This article originally appeared as Disease Is Remedial Activity (1978) the author is Herbert M. Shelton.
“Polio has struck twice within six days in the family of…. ” These words formed the first part of a statement in a news item published a few years ago, and bring up the question once again: “What is disease?” This language implies that disease is an entity, a thing that has an existence, per se, that is capable of striking. It struck one child and, not being satisfied with the havoc it wrought, it struck another child in the same family six days later. In this instance, the disease was the variety or species known as poliomyelitis.
The ancient idea that the sick are possessed of devils lingered on in the minds of the people and in the practices “of the priests and physicians for ages after it should have passed into oblivion. All during the Middle Ages and even today in some sects of America and Europe, this doctrine of demonic possession was held to be abundantly proved by the Bible. Jesus is said to have cast out devils and during the Middle Ages it was held that to doubt demonical possession was to overthrow the entire structure of Christian doctrine. The doctrine of demonic possession was as well grounded in the Scriptures as was a belief in witches and witchcraft. This belief in demons that infest the air and take possession of the bodies of man and beast is far older than the Bible.
Paracelsus, the vagabond quack of a little over four hundred years ago, whose star of popularity is again rising, held that the air was so full of devils that you could not get a hair between them. Paracelsus was a Cabalist and held to a lot of other ancient and mystical nonsense. He believed devils to be more plentiful than his modem medical successor believes microbes to be.
During the long dark night of Christian ascendancy, it was held that the insane are possessed of devils and the only care these miserable beings received was intended to scare away or drive out the devils that had taken possession of them. They were chained in loathsome dungeons and tortured and beaten with a brutality that we do not understand today. Sometimes they were kept awake for a week or more in the effort to exorcize the demon. The demons were cursed in the most elaborate theological blasphemy ever devised, and the mentally sick were compelled to drink the most nauseating and disgusting compounds.
Exorcizing devils was done by priests, cabalists, physicians and others. The Jesuits of Vienna, in 1583, boasted that they had cast out no less than 12, 652 devils. Devil-chasers were common in those benighted days and devil-chasing was as popular as microbe slaying is today. Historically and psychologically, the words possession and infection represent only different rationalizations of the same superstition; they stand for identical delusional mental processes and deluding etiological speculations. The medieval wizard who chased devils has evolved into the modem serologist who chases microbes.
The belief in devils or demons is by no means dead. Millions pf people in Africa, China, India, Burma, Tibet, and other parts of the world believe in the existence of these “unseen powers and principalities of the air, ” and the practice of devil-chasing is as popular among these people as it was two thousand years ago. But we do not have to go to the more backward sections of the earth to find a belief in devils and witchcraft still surviving. We have plenty of people in America who believe in witchery or “hexing, ” in haunted houses, spirit communications, and in the existence of great numbers of demons that infest earth’s atmosphere and seek to gain control of the bodies and minds of man. The founder of one of the newer sects, some years ago published a book on spiritism, in which he showed from the Scriptures, that spirit mediums do not talk with the spirits of the departed dead, but with demons or “fallen angels” that inhabit the atmosphere. In this book, he describes the procedures adopted by him to exorcize devils from the bodies of those who were possessed. This man was a well-educated ex-atheist, who lived and wrote in the early years of this century. He lived, not in far away superstition-ridden Tibet, but in enlightened America. I am assured by one of the members of this sect, which now numbers many thousands of adherents throughout the world, that its members still believe in demons and in demonical possession. This reminds me of the little Sunday-school boy’s statement that, “Faith means believing what you know ain’t true. “
This very old idea that disease is an entity that attacks the body and wreaks as much havoc therein as possible has taken several forms through the ages and is incarnated in the germ theory that holds sway today. Hippocrates was the first to break away from the theory that disease is a divine punishment, but he was unable to fully emancipate himself from the belief that it is an attacking entity. His humoral pathology was a crude biochemistry and he sought for the cause of disease in an unbalanced chemistry of the body, but at the same time, he held that disease is a positive entity or substance which has to be expelled by hammer and tongs.
According to Pliny, Acron was the first to apply philosophical reasoning to the problems of disease. He held that there is an “active cause” of disease possessed of a riotous disposition. Galen regarded disease as “additional forces, foreign and inimical to the animal, with a birth, prime, and decline, like those of a physiological nature. ” He is supposed to have borrowed the idea from Plato, but, since the idea was ancient when Plato was born, this presumption seems unnecessary.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the idea still prevailed that disease is a positive and organized entity. Hufland said: “The intestinal canal is, in the great majority of cases, the battle-field where the issue of most disorders is decided. ” Hufland declared: “We must introduce the only medicine of which we are thoroughly convinced that it possesses the power of efficiently striving with the enemy, who, by subtle means, has now effected an entrance within our stronghold. ” Stille asserted that “the whole of life is a perpetual struggle with an enemy to whom we must at last succumb. ” The present day physician would say: “The whole of life is a perpetual struggle with malignant microbes that will eventually destroy us. “
A hundred years ago it was freely admitted that the nature and essence of disease was unknown. Many leaders of medical thought frankly expressed the opinion that its nature can never be understood. Prof. George B. Wood, of Jefferson Medical College said in Wood’s Practice of Medicine: “Efforts have been made to reach the elements of disease; but not very successfully; because we have not learned the essential nature of the healthy actions, and cannot understand their derangements. ” There is inherent in this statement the idea that disease is “disordered physiology. ” It was so defined by certain medical authorities in Wood’s time.
The present views of the profession on the nature of disease are not easy to determine. The subject is never discussed in their text-books of pathology, nor in their works on the practice of medicine. By common consent they seem to have agreed to ignore the subject. Disease is now listed among the “seven modern mysteries. ” Sir James McKenzie, one of the greatest clinicians of modem times, said a few years ago: “The knowledge of disease is so incomplete that we do not yet even know what steps should be taken to advance our knowledge. “
In spite of this, medical men do have some idea of what disease is, as may be gained from their statements concerning it. It is said to attack us, to run its course, to be very malignant, or quite mild, to ravish the patient, to persistently resist all treatment, to yield readily to treatment, to be seated within us, to be self-limited, to supervene, to retreat, to set in, to travel from part to part, to stimulate each other, to change type, to sweep over the country like a fire, to travel from one place to another, to ride the air lanes, to be carried about, etc. They talk of banishing a disease, of wiping it out, of conquering it, or of destroying it. They meet its onslaught with active measures.
All of these expressions and many more like them refer to disease as an entity or thing that exists per se. They are consistent with the ancient theory that disease is an organized substance or force existing outside the organic domain and that is at war with life. Even if, at present, they be regarded as metaphorical they indicate the kinds of operations sought to be carried out in treating the sick. Medical men are still at war with unseen principalities and powers of the air.
The medical historian, Shyrock, tells us in his The Development of Modern Medicine, that a new etiology based on bacteriology “showed that the cause of tuberculosis-if not the malady itself-were indeed definite realities. It proved that there was, in the case of tuberculosis, some thing there that acted as if it were an entity. ” He also points out that today a diphtheria epidemic in a community is interpreted by the board of health to indicate the presence of a definite intruder. Thus the old idea of disease as an entity is still with us, and the foregoing expressions about disease are not to be regarded as metaphors today, any more than they were when they were first used. They accurately express prevailing medical views of the nature and essence of disease.
The medical profession never had a theory of the essential nature of disease that would bear criticism. It never had one that it could stand by. It never had a theory of disease that somebody did not explode. No sooner did some distinguished professor present them with a new theory, which had cost him the work of half a lifetime to evolve, than some ambitious rival would demolish it in a criticism that required but half an hour to write. The profession seems content today to “rock along” without any well-defined theory of the essential nature of disease, while continuing to treat the patient as though he is the victim of an attack by malignant entities.
The nearest approach to an explanation of the nature of disease that has been offered by medical men within recent years is the one that a few years ago came out of Russia. Although it represents a step in the right direction, this one is very incomplete. The Russian experimenters have found that the disease is the body’s own actions-they say “reaction. ” But, having failed to discern the purposive or remedial character of these actions, they are working on the development of a mode of treatment that represents a return to the deadly narcotic practice of a hundred years ago. Instead of malignant spirits or malignant bacteria, they are fighting malignant reflexes. Mary Baker Eddy tussled with malignant animal magnetism.
It is the law of life that the body resists and expels whatever it cannot use. Disease is vital resistance to non-usable, therefore, injurious substances. The living body grows and reproduces itself. It develops its parts and extends itself by selecting from its environment such materials as it has the capacity to incorporate into its own structures, and rejects and refuses all others, as both unnecessary and injurious. The power of refusal and rejection is a necessary condition of its vital integrity. Refusal and rejection are constant actions in both the plant and animal world. The organism equally serves its own interest by either act.
A plate of strawberries and cream, when taken into the stomach, occasions the vital actions called digestion. Following digestion, the food is absorbed, circulated and assimilated. When used so that its elements are no longer useful, the waste is carried to the eliminating organs and eliminated. This is physiological or healthy action.
A dose of lobelia, when swallowed, occasions the vital actions called vomiting. This is the means by which the body expels it. A dose of salts occasions the vital action called diarrhea. This is the means! by which the body expels the salts. By diuresis, the body expels other substances. Now the acts of digestion and of vomiting are equally vital and they differ only as the objects to which they relate differ. One is conservative, the other remedial. One is physiology, the other pathology. One has as its object the expulsion of noxious substances.
All the actions performed by the vital organs are vital actions. Vital actions are either normal or abnormal. The difference between health and disease is simply this: Health is the regular or normal performance of the functions of the body, it is normal action-physiology. Disease is irregular and abnormal action of the body in expelling injurious substances and repairing damages-pathology. Health expresses the aggregate of vital actions and processes that nourish and develop the body and all its organs and structures and provide for reproduction; in other words, health is the action of the vital powers in building up and replenishing the organic structures; or in still plainer words, the conversion of the elements of food into the elements of the body’s tissues, and the elimination of waste. Disease is the aggregate of vital actions and processes by which poisons are expelled and damages repaired; it is the action of the same powers that are active in health, in defending the organism against injurious or abnormal agencies and conditions.
The nature of disease is explained in the same way that the modus operandi of drugs is explained. The immediate effect of the introduction of a poison into the body is morbid vital action. This is disease. The action of the organism against any repugnant or poisonous substance is defensive-it is an effort to dispose of the offending material. Purging occasioned by a drug is a perfect illustration of diarrhea and dysentery. Vomiting from an emetic is carried on in the same way, and for the same purpose, that vomiting from any other cause is carried on. The excitement occasioned by alcohol is precisely similar to the excitement occasioned by danger, by the cry of fire at midnight, or the discovery of a burglar in the house.
Symptoms are evidences of vitality-dead bodies do not produce symptoms. Deprive the living organism of its ability to manifest its repugnance to incompatible things, its power to reject and resist these, in the defensive manner that we call disease, and you deprive it of life itself. If the organism does not act abnormally under sufficiently powerful abnormal conditions, this will be proof positive that it has lost its vitality and is dead, or nearly so. Disease is a product of life. Vitality is as necessary an element of disease as water is of steam. Existing only where life exists, it does so subject to the great laws of life. It is not “disordered physiology” but re-directed vital activity. Its essential nature is not altered one bit by the fact that it often fails of its object. If a man fails in his object to acquire a million dollars, this does not alter the nature of his acquisitiveness.
The word disease is a generic term and covers a multitude of phenomena, some of these being of opposite character to others. It is quite obvious that blindness, deafness, paralysis, emphysema, cancer and other degenerative diseases are not remedial activities. This does not invalidate our theory of the essential nature of disease but it does emphasize the need for a new terminology, one that more precisely classifies the different phenomena that are now confusingly jumbled together under the rubric disease. I have suggested the term, which I coined, biogony, for those elements of disease as now understood that are remedial in character. Biogony is a combination of two Greek roots-bios meaning life and agony meaning struggle. Although I coined this word and gave it to the world nearly forty years ago, it has not been accepted, perhaps because our theory of the essential nature of disease has not been accepted.