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Alternative Medicine

The practice and use of alternative medicine present a rich but neglected aspect of Melbourne life. The term includes a broad range of disciplines related by their adherence to a philosophy of healing at odds with orthodox scientific thought. Generally speaking, illness is explained as an imbalance in an assumed vital force which occurs prior to the onset of symptoms. Treatment involves measures to rebalance the system and support the patient's own healing capacities. Rather than simply an alternative to orthodoxy, many see the field to have an allied role and prefer the term Complementary Medicine.

In the 19th century the limitations of scientific knowledge often made the recourse to orthodox medicine and hospitals a risky venture. More 'natural' treatment offered a cheaper, more accessible and often safer form of healing. It could also be self-administered. Early settlers may have gleaned knowledge of indigenous herbal lore from Aboriginal peoples, but many also made their own investigations. They also used previously established knowledge from overseas. This field included both Western and Chinese herbalists, the latter operating in and around Chinatown and treating patients from all backgrounds.

While some practitioners were nothing more than charlatans, and not all alternative medicines were safe, an array of alternative treatments was available in 19th-century Melbourne, including medical galvanism, hydropathy, spiritual healing, and various forms of massage. The greatest impact, however, was made by homoeopathy. Although pressure from orthodox medicine kept the number of practitioners low, the modality garnered influential support. This led to the establishment of a hospital, initially in Spring Street (1876), then in St Kilda Road (1885), later renamed Prince Henry's Hospital. It also saw the founding of the dispensing company Martin & Pleasance, an institution on the Collins Street hill between 1855 and 1959.

While the development of modern medicine put a dent in the popularity of alternatives it did not sound their death-knell. Other forms of treatment, for example Chiropractic and Osteopathy, emerged in the early years of the 20th century and by careful management these practices have gained greater acceptance. The rise of environmentalism and the 'New Age' has led to a questioning of the omnipotence of orthodox medicine. Doubts have been raised over the side effects of pharmaceutical drugs. Other options, both established and newly available, have been preferred for their perceived greater natural, spiritual or self-empowering qualities.

Philip Bentley

Bentley, P., 'Herbalists unite to defeat Government attack: the 1925 struggle', Diversity, vol. 2, no. 10, 2004, pp. 40-48. Details
Macgregor, P., 'Put yourself in nature's hands: a history of complementary medicine in Victoria', Diversity, vol. 2, no. 2, 2000, pp. 12-19. Details
Pensabene, T.S., The rise of the medical practitioner in Victoria, Australian National University, Canberra, 1980. Details