Lacking scientific research or knowledge, allopathic doctors developed their ideas about health and illness either from their clinical experiences with patients or by extrapolating from abstract, untested theories. The most popular theory of illness, from the classical Greek era until the mid-1800s, traced illness to an imbal- ance of bodily “humors,” or fluids. Doctors had learned through experience that ill persons often recovered after episodes of fever, vomiting, or diarrhea. From this, doctors deduced—in part correctly—that fever, vomiting, and diarrhea helped the body restore itself to health. Unfortunately, lacking methods for testing their theories, doctors carried these ideas too far, often inducing life-threatening fever, vomiting, purging, and bloodletting. Consider, for example, the following descrip- tion of how Boston doctors in 1833 used what was known as heroic medicine to treat a pregnant woman who began having convulsions a month before her delivery date:
The doctors bled her of [eight] ounces and gave her a purgative. The next day she again had convulsions, and they took 22 ounces of blood. After 90 minutes she had a headache, and the doctors took 18 more ounces of blood, gave emetics to cause vomiting, and put ice on her head and mustard plasters on her feet. Nearly four hours later she had another convulsion, and they took 12 ounces, and soon after, [six] more. By then she had lapsed into a deep coma, so the doctors doused her with cold water but could not revive her. Soon her cervix began to dilate, so the doctors gave ergot to induce labor. Shortly before delivery she convulsed again, and they applied ice and mustard plasters again and also gave a vomiting agent and calomel to purge her bowels. In six hours she delivered a stillborn child. After two days she regained consciousness and recovered. The doctors considered this a conservative treatment, even though they had removed two-fifths of her blood in a two-day period, for they had not artificially dilated her womb or used instruments to expedite delivery.