History of Natural Medicine in North America

› Traditional Natural Medicine

Natural Medicine is a distinct system of non-invasive health care and health assessment in which neither surgery nor drugs are used, dependence being placed only on education, counselling, natural medicine modalities and natural substances. This includes, without limitation, the use of foods, food extracts, vitamins, minerals, enzymes, digestive aids, botanical substances, topical natural substances, homeopathic preparations, air, water, heat, cold, sound, light, the physical modalities of magnetic therapy, natural non-manipulative bodywork and exercise to help stimulate and maintain the individual's intrinsic self-healing processes.

Whether they emphasize the use of hydrotherapy, nutrition, non-invasive manipulation, herbs, or homeopathy, all practitioners of natural healing aim at stimulating the body to heal itself. Vis medicatrix naturae, or 'the healing power of nature,' remains central to natural medicine philosophy today. Rather than trying to attack specific diseases, natural healers focus on cleansing and strengthening the body, regardless of the specific methodology used.


The natural healers and practitioners of the late 19th and early 20th centuries conceived of healing as a process of bringing strength to the individual, rather than by curing specific diseases. All had a reverence for nature, and many of them could point to specific observations that led to the formation of theories and practices, rooted in personal experiences of illness and recovery that inspired them to practice natural healing. They frequently learned from each other or studied independently, instead of, or in addition to, receiving a formal education. Although most were persecuted by the medical establishment, those on record were highly successful, bringing good health to many people.

In 1902, Benedict Lust organized the Naturopathic Society of America, which was reorganized, in 1919, as the American Naturopathic Association (ANA). In 1921, Lust was elected president for life. Shortly after he died, a combination of inter-personal and philosophical differences caused the organization to split in two, forming the Eastern ANA and the Western ANA, each with its own constitution, officers, programs, and conventions. The Eastern naturopaths were determined to follow the example set forth by Father Kneipp et al., while those in the West seemed determined to "medicalize" naturopathy. "Proclaiming their distinct perspectives, the two camps developed their own textbooks: Paul Wendel's Standardized Naturopathy (1951) and Harry Riley Spitler's Basic Naturopathy (1948)."


By and large, all of the American naturopaths whose work is well documented had some kind of formal training in the natural healing arts or in medicine. However, not all of this formal education occurred before they began to practice. For example, after learning natural healing from Father Kneipp and others outside of a university setting and then establishing his practice, Benedict Lust earned degrees in Osteopathy and Medicine. After the American School of Naturopathy, which he had founded in 1901, gained its charter in 1905, it conferred on Lust the Doctor of Naturopathy degree.

Early practitioners of "the nature cure" learned through observation and self experimentation. Later healers learned by apprenticeship. Some had a conventional medical education but rebelled against it, and still others supplemented their formal education in Osteopathy and Chiropractic with intense independent study.

As to what kind of education these healers recommended for others, there was also variation. One healer, who felt that doctors should be artists rather than scientists, said "Furnish them with the necessary portion of anatomy, physiology and biochemistry, but not too much of it.” (Schweninger 1926, 43-46).

At the American School of Naturopathy, students learned "basic sciences, physiotherapy, phytotherapy, geotherapy, electrotherapy, and mechanotherapy. Degrees in naturopathy and chiropractic were granted." Lust also established a school of massage and physiotherapy. In addition to classroom education, he offered naturopathic home-study courses through his journal.

In 1947, in a speech before the Eastern ANA, then President Dr. Jesse Mercer Gehmann stated,

"We need standards and we need more, to stand by them, once they are established...These standards should insist upon a thorough training in basic Nature Cure. All students should be required to be thoroughly competent in applying the methods of the old Masters...Our standards should include thorough training through study of Kneipp, Priessnitz, Just, Kuhne, Rikli, Trall, Schroth, Graham, Jennings, Lust and Macfadden...We need adequate standards for entrance upon training for a Doctorate in Naturopathy, but these standards need NOT be, nor should they be patterned after the medical requirements. Our work is not based on warped and decadent pathology, bacteriology, or biology.” (per Freibott 1990, #7).


The name “NATUROPATH” in fact, is controversial and its true origin is unclear. It is known that the word was coined, possibly from "nature" and "homeopathy," a system of healing that Naturopaths had begun to use. Many early Naturopaths objected to the name because, in literal translation, it means ‘natural disease.’ However, Lust credited its coining with helping to end his persecution.

"The prosecution became so intense that we could not use the words cure, healing, therapy, therapist, physician, doctor, or any similar title. We were all in despair. Finally we decided to use the word 'Naturopath' as being the only safe term by which we could designate ourselves as having to do with "the nature cure" and disease (Lust, 1921: 479)."

The term ‘doctor’ originates in 1303, and stems ultimately from the Latin, doctor "teacher," from doct- stem of docere "to show, teach," originally "make to appear right." The familiar form of "medical professional" dates from 1377, though was not common until the late 16th century. Thus, the term ‘doctor’ cannot be appropriated by any one group. In 1998 a group of Natural Medicine Practitioners reclaimed their rights to traditional natural medicine by use of the title, DNM-Doctors of Natural Medicine in honour of Dr Lust’s original intentions. They are dedicated to upholding the principles articulated by Dr Benedict Lust and to preserving traditional natural medicine health care for future generations.


The shifting tides of regulation in health care are a constant matter of concern for the Natural Medicine profession. Several years ago, the Ontario government undertook to improve public safety in the health care system for the citizens of Ontario by exploring the regulation of natural healing. As laudable as this aim sounds, in establishing new colleges in Naturopathy and Homeopathy, the Health System Improvements Act, 2007 (the former Bill 171) grants pre-eminence to Ontario Naturopaths, and excludes other highly educated and qualified Natural Health Practitioners. It is part of BNMDP-NA’s ongoing mission to attempt to re-establish the balance, with due consideration to the contribution of all Natural Health Practitioners, so as to ensure public choice and maintenance of the public interest.

The new Ontario legislation exclusively assigns titles and scopes of practice that are currently shared by other overlapping long-standing groups of Natural Health Practitioners and their various modalities including, but not limited to nutrition, herbalism, non-manipulative body work etc.

Through a letter-writing campaign enlisting the help of its members, BNMDP-NA ensured that, prior to enacting these new measures, the legislature was made aware of the efficacy and degree of popularity of our treatments; quoting, for example, the Health Professions Regulatory Advisory Council’s (HPRAC) statement, in its November 2005 report, that “Alternative Medicine is the new mainstream”. According to HPRAC's statistics, one in four people were attending Natural Health Practitioners, not including those visiting chiropractors.

The campaign included representations as to the rigour of our training; the fact that the system of education for Natural Medicine Practitioners has developed into a comprehensive training program that consists of an undergraduate degree and 4000 hours of post-graduate training for the Doctor of Natural Medicine (DNM) designation. In Ontario, the Practitioner level has post-secondary education of 1000 to over 2000 hours of Natural Health training. Over time, our numbers have grown to well over 1000 registered practising Natural Health Practitioners in Ontario, who have been working safely with a large percentage of the public. This training is recognized and accredited by the American Naturopathic Association, the American Naturopathic Medical Association, the World Organization of Natural Medicine Practitioners and the International Parliament for Safety and Peace.

In fact, DNM’s and RNP’s do not diagnose or treat disease, and have no desire to engage in diagnosing disease, the dispensing of drugs, or performing surgeries as set out in the legislation in question for modern “Naturopathic Doctors.” Diagnosing disease, dispensing drugs, or performing surgeries should be done only by licensed, trained and competent medical professionals. The public must be protected from groups seeking protection for a medical scope of practice as “Modern Naturopaths.”

In addition, the legislature was asked to eliminate all provisions for exclusivity for remedies under the Natural Health Product Act, from the Modern Naturopath’s scope or practice. While “Modern Naturopaths” seek to diagnose and dispense drugs, or to perform surgery as set out in the subject legislation, Traditional Natural Medicine Doctors and Practitioners strongly oppose enshrining such a scope of practice in distinction to the rubric of natural medicine. In the view of BNMDP-NA, appropriate regulation would protect the public from “Naturopaths” seeking a "Medical" scope of practice without actual medical training.

Consequently, this new legislation restricts the right to practise as a Doctor of Natural Medicine or Practitioner of Natural Medicine, and challenges their right to fair trade in the marketplace. Appropriate regulation would aim to safeguard unregulated health professions and modalities, ensuring their healthy co-existence and rights to practise until such time that they can be considered for their contribution to the health care system and systematically integrated.