Anthroposophic medicine

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Anthroposophic medicine (or anthroposophical medicine) is a form of alternative medicine based on pseudoscientific and occult notions. [1] Devised in the 1920s by Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) in conjunction with Ita Wegman (1876–1943), anthroposophical medicine draws on Steiner's spiritual philosophy, which he called anthroposophy. Practitioners employ a variety of treatment techniques based upon anthroposophic precepts, including massage, exercise, counselling, and substances. [2]


Many drug preparations used in anthroposophic medicine are ultra-diluted substances, similar to those used in homeopathy. Homeopathic remedies are not medically effective and are generally considered harmless, except when used as a substitute for a scientifically proven and effective prevention and cure. [3] In certain European countries, people with cancer are sometimes prescribed remedies made from specially harvested mistletoe, although no evidence of clinical benefit exists. [4] [5] Some anthroposophic doctors oppose childhood vaccination, and this has led to preventable outbreaks of disease. [6]

Anthroposophic medicine departs from fundamental biological, physical and chemical principles in several respects. For example, Steiner said that the heart is not a pump, but that the blood in a sense pumps itself. [7] [8] Anthroposophic medicine also proposes that patients' past lives may influence their illness and that the course of an illness is subject to karmic destiny. [9] [10] Professor of complementary medicine Edzard Ernst and other physicians and scientists including Simon Singh and David Gorski have characterized anthroposophic medicine as pseudoscientific quackery, [11] [12] with no basis in reason or logic. [13] [14] [15]


Co-founders of anthroposophic medicine
Steiner Berlin 1900 big.jpg
Rudolf Steiner
Ita Wegman 1899.jpg
Ita Wegman


Ita Wegman, co-founder of the medical approach, before 1900 in Berlin Ita Wegman vor1900.jpg
Ita Wegman, co-founder of the medical approach, before 1900 in Berlin

The first steps towards an anthroposophic approach to medicine were made before 1920, when homeopathic physicians and pharmacists began working with Rudolf Steiner, who recommended new medicinal substances as well as specific methods for preparation along with an anthroposophic concept of man. In 1921, Ita Wegman opened the first anthroposophic medical clinic, now known as the Klinik Arlesheim, [16] in Arlesheim, Switzerland. Wegman was soon joined by a number of other doctors. They then began to train the first anthroposophic nurses for the clinic.

At Wegman's request, Steiner regularly visited the clinic and suggested treatment regimes for particular patients. Between 1920 and 1925, he also gave several series of lectures on medicine. In 1925, Wegman and Steiner wrote the first book on the anthroposophic approach to medicine, Fundamentals of Therapy. [17] [18]

Wegman later opened a separate clinic and curative home in Ascona. Wegman lectured widely, visiting the Netherlands and England particularly frequently, and an increasing number of doctors began to include the anthroposophic approach in their practices. A cancer clinic, the Lukas Clinic, opened in Arlesheim in 1963. [19]

In 1976 anthroposophic medicine in Germany got regulated by law as a specific therapeutic system ("Besondere Therapierichtung") by the Medicines Act-Arzneimittelgesetz (AMG) and by the Code of Social Law (Sozialgesetzbuch V) [20]

In the 1990s the Witten/Herdecke University in Germany established a chair in anthroposophical medicine. The press described the appointment as a "death sentence" and the perception that pseudoscience was being taught damaged the university's reputation, bringing it close to financial collapse. It was ultimately saved by a cash injection from Software AG, a technology corporation with a history of funding anthroposophic projects. [13]

In 2012 the University of Aberdeen considered establishing a chair in holistic health jointly funded by Software AG, and by the Anthroposophic Health, Education, and Social Care Movement, each of which would provide £1.5 million of endowment. [13] Edzard Ernst commented "that any decent university should even consider an anthroposophical medicine unit seems incomprehensible. The fact that it would be backed by people who have a financial interest in this bogus approach makes it even worse." [13] The University's governance and nominations committee eventually decided not to proceed with the appointment. [12]

Categorization and conceptual basis

The categorization of anthroposophical medicine is complex since in part it complements conventional medicine, and in part it substitutes for it. [1] In 2008, Ernst wrote that it was being promoted as an "extension to conventional medicine". [6]

Ernst writes that Steiner used imagination and insight as a basis for his ideas, drawing mystical knowledge from the occult Akashic Records, a work which is supposedly situated on the astral plane, and which Steiner said was accessible to him via his intuitive powers. [3] On this basis, Steiner proposed "associations between four postulated dimensions of the human body (physical body, etheric body, astral body, and ego), plants, minerals, and the cosmos". [2] Steiner also proposed a connection betweens planets, metals and organs so that, for example, the planet Mercury, the element mercury and the lung were all somehow associated. These propositions form the basis of anthroposophical medicine. [3]

Ernst has said that anthroposophical medicine "includes some of the least plausible theories one could possibly imagine", [21] categorized it as "pure quackery", [12] and said that it "has no basis in science". [13] According to Quackwatch, anthroposophical medicine practitioners regard illness as a "rite of passage" necessary to purge spiritual impurities carried over from past lives, according to the precepts of "karmic destiny". [9]


Weleda anthroposophic products sold in Brazil Weleda products displayed in Drogasil Ilheus-Bahia-Brazil 2021.jpg
Weleda anthroposophic products sold in Brazil

In anthroposophic pharmacy, drugs are prepared according to ancient notions of alchemy and homeopathy which are not related to the science underlying modern pharmacology. [2] During the preparation process, patterns formed by crystallization are interpreted to see which "etheric force" they most closely resemble. [11] Most anthroposophic preparations are highly diluted, like homeopathic remedies. This means that, while they are completely harmless in themselves, using them in place of conventional medicine to treat serious illness carries a risk of severe adverse consequences. [3]

As well as drug remedies, anthroposophical medicine also includes: [2]

Plant-derived treatments

To select an anthroposophic substance for a particular illness, practitioners consider the source of the substances used. The character of a mineral, plant or animal is hypothesised to have been formed by the substances that are most active within it, in the belief that this character may also influence what the substance will accomplish when given to treat another organism. This is related to Doctrine of signatures. Willow, for example, is considered to have an unusual character:

... plants that grow near water are usually heavy, with big, dark green leaves that wilt and break easily. An exception is ... the white willow, a tree that always grows near water and loves light. However, unlike other "watery" plants, the willow has fine, almost dry leaves and looks very light ... Its branches are unbelievably tough. They are elastic and cannot be broken. They bend easily and form "joints" rather than break. These few signatures can give us the clue to what salix can be used for therapeutically: arthritis, deformation of joints, swollen joints ... [23]

There is no scientific evidence that the shape of plants has ever caused a new medical property to be discovered. [24]

Beliefs about human biology

Steiner described the heart not as a pump, but as a regulator of flow, such that the heartbeat itself can be distinguished from the circulation of blood. [8] [25] Anthroposophic medicine claims the flow in the blood of the circulatory system is, as Marinelli put it, "propelled with its own biological momentum, as can be seen in the embryo, and boosts itself with induced momenta from the heart". [8] [26]

This view of the heart is not based on any scientific theory and has been characterized as "crank science". [25]

Steiner believed that the sex of a baby was determined at the moment of conception by the alignment of the stars. [27]

Steiner's model of anatomy was based on a three-part notion, whereby the head is the thinking part, the abdomen and limbs the "metabolic" part, and the chest and heart a "rhythmic center". [27]

According to Dan Dugan, Steiner was a champion of the following medical pseudoscientific claims:

  1. supporting vitalism;
  2. doubting germ theory; [28]
  3. weird approach to physiological systems;
  4. "the heart is not a pump". [29]

Reaction to COVID-19

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Steiner hospitals in Germany became notorious amongst legitimate medics for forcing quack remedies on sedated hospital patients, some of whom were critically ill. Remedies used included ginger poultices and homeopathic pellets claimed to contain the dust of shooting stars. Stefan Kluge, director of intensive care medicine at Hamburg's University Medical Centre said the claims of anthroposophic doctors during the pandemic were "highly unprofessional" and that they "risk[ed] causing uncertainty among patients". [30]

Mistletoe treatment for cancer

Mistletoe - Steiner said that harvesting it when the planets were aligned would yield a cancer treatment. Mistletoe Berries Uk.jpg
Mistletoe  Steiner said that harvesting it when the planets were aligned would yield a cancer treatment.

Rudolf Steiner conjectured that mistletoe could cure cancer, on the basis of the observation that the plant was a parasite which eventually killed its host, a process which he claimed paralleled the progression of cancer. [2] Steiner believed the plant's medical potential was influenced by the position of the sun, moon and planets and that it therefore was important to harvest the plant at the right time. [31] Some mistletoe preparations are ultra-diluted; others are made from fermented mistletoe. [2] The most commonly used trade names for mistletoe drugs are Iscador and Helixor. [4]

Although laboratory experiments have suggested that mistletoe extract may affect the immune system and be able to kill some kinds of cancer cells, there is little evidence of its benefit to people with cancer. [5] [32] Most of the clinical research claiming that mistletoe therapy is effective is published in Germany, and it is generally considered unreliable because of major lapses in quality. [32] [33] Edzard Ernst wrote that research by anthroposophic doctors often reached positive conclusions on mistletoe therapy because it drew on unreliable material; independent researchers tended instead to find no evidence of benefit. [2] The American Cancer Society says that "available evidence from well-designed clinical trials does not support claims that mistletoe can improve length or quality of life". [4]

Mistletoe-based cancer drugs are widely used in Europe, especially in German-speaking countries. [33] In 2002 nearly half a million prescriptions were paid for by German health insurance and in 2006 there were reportedly around 30 types of mistletoe extract on the market. [2] [33] Mistletoe extracts have been used as an unconventional treatment for cancer patients in the Netherlands, and in Germany the treatment has been approved as palliative therapy to treat the symptoms of patients with malignant tumors. [4] In Sweden, controversially, mistletoe therapy has been approved for use in the treatment of cancer symptoms. [34]

In other countries mistletoe therapy is virtually unknown. [33] The United States Food and Drug Administration has not approved mistletoe-based drugs for any purpose; mistletoe extracts may not be distributed in or imported into the US except for research purposes. [32] As of 2015 no mistletoe-based drugs are licensed for use in the United Kingdom. [35]

A 2013 article on mistletoe in Lancet Oncology invoked Ben Goldacre's observation that a geographical preference for certain therapies was a hallmark of quackery, and proposed that the continuing use of this "apparently ineffectual therapy" in a small cluster of countries was based on sociological rather than medical reasons, indicating a need for a more informed consent from patients. [33]


The risks arising from using anthroposophical medicine as a substitute for evidence-based medicine are exemplified by several cases of low vaccination levels in Waldorf schools, [3] since some anthroposophical doctors oppose immunization. [6] A 1999 study of children in Sweden showed that in Waldorf schools, only 18% had received MMR vaccination, compared to a level of 93% in other schools nationally. [3]

A 2003 report of a widespread measles outbreak around Coburg, Germany, identified a Waldorf school as the origin. [3] At the time the town's mayor had condemned homeopathic doctors who had discouraged vaccination, saying "Their stronghold is the Waldorf School, which actively encourages people not to have their children vaccinated. Now we have an epidemic." [36]

Paul Offit wrote that Steiner believed vaccination "interferes with karmic development and the cycles of reincarnation", and that adherence to this belief led to a 2008 pertussis outbreak in a Californian Waldorf school, causing its temporary closure. [10]

See also

Related Research Articles

Alternative medicine is any practice that aims to achieve the healing effects of medicine despite lacking biological plausibility, testability, repeatability or evidence of effectiveness. Unlike modern medicine, which employs the scientific method to test plausible therapies by way of responsible and ethical clinical trials, producing repeatable evidence of either effect or of no effect, alternative therapies reside outside of medical science and do not originate from using the scientific method, but instead rely on testimonials, anecdotes, religion, tradition, superstition, belief in supernatural "energies", pseudoscience, errors in reasoning, propaganda, fraud, or other unscientific sources. Frequently used terms for relevant practices are New Age medicine, pseudo-medicine, unorthodox medicine, holistic medicine, fringe medicine, and unconventional medicine, with little distinction from quackery.

Anthroposophy is a spiritual new religious movement which was founded in the early 20th century by the esotericist Rudolf Steiner that postulates the existence of an objective, intellectually comprehensible spiritual world, accessible to human experience. Followers of anthroposophy aim to engage in spiritual discovery through a mode of thought independent of sensory experience. While much of anthroposophy is pseudoscientific, proponents claim to present their ideas in a manner that is verifiable by rational discourse and say that they seek precision and clarity comparable to that obtained by scientists investigating the physical world.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Homeopathy</span> Pseudoscientific system of alternative medicine

Homeopathy or homoeopathy is a pseudoscientific system of alternative medicine. It was conceived in 1796 by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann. Its practitioners, called homeopaths or homeopathic physicians, believe that a substance that causes symptoms of a disease in healthy people can cure similar symptoms in sick people; this doctrine is called similia similibus curentur, or "like cures like". Homeopathic preparations are termed remedies and are made using homeopathic dilution. In this process, the selected substance is repeatedly diluted until the final product is chemically indistinguishable from the diluent. Often not even a single molecule of the original substance can be expected to remain in the product. Between each dilution homeopaths may hit and/or shake the product, claiming this makes the diluent "remember" the original substance after its removal. Practitioners claim that such preparations, upon oral intake, can treat or cure disease.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Naturopathy</span> Form of alternative medicine

Naturopathy, or naturopathic medicine, is a form of alternative medicine. A wide array of pseudoscientific practices branded as "natural", "non-invasive", or promoting "self-healing" are employed by its practitioners, who are known as naturopaths. Difficult to generalize, these treatments range from the thoroughly discredited, like homeopathy, to the widely-accepted, like certain forms of psychotherapy. The ideology and methods of naturopathy are based on vitalism and folk medicine rather than evidence-based medicine, although practitioners may use techniques supported by evidence. The ethics of naturopathy have been called into question by medical professionals and its practice has been characterized as quackery.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bach flower remedies</span> Solutions of brandy and water used as a homeopathic remedy

Bach flower remedies (BFRs) are solutions of brandy and water—the water containing extreme dilutions of flower material developed by Edward Bach, an English homeopath, in the 1930s. Bach claimed that the dew found on flower petals retains the supposed healing properties of that plant. Systematic reviews of clinical trials of Bach flower solutions have found no efficacy beyond that of a placebo.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Quackery</span> Promotion of fraudulent or ignorant medical practices

Quackery, often synonymous with health fraud, is the promotion of fraudulent or ignorant medical practices. A quack is a "fraudulent or ignorant pretender to medical skill" or "a person who pretends, professionally or publicly, to have skill, knowledge, qualification or credentials they do not possess; a charlatan or snake oil salesman". The term quack is a clipped form of the archaic term quacksalver, from Dutch: kwakzalver a "hawker of salve". In the Middle Ages the term quack meant "shouting". The quacksalvers sold their wares at markets by shouting to gain attention.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Allopathic medicine</span> Term for science-based, modern medicine

Allopathic medicine, or allopathy, is an archaic and derogatory label originally used by 19th-century homeopaths to describe heroic medicine, the precursor of modern evidence-based medicine. There are regional variations in usage of the term. In the United States, the term is sometimes used to contrast with osteopathic medicine, especially in the field of medical education. In India, the term is used to distinguish conventional modern medicine from Siddha medicine, Ayurveda, homeopathy, Unani and other alternative and traditional medicine traditions, especially when comparing treatments and drugs.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Craniosacral therapy</span> Pseudoscientific alternative medicine technique

Craniosacral therapy (CST) or cranial osteopathy is a form of alternative medicine that uses gentle touch to feel non-existent rhythmic movements of the skull's bones and supposedly adjust the immovable joints of the skull to achieve a therapeutic result. CST is a pseudoscience and its practice has been characterized as quackery. It is based on fundamental misconceptions about the anatomy and physiology of the human skull and is promoted as a cure-all for a variety of health conditions.

Eurythmy is an expressive movement art originated by Rudolf Steiner in conjunction with his wife, Marie, in the early 20th century. Primarily a performance art, it is also used in education, especially in Waldorf schools, and – as part of anthroposophic medicine – for claimed therapeutic purposes.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ita Wegman</span> Dutch physician

Ita Wegman co-founded Anthroposophical Medicine with Rudolf Steiner. In 1921, she founded the first anthroposophical medical clinic in Arlesheim, known until 2014 as the Ita Wegman Clinic. She also developed a special form of massage therapy, called rhythmical massage, and other self-claimed therapeutic treatments.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Edzard Ernst</span> German academic physician and researcher (born 1948)

Edzard Ernst is a retired British-German academic physician and researcher specializing in the study of complementary and alternative medicine. He was Professor of Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter, the world's first such academic position in complementary and alternative medicine.

Hoxsey Therapy or Hoxsey Method is an alternative medical treatment promoted as a cure for cancer. The treatment consists of a caustic herbal paste for external cancers or a herbal mixture for "internal" cancers, combined with laxatives, douches, vitamin supplements, and dietary changes. Reviews by major medical bodies, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, have found no evidence that Hoxsey Therapy is an effective treatment for cancer. The sale or marketing of the Hoxsey Method was banned in the United States by the FDA on September 21, 1960 as a "worthless and discredited" remedy and a form of quackery.

<i>Trick or Treatment?</i> 2008 book by Singh and Ernst

Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial is a 2008 book by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst. The book evaluates the scientific evidence for alternative medicines such as acupuncture, homeopathy, herbal medicine, and chiropractic, and briefly covers 36 other treatments. It finds that the scientific evidence for these alternative treatments is generally lacking. The authors concluded that homeopathy is merely a placebo.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Elisabeth Vreede</span> Dutch scientist

Elisabeth Vreede was a Dutch mathematician, astronomer and anthroposophist.

Rudolf Hauschka was an Austrian chemist, author, inventor, entrepreneur and anthroposophist.

Oskar Schmiedel was a pharmacist, anthroposophist, therapist, Goethean scientist and theosophist.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Weleda</span> Alternative medicine and beauty products company

Weleda is a multinational company that produces both beauty products and naturopathic medicines. Both branches design their products based on anthroposophic principles, an alternative medicine.

The Oasis of Hope Hospital is a clinic in Tijuana, Mexico providing alternative cancer treatments to its customers. The clinic was founded by the physician Ernesto Contreras. After his death in 2003, the management of the hospital was taken over by his son, Francisco Contreras, and nephew, Daniel Kennedy.

The infinitesimally low concentration of homeopathic preparations, which often lack even a single molecule of the diluted substance, has been the basis of questions about the effects of the preparations since the 19th century. Modern advocates of homeopathy have proposed a concept of "water memory", according to which water "remembers" the substances mixed in it, and transmits the effect of those substances when consumed. This concept is inconsistent with the current understanding of matter, and water memory has never been demonstrated to exist, in terms of any detectable effect, biological or otherwise.


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Further reading

Books and journal articles

Lectures by Rudolf Steiner