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Progressive nineteenth-century Americans believed firmly that human perfection could be achieved with the aid of modern science. To many, the science of that turbulent age appeared to offer bright new answers to life's age-old questions. Such a climate, not surprisingly, fostered the growth of what we now view as “pseudo-sciences"—disciplines delicately balancing a dubious inductive methodology with moral and spiritual concerns, disseminated with a combination of aggressive entrepreneurship and sheer entertainment.
Such “sciences" as mesmerism, spiritualism, homoeopathy, hydropathy, and phrenology were warmly received not only by the uninformed and credulous but also by the respectable and educated. Rationalistic, egalitarian, and utilitarian, they struck familiar and reassuring chords in American ears and gave credence to the message of reformers that health and happiness are accessible to all.
As the contributors to this volume show, the diffusion and practice of these pseudo-sciences intertwined with all the major medical, cultural, religious, and philosophical revolutions in nineteenth-century America. Hydropathy and particularly homoeopathy, for example, enjoyed sufficient respectability for a time to challenge orthodox medicine. The claims of mesmerists and spiritualists appeared to offer hope for a new moral social order. Daring flights of pseudo-scientific thought even ventured into such areas as art and human sexuality. And all the pseudo-sciences resonated with the communitarian and women's rights movements.
This important exploration of the major nineteenth-century pseudo-sciences provides fresh perspectives on the American society of that era and on the history of the orthodox sciences, a number of which grew out of the fertile soil plowed by the pseudo-scientists.
Arthur Wrobel is associate professor of American literature at the University of Kentucky and the editor of American Notes and Queries.
The University Press of Kentucky
Place of Publication
Alternative medicine, Pseudoscience, Homeopathy, Hydropathy, Mesmerism, Spiritualism
History of Science, Technology, and Medicine
Wrobel, Arthur, "Pseudo-Science and Society in 19th-Century America" (1987). History of Science, Technology, and Medicine. 10.