
Today, the Pearson Museum at Southern Illinois University has an exhibit of a nineteenth-century doctor’s office and drug store; included in this exhibit is a homeopathic medicine kit from the Diller Drug Store of Springfield, Illinois. The exhibit notes that Abraham Lincoln was a frequent customer of the drug store and a regular user of homeopathic medicines (Karst, 1988, 11).
Lincoln surrounded himself with advocates for Homoeopathy, especially his most trusted advisor and Secretary of State, William Steward. Ultimately, the story of what happened to William Seward is a classic story in medical history that exemplifies conventional medicine’s attitude toward and actions against unconventional medical treatments and the physicians who provide them.
On the night Lincoln was assassinated, Seward was stabbed in the multi-person assassination plot against the Union. Thanks to the medical care provided by Joseph K. Barnes, MD, U.S. Surgeon General, Seward survived. However, because Seward’s personal physician was a homeopathic doctor and because the AMA had a policy that it was an ethical violation to consult with a homeopathic doctor or even provide care for a homeopathic patient, Dr. Barnes was denounced by the vice president of the AMA for providing medical care (Haller, 2005, 192).
In addition to choosing Seward to be his secretary of state, several leading advisors were homeopathic advocates. On November 1, 1861, Lincoln appointed Major General George Brinton McClellan (1826-1885) to command the Union army during the Civil War. However, in late December McClellan contracted typhoid fever, which left him unable to go to his office to conduct business (Rafuse, 1997). During the first week of McClellan’s illness, two homeopathic doctors arrived from New York to care for the ill general and his father-in-law and chief of staff, Randolph B. Marcy, who was also ill. McClellan’s decision to employ homeopathic doctors is particularly interesting considering the fact that the general came from a family of prominent conventional physicians.
Despite this serious illness, General McClellan remained active, giving regular orders to his subordinates, arranging for troop movement and supply transport, meeting with the president on a weekly basis, issuing court martial orders, and even providing commendations to officers. By January 2, he seemed to be much better and shortly afterwards he had no noticeable physical limitations. McClellan lived another twenty-three years.
Despite the success of this homeopathic treatment on the military leader of the Union army, that very month, January 1862, the Army Medical Board rejected requests by homeopathic doctors to serve in military hospitals, arguing that to grant this request would invite applications from all types of quacks and charlatans claiming medical expertise.
Typhoid fever caused more deaths during the Civil War and the Spanish-American War than the deaths caused by bullets (Wershub, 1967, 175). Despite the fact that Homoeopathy gained widespread popularity in the United States and Europe due to its successes in treating various infectious disease epidemics of the mid- and late-1800s, including typhoid epidemics (Bradford, 1900; Coulter, 1973), the antagonism against Homoeopathy and homeopaths led to government regulations stipulating that graduates of homeopathic medical colleges could not receive a commission for military service.
In Connecticut, several “irregular” physicians offered their services to the governor, who accepted them, but the examining board of the Union army rejected them and instead accepted recruits from a hastily graduated class from Yale College.
Although the Union army had strict restrictions against homeopathic physicians, the Confederate army did not. In fact, the physician to the wife of the Confederate army’s General Robert E. Lee was a homeopathic doctor, Alfred Hughes, MD (Hughes, 1904, 39). At least in one incidence, General Lee himself was known to have taken homeopathic medicines (Mainwaring and Riley, 2005).
Thankfully, the antagonism toward homeopaths was not as severe during World War I; almost 2,000 homeopathic physicians were commissioned as medical officers. Even the American Red Cross authorized a homeopathic hospital unit (Dearborn, 1923).
Lincoln was also known to appoint some homeopathic physicians to political positions. For instance, in 1863 he appointed Dr. J. G. Hunt, author of a book on Homoeopathy and surgery (Hill and Hunt, 1855), to be consul to Nicaragua (King, 1905, I, 177). Lincoln also signed a bill into law that gave the president the authority to make appointments to the Union army’s medical department, including homeopaths (Haller, 2005, 187). However, orthodox physicians strongly asserted that they would not work with homeopaths in any way, thus creating new and more difficult problems in military medicine.
Although Lincoln surrounded himself with advocates for Homoeopathy, that didn’t protect the medical science from his famous wit. He once called Homoeopathy “medicine of a shadow of a pigeon’s wing.”
On a more serious note, it should also be mentioned that the personal physician to Mary Lincoln (1818-1882) during the later part of her life was a homeopathic physician and surgeon from Chicago, Dr. Willis Dan forth. Mary Lincoln was known to have experienced serious bouts of depression after her husband was assassinated and two of her children died, one at age 11 (1862) and the other at 18 (1871).