THERAPEUTIC DISEASE: A CONCEPT OF XIX AND EARLY XX CENTURY MEDICINE

Andrea Bellelli

Abstract


The concept of therapeutic or antagonistic disease, i.e. a disease that interrupts or cures another and then spontaneously heals, had an ephemeral success in the XIX century and the first decades of the XX century. Some authors limited themselves to the careful collection of pertinent instances; others tried to go beyond the mere analysis and to develop practical applications, i.e. attempts to use a disease to cure another, only one of which, namely the electro-convulsive therapy, survives to date. In the long run, however, the concept proved of limited value and reduced applicability, and was abandoned. The origins of the concept of therapeutic disease cannot be traced down with certainty, since sporadic, matter-of-fact observations are already present in the most ancient Greek medical writings. However, the full theoretical development of this concept in a systematic form, and its intentional application to therapy occurred much later, and reached its height in two medical theories developed by German speaking authors: Hahnemanns homeopathy and Freuds psychoanalysis. A third theoretical elaboration of the same concept can be found in the writings of some French hypnotists, by and large in the same period, although hypnosis (at the time called somnambulism) is the heir of Mesmers magnetism, a theory that did not originally imply the concept of therapeutic disease. In addition to the above theories, at the beginning of the XX century effective therapies based on the same concept were devised on a purely empirical basis: e.g. Wagner Jaureggs malaria therapy for syphilis, abandoned in favor of chemotherapy, and the several shock therapies for major psychoses, of which only the electro-convulsive therapy of Cerletti and Bini has survived. Were it not for these applications, the whole concept of the therapeutic disease would qualify as an interesting error in the pathway of medical thinking.

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