Sylvester Graham is probably the most well-known “health advocate” during this time and Carl also mentions Samuel Thomson, who was deeply involved in herbal medicine.
There was an increasing skepticism mounting against drugs and the medical profession in general and these men were among those proposing more natural means of taking care of oneself, as well as simply taking responsibility for one’s own body.
“His (Samuel Thomson’s) New Guide To Health encouraged people to take care of themselves and his ideas were patronized by a widespread clientele. It was estimated that he had some three to four million adherents out of a total population of seventeen million people at that time. His philosophy had a Jacksonian flavor, reflecting the widespread distrust of elites and the conviction that Americans "should in medicine, as in religion and politics, think and act" for themselves. "It was high time." declared Thomson, "for the common man to throw off the oppressive yoke of priests, lawyers, and physicians . . . " The Thomsonians believed that self medication was safer than being doctored to death. "Being your own physician would not only save your life.... but save you money as well."
Carl points out how the ideas of these men appealed to those seeking greater liberty in general. Many of the same people who had radical political views were also radical in terms of personal health issues. For example, Carl reports that Thoreau was vegetarian for at least a few years of his life.
It makes sense that people interested in freedom would be attracted to ideas on how to best take care of one’s health. After all, it’s a logical extension for anyone who understands the concept of self-ownership.
In this article Carl also discusses the history of vaccines, particularly the idea of compulsory vaccination. He points out that whether or not one agrees with the effectiveness of a particular vaccine, it’s still important to remain on the side of health freedom and use voluntary persuasion, rather than compulsion.
“Those who argued on practical grounds also claimed a right to be heard on the moral side of the question. Even if the anti-vaccinationists were wrong with regard to their assertion that vaccination was not medically effective, they desired to be heard out on their argument that "compulsion is a wrong." The burden of proof, in their opinion, was on those who wished to resort to coercion. For example. John Morley in 1888 maintained that "liberty, or the absence of coercion, or the leaving people to think, speak, and act as they please, is in itself a good thing. It is the object of a favourable presumption. The burden of proving it inexpedient always lies, and wholly lies, on those who wish to abridge it by coercion, whether direct or indirect." John Bright, writing in 1876. disapproved of compulsory vaccination. "To me it is doubtful if persuasion and example would not have been more effective than compulsion:... to inflict incessant penalties upon parents and to imprison them for refusing to subject their children to an operation which is not infrequently injurious and sometimes fatal, seems to be a needless and monstrous violation of the freedom of our homes and of the right of parents."
Bright's reference to the possibility of accomplishing the same end (the eradication of smallpox) by voluntary persuasion and example illustrates the underlying voluntaryist theme in this historical overview of the "health" freedoms. One need not have been opposed to vaccination at all to have been an opponent of
compulsory vaccination. One could have been opposed to the compulsion without being opposed to the practice of vaccination…”
We are still seeing controversies in many of the same areas written about here (proper diet, vaccination, licensing and monopoly in medicine, etc.) I have always maintained a skepticism when it comes to health advice, even from those within the licensed medical profession. I have watched society catch up to ideas I learned about 25 years ago, like the dangers of just handing out antibiotics like candy and that a fever is not necessarily something you need to "get rid of" by taking a pill. I try my best to educate myself as much as I can before embarking on any sort of medical intervention. Ultimately that's all we can do, educate ourselves, find people in the medical field we can trust and act based on the combined knowledge of benefits and risks. It’s your body. Take care of it.
Oh, and when it comes to personal health decisions, there's only one body part that matters when it come to government involvement: