Medicine Without Doctors: Home Health Care in American History

Edited with Ronald L. Numbers, and Judith W. Leavitt. New York: Science History Publications, 1977.

The tradition of self-help in medicine has existed since time immemorial. Until healing roles were clearly defined and professionalization was on its way, much of what constituted healing was fundamentally domestic in nature. In fact, it could be argued that healing was originally a familial or communal activity before being ritualized and invested in special persons. The essays that follow, originally delivered in April 1975 at a symposium organized by the Department of the History of Medicine at the University of Wisconsin, develop a number of themes. The decision to focus on the American scene—especially the last 150 years—is, of course arbitrary. The choice was primarily prompted by the availability of sources and the existence of a nucleus of prominent social historians interested in the topic. Medical self-help continues to be an essential practice and resource, and its history should be subjected to critical examination.


Guenter B. Risse

From Buchan to Fishbein: The Literature of Domestic Medicine
John B. Blake

Why Self-Help? Americans Alone With their Diseases, 1800-1850
James H. Cassedy

Do-It-Yourself the Sectarian Way
Ronald L. Numbers

Nineteenth-Century Health Reforms and Women: A Program of Self-Help
Regina Markell Morantz

Patent Medicines and the Self-Help Syndrome
James Harvey Young



The importance of this slender volume exceeds its size. It is the rule, in scholarship as well as in life, for assumptions to go unquestioned. The significance of this book is that it engages in that difficult task. It challenges us to reconsider one of the prime assumptions of medical historiography: that physicians are, and always have been at the center of the health care enterprise…A fascinating group of issues are raised and interpretations offered in these scholarly and literate essays. I share their hope that the book will spur further research in this important area.
— Kenneth M. Ludmerer, Journal of the History of Medicine 34 (Jan 1979): 101-02