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History of Natural Medicine

How America’s natural healing movement survived near destruction and paved the road to true health.

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More than 86 percent of our healthcare dollars are spent on managing chronic conditions, rather than addressing and resolving their root causes. Natural medicine, which is designed to identify and resolve underlying causes and restore good health, has been growing in popularity in the last few decades, but still makes up a tiny fraction of health professionals in the U.S. There are about 6,000 naturopathic doctors (NDs) in 23 states and territories that license them, but close to 900,000 MDs throughout the country.

There’s growing recognition of the value of natural healing, with NDs on staff in at least 28 medical centers of excellence, including university hospitals and specialty treatment centers. But insurance coverage for practitioners who aren’t conventional medical doctors is still limited, at best.

How American Medical Association Gained Dominance

Today’s healthcare landscape began to take shape at the beginning of the 20th century, when two distinct schools of thought emerged: The allopathic strategy to kill disease with drugs and surgery, and a variety of healing disciplines designed to help your body heal itself. Ultimately, aggressive marketing and political lobbying bestowed dominance upon MDs and treatment with drugs.

In the early 1900s, when about 60 percent of physicians were allopathic and regulation of drugs was virtually nonexistent, the theory that germs cause disease was established in medical schools. At the same time, new leadership in the American Medical Association invented a “seal of approval” for drugs. To receive the seal, manufacturers simply needed to advertise a drug in the organization’s publications, without any proof of safety or efficacy. AMA income skyrocketed.

Drug manufacturers didn’t have to prove that a drug was effective or receive pre-market FDA approval until 1962.

Well-funded political lobbying and more financial support from philanthropic organizations created a situation where the AMA controlled medical education, licensing of MDs, and granting of hospital privileges. The system forced most MDs to join the organization and its membership boomed. By 1950, tobacco advertising in AMA journals was a major source of funding, while articles in its journals touted the health benefits of smoking, and tobacco advertising campaigns featured doctors promoting cigarettes.

The AMA made it a priority to knock out competition from other types of healers. Media campaigns labeled health professionals who were not allopathic as “quacks,” accused them of fraud, and made it difficult for them to obtain and maintain licenses to practice. It was an all-out battle.

Between 1937 and 1987, courts found the AMA guilty of violating antitrust laws against conspiracy and restraint of trade in several separate legal cases. As a result, AMA influence waned, but allopathic medicine had established itself as the authority on healing. Although the AMA continues to be a leading publisher of medical journals and a major lobbying group, only 30 percent of doctors are now members of the organization.

Natural Medicine Becomes an Endangered Practice

As allopathic medicine was establishing its monopoly, various types of natural healers became collectively known as “drugless healers.” Starting in 1902, “naturopathy” emerged as a discipline that aimed to include all forms of natural healing.

Then, as now, it was based on a core principle that there is a vital force with the power to heal within each human being, and the practitioner’s role is to restore health by aiding that force. Naturopaths work to heal the whole person. The philosophy is radically different from the disease-focused allopathic strategy and, history shows, it was viewed by the medical establishment as a competitive threat.

“By the late 1940s and early 1950s, the medical lobby grew to be the most powerful,” says George Cody, JD, who provided much legal support to naturopaths in Washington state for 25 years and helped shape its licensing laws.

“Conventional medicine targeted naturopaths and chiropractors for eradication,” says Cody. By the 1960s, there were only about 500 naturopaths in the country, and by the 1970s, he says, “They were pretty much gone.” But there were some holdouts.

Rebirth Begins with Science-Based Natural Medicine

Joe Pizzorno, ND, was one of those holdouts, and became one of the world’s leading authorities on natural medicine. His has authored or co-authored more than a dozen books, including the leading natural medicine textbook; served on advisory committees of two U.S. presidents; helped shepherd naturopathic licensing laws and the legislation that gives Americans freedom to choose and use dietary supplements; and was the founding editor-in-chief of Integrative Medicine: A Clinician’s Journal.

In 1975, when he started a naturopathic practice in Seattle, Pizzorno’s alma mater was the only remaining school of naturopathy in the United States, and it was struggling. “It was almost as if the profession died but didn’t quite get buried,” he recalls. “I knew it had a lot to offer and realized it had to come up to modern standards of education and research.”

He coined the phrase “science-based natural medicine,” and embarked on a mission to turn that vision into reality. In 1978, Pizzorno and three colleagues founded Bastyr University, and he was its president for the next 22 years. Bastyr became a bastion of natural health arts and sciences and has been instrumental in putting natural medicine on today’s healthcare map in a major way. 

Today, there are seven accredited schools of naturopathic medicine in the U.S.
Naturopaths provide primary care and specialty care in oncology, gastroenterology, endocrinology, cardiology, and other fields, and their numbers are growing.

The Future of Integrative Medicine

“The future of medicine is integrative,” says Les Griffith, ND, one of the three surviving cofounders of Bastyr. But he points out that integrative medicine is generally oriented toward treating health conditions, and while naturopathy plays an important role in treatment, it can do more. “Naturopaths like to think in terms of long-term, preventive care scenarios,” he says, which include nutrition, exercise, avoiding toxins, and understanding the importance of a positive mental outlook. “If you think life sucks,” he says, “then it is more likely to suck than if you didn’t think that.”

Sheila Quinn, Bastyr’s founding medical administrator, agrees. “Most people my age are taking anywhere between four and eight prescriptions every day, and I find that very worrisome,” she says. Using natural medicine, at age 73, she’s healthy without prescription drugs. Her advice: “If you want to take active steps toward being healthier, you need to have a healthcare practitioner who’s your partner in that effort, who has the training and the knowledge to guide you.” Otherwise, she cautions, “you can feel very lost and alone.”

Pizzorno sees recent advancements in medicine as the beginnings of a revolutionary, individualized type of healing. “Now that we have genomics, we can look at people’s chemistry and recognize where they have a unique need,” he says. As an example, his wife, whose family has a history of osteoporosis in women, developed osteopenia (the precursor to osteoporosis) in her 40s, despite an exceptionally healthy lifestyle. It was a mystery, until genetic tests revealed the problem. And then, natural medicine solved it. “She has a vitamin D receptor-site deficit,” says Pizzorno, “which means she does not absorb vitamin D very well.” Two years of very-high-dose vitamin D supplementation, along with supporting nutrients, restored healthy levels, and now, years after menopause, her bones are completely healthy.

The next frontier? Harnessing genetic testing to routinely personalize natural medicine. And Pizzorno is at the forefront, developing a practical system to tailor supplementation to an individual’s genetic needs.

Highlights of Bastyr History

Highlights of Founded as the John Bastyr College of Naturopathic Medicine in 1978, the university was named after a pioneer and educator in natural medicine who was a strong proponent of science and a mentor to the naturopaths who founded the school.

Founded as the John Bastyr College of Naturopathic Medicine in 1978, the university was named after a pioneer and educator in natural medicine who was a strong proponent of science and a mentor to the naturopaths who founded the school. Now with two campuses (Kenmore, Wash., and San Diego), Bastyr trains naturopaths and offers more than 20 other programs at undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral levels in natural health disciplines, including acupuncture, Ayurveda, exercise science, midwifery, herbal sciences, nutrition, and public health.

In its 40-year history, Bastyr has broken many barriers by being the first school of natural medicine to:

  • Become accredited as an educational institution.
  • Be awarded research grants by the NIH.
  • Receive government funds to provide free natural healthcare to those in need.
  • Establish research facilities to study and document natural medicine. More than 100 studies have been completed or are underway.

Founding Four Bastyr University founders at a campus event in 2005. Left to right: Joe Pizzorno, ND, Lee Griffith, ND, William Mitchell, ND, (1947–2007), and Medical Administrator Sheila Quinn, who developed and implemented Bastyr’s business plan.

Where to Find Practitioners Licensed Naturopaths:

Where to Find Practitioners Licensed Naturopaths.

Other helpful health professionals:

The Institute for Functional Medicine ( trains and certifies various types of licensed health practitioners, including MDs, NDs, nutritionists, and others, in finding and addressing the root causes of disease.