The Decline of Humoral Theory

A portrait of Louis Pasteur with hands folded looking at the viewer
A portrait of Louis Pasteur, a French microbiologist and chemist. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

Cupping (as well as general bloodletting) declined in the late nineteenth century. Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch’s experiments in pathology demonstrated the existence of foreign bodies and their role disease, called in to question humoral theory1 Dr. Ira Marks, in an address to the Wisconsin State Medical Society in 1870, expressed his excitement for the new developments in pathology: “we have much to rejoice at the progress being made… and that we are becoming more familiar with the organism with which we are called upon to deal.” Additionally, as living in cities became more common, people were less connected to nature and humoral theory was no longer meaningful to the population.

An illustration from the files of Louis Pasteur showing his theories of atmospheric germs as observed in gun-cotton.
Illustrations of the observations Louis Pasteur made from dust on gun-cotton. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

However, in spite of Pasteur and Koch’s experiments, many physicians resisted changing their practice and cupping continued into the 20th century. Dr. Manley (member of the Wisconsin State Medical Society) in 1875 advocated bleeding and cupping at the request of the patient, due to the “moral effect” of these treatments. In an address to the Wisconsin State Medical Society in 1871, Society president Dr. Strong remarks on the inconsistency of medicine of his time: “As a profession we are prone to fly off tangent. Today we bleed, tomorrow we blister, and the next day use purgatives, and the day following we discard them all…The danger of transition periods is the tendency to oscillate to extremes.” During the late nineteenth century the practice of medicine comprised of remnants of humoral practices as well as new germ theory approaches.

 


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About the Author

McKenzie Bruce and Eleanor Miller.


Bibliography

Ducklow, Mrs. William T., and Mrs. A Lewenstein. “100 Years Ago.” The Appleton Post Crescent.

Kelly, Howard A. A Cyclopedia of American Medical Biography: Comprising the Lives of Eminent Deceased Physicians and Surgeons from 1610 to 1910. Baltimore: The Norman, Remington Company, 1920.

Reeve, Ann W., and John P. Reeve, eds. James Theodore Reeve: Surgeon.Soldier.Citizen 1834-1906. Appleton, WI: River Oaks, 1999.f