How Western Medicine Made Rockefeller Richer

What do John D. Rockefeller and modern, Western medicine have to do with each other?

Most of you are probably baffled at such a question because if you think back to your days in U.S. history, then you remember Rockefeller, as the big oil tycoon guy, and he is. But Rockefeller also played a big role in the creation of modern Western medicine by tarnishing the reputation of natural medicine.

Natural Medicine in American History

In 1800s America, apprentice physicians received training by assisting practicing physicians. However, most physicians lived in cities while most people lived in towns, limiting people’s access to care. Additionally, the treatment of these orthodox physicians were feared because many of them were unpleasant and sometimes fatal. For example, Benjamin Rush, one of the most notable physician at the time, advocated for bleeding as a treatment for yellow fever [1]. In fact when bleeding was not used as a treatment, purgatives such as chloride of mercury were given to patients, and this often resulted in uncontrolled vomiting. As a result, many of the people in the countryside turned to herbalists and other forms of homeopathy. Not only did natural medicine provide a safer and milder alternative to treatments, but unlike allopathic medicine, naturopathic doctors treated their patients holistically and granted them more control over their own health.

Where does Rockefeller come in?

By the end of the 19th century, Rockefeller controlled around 90% of the oil refineries in the U.S., creating a monopoly on the oil industry. It was also around this time that organic chemists discovered that petrochemicals could be used to make more than just plastic. They could be used to synthesize organic chemicals as well, providing Rockefeller with an avenue for expansion into the chemical and medical industry. Although by this time medical schools had been established, along with the American Medical Association (AMA), medicine still lacked the unity and standardization of modern Western medicine. Thus, Rockefeller wanted to standardize allopathic medicine, and eliminate competition from other sectors. Together with Andrew Carnegie, a steel tycoon, he founded the Council on Medical Education (CME), as a branch of the AMA. The CME employed Alexander Flexner to assess all the medical schools in the U.S. and Canada, in hopes of standardizing the field. This became known as the Flexner Report.

The Flexner Report

The Flexner report led to the creation of Western Modern medicine, and the standardization of medical schools. However, Flexner’s disdain for non-conformists forms of medicine was evident in his report, and he often attacked and antagonized alternative medicinal practices, along with psychology, as being forms of “quackery” [2]. Having been trained under a more traditional medical approach, Flexner looked down on the reliability of more natural and alternative approaches. As a result of Flexner’s attack on what came to be a very influential report, the power of alternative medicinal practice in the U.S. diminished. Many schools practicing alternative forms of medicine were shut down, and some doctors were even jailed. The standardization of allopathic medicine was further aided by Rockefeller who gave over 100 million dollars to medical schools and hospitals who were committed to making these changes. The rise of standardized medicine and the pharmaceutical industry pushed alternative medicine to the sidelines. Unlike with medicines made from chemicals, herbal medicines could not be patented, so they were seen as more undesirable because they did not provide an avenue for profits.

Alternative Medicine Post the Flexner Report

Although alternative medicine lost its traction in the Western world at the end of the 19th century, interest resurfaced again during the rise of counterculture movements for more natural lifestyles in the 1960s [3,4]. In particular, this shift of opinion back to traditional medicine was due to a growing disillusionment with orthodox approaches. For example, in 1961 the drug thalidomide, which was prescribed for morning sickness, was taken off market because it caused birth defects. By the time the drug was taken off the market, it had affected thousands of children. Similarly, in the 1970s, another drug prescribed to pregnant woman was found to be a carcinogen. In addition to being doubtful of orthodox approaches, the push for alternative medicine was due to people’s growing desire to take back control of their own health. Today, America spends so much of it GDP on healthcare and although holistic modalities continue to break through and persist as they have through millennia, they still need to be defended due to the demonization that began with the Flexner report.

Lessons Learned From History

When looking at the history of alternative medicine in the Western world, we see patterns emerge between dissatisfaction with orthodox medicine and rise in interest with alternative medicine. These patterns persisted despite the Flexner’s reports attempt to standardize medicine and get rid of alternative approaches altogether. Even now when we’re at a period of medical innovation and advancement, interest in complementary and alternative medicine continues to flourish. Attempts to stifle alternative approaches have not worked because people understand the importance of addressing their health holistically and taking advantage of all treatment modalities. 

At Potion, we believe both western and ancient medicine have a place in healing.