Book Review: Nature’s Path

BookReviewLogoReview by Jennifer Ernie-Steighner

Titled after the first American lay publication dedicated to natural healing, Nature’s Path: A History of Naturopathic Healing in America (John Hopkins University Press, 2016), eloquently weaves together the insightful and, at times, radical sociopolitical, cultural, and medical history of naturopathy from the mid-nineteenth century to the present.  Susan E. Cayleff, medical historian and professor of Women’s Studies at San Diego State University, proves well suited to undertaking the first comprehensive study of an alternative medical system defined as much by its struggle for self-definition as by its philosophy of natural treatments and medical freedom.  Informed by a myriad of source materials, from patient testimonials to the publications of founding naturopathic leaders and legal proceedings, Cayleff offers a meticulously researched monograph that strives to answer the question: What has occurred since the founding of naturopathy as a broadly-defined set of therapeutics “to alter yet empower the work of naturopaths” (11)?  The conclusion is, much like the practices of nature healers, multi-faceted and complex.

9781421419039Focusing on the history of naturopathy as a profession, rather than its popular reception or clientele, Cayleff provides a necessary boundary for the vastness of her work.  Recognizing that naturopathy has often included an ill-defined assortment of healing modalities, Nature’s Path grounds readers through eleven well-structured chapters of chronological and thematic presentation.  Chapter 1 introduces the origins of the term naturopathy during fin-de-siècle America.  Cayleff highlights the legal, professional, and personal significance of the term for nature curers who often faced legal prosecution throughout the early- to mid-twentieth century.  The term also encapsulates the often radical socio-political stance of numerous natural healers, including prominent American naturopath Benedict Lust, who viewed the term “as a living protest against the autocracy, coercion, imposition, intolerance, and persecution” of allopathic medicine and the growing American Medical Association (14).  

Often envisioning themselves as healers for “the plain and poor people” (28), naturopaths built a shared identity not only through terminology, but also through the mutual aspiration to provide Americans with democratic health care freed from the imposition of medical expertise. Chapter 2 discusses this mutual identity while further unpacking naturopathic therapeutics.  Cayleff argues that while nature healers may have varied in techniques utilized, they “turned to three well-defined remedies: water-cure, hygienic living, and homeopathy” (25).  Still utilized by naturopathic practitioners today, these modalities offered a basis for an alternative medical system grounded in the philosophical belief of innate bodily health (Chapter 3) and appreciation for women’s medical leadership both as professional healers and as mothers.  

Embodied in the fascinating life history of naturopathy popularizer Louisa Stroebele Lust (Chapter 4), Cayleff contends that naturopathy offered women a space to practice medicine amidst an increasingly male-bastioned medical profession during the early- to mid-1900s.  Furthermore, the naturopathic conceptualization of women as inherently healthy contrasted sharply with the pathologizing of female bodies within traditional medicine (Chapter 5).  Similar to disagreements over gender and health, natural healers also openly challenged allopathic doctors on an array of topics, including licensure processes, vivisection, vaccination, pharmaceuticals, and health insurance coverage (Chapters 6-9).  In the final chapters of Nature’s Path, Cayleff builds upon these debates to highlight the ever-evolving American understanding of medicine, self-determination, and scientific expertise as well as providing historical context for mind-body-spirit wellness, the New Age movement, vegetarianism, and the increasing acceptance of alternative and complimentary medicines (Chapter 10-11).

Given its depth and scope, Nature’s Path proves to be an invaluable addition to the growing body of historical literature concerning alternative medicines.  Cayleff succeeds in answering the question she set out to investigate, concluding that naturopaths’ efforts to legitimize their work amidst an often hostile legal climate has led to increasing acceptance within American culture and traditional medicine, at the chagrin of naturopaths who remain suspicious of any “capitulation or cooptation” by allopathic practitioners (302).  Thusly, the history of naturopathy “tells parallel tales” of increasing professional acceptance alongside continuing debates over the proper roles of medicine and treatments (301).

Furthermore, Cayleff’s inquiry reveals multiple arenas for future scholarship.  While investigating the legal battles of natural healers throughout the twentieth century, Cayleff argues that much can be learned from further inquiries into the regional histories of naturopathic societies and the ways in which states (re)defined medical licensure overtime (199).  Similarly, much would be gained through an investigation into the inter/transnational nature of naturopathy.  Given the Western European lineage of early American naturopathy, as espoused by practitioners such as Benedict and Louisa Stroebele Lust, a careful study of the varied international responses to naturopathy might reveal how nature curers functioned across geographic boundaries and the varied cultural, sociopolitical, and medical debates surrounding them.

If there is one critique to be made of Nature’s Path, it can be found in the conundrum of natural healing itself.  Although American naturopaths have preferred to see themselves as the health-partners of poor and average American families, the pillars of natural living (i.e. vegetarianism, daily time in nature, and access to clean water) has often overlooked the lived realities of urban immigrants and African Americans.  Simultaneously, as Cayleff briefly notes, naturopathy has benefited from Native American tribal medicine, prominent Cuban-American practitioners, and, presently, Indian Ayurvedic principles.  One is left wondering what a truly inclusive narrative of American naturopathy may look like when these histories are thoroughly considered.

Overall, Nature’s Path is an engaging monograph ideally suited for a varied audience.  Health humanities scholars and students will appreciate this detailed work, particularly for its contributions to women’s and alternative medical history.  Offering a rare lens through which to better situate traditional medicine as well as alternative modalities, Cayleff provides a book longing for engagement from medical students and lay readers inspired by complementary medicine.  Given contemporary America’s increasing interest in and utilization of natural medicine, her book couldn’t have arrived at a more suitable time.   

Ernie-Steighner, Jenny - headshotJennifer Ernie-Steighner is an independent feminist scholar fascinated by gendered and raced pathologies, women’s scientific and medical history, patient-led activism and self-determination, and outdoor adventurism during the nineteenth through twentieth centuries.  She holds an M.A. in American and Comparative Women’s History from Miami University and currently works in patient-centered rehabilitation at a top-rated trauma hospital in St. Paul, MN.


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