By Tutti Gould ND
Who would have believed in the 1970's that the future of naturopathy and homeopathy could seriously rest on the shoulders of a bunch of long haired hippies? That they would rise to the challenge and give back to the professions the credibility they deserved? Dr. Stephen Messer was a part of that movement and today is carrying the torch of that legacy, preparing the next generation of practitioners, so that the "dark ages" of naturopathy remain as history.
Dr. Messer did not always know that he wanted to be a naturopath. He gathered different skills that may have seemed unrelated at the time, but which, in retrospect, were all part of the grand scheme of his life's mission. He first studied physics and biology, then English literature, and finally got a teaching degree and was teaching middle school science for a few years, before completing a Masters in Education. When the ground work was done is when the epiphany came. "I woke up one night knowing that I should be a naturopathic doctor, even though I didn't know what naturopathy was," he says. He had read a letter in Prevention Magazine mentioning naturopathic medicine six months earlier. He investigated further and found the only Naturopathic school at the time, the National College of Naturopathic Medicine (NCNM). "So I applied and was accepted and started the next September," says the 57-year-old.
The profession was in jeopardy at the time. Thanks to pioneers like John Bastyr, John Noble, Joseph Boucher, and the different specialty teachers Bill Mitchell, Cathy Rogers and Jeff Bland, a school was established in Seattle , with only three or four students at first. But the teachers were dedicated, and the students were keen, so somehow it kept going. In 1973, they decided to make a bigger school, and the next year 40 hippies showed up. "They had long hair and wanted to be naturopaths even though they didn't quite know what that meant at the time. Oh my god, they never saw anything like it," Dr. Messer recalls. Dr. Messer started his program in 1975. He remembers how hard the teachers worked. "They were busy with full time practices and volunteering their time, none of them made a penny out of what they were doing. It was quite remarkable; lots of compassion, commitment, and sacrifice. They'd drive 5 hours round-trip to teach a bunch of scruffy hippy students. We owe them a huge debt because it wouldn't have happened otherwise,"
It was the beginning of naturopathy in the US as we know it now. "They were re-building a profession," Dr. Messer says. To give context, he explains that people at the time did not even know what Echinacea was. "The average age of naturopaths was mid to late 70's, and it was going up! It was the end of a terrible time for naturopaths...we lost two generations. There were classes of three people part-time; it was like the profession was going to die. And then something happened in the world...and all these people came." He explains that naturopathy looks like a huge profession now, with 4000 or 5000 practitioners in the country. "At the American Association of Naturopathic Medicine (AANP) conference there were 1000 attendees, you'd think it was always that way, but it wasn't that way at all," Messer says. "I have a picture on my bulletin board of the first AANP meeting, and there were 40 of us; and I knew everyone of them!"
A few months into his program he learned about homeopathy. "As soon as I encountered homeopathy I knew that that was what I wanted to do," he says. "I absolutely understood it, and there was never any doubt, absolutely zero...I was hooked for life."
After graduating in 1979, he opened a private practice in Eugene, Oregon, where he worked for 21 years. It seems he was quite effective, as he had a 90% success rate with his patients. In 2000, the offer to teach and be Chair of Homeopathy at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine (SCNM) seemed irresistible. After much debate, his family moved to Arizona, where they have been for eight years. "I felt compelled to teach," he says. Not only is he teaching, but he is revolutionizing the way of teaching homeopathy, with a very effective and unique curriculum combining theory and clinical practice. He explains that mere lectures are almost useless on their own in homeopathy, that even after studying a subject deeply, it is untranslatable in a different context. He likens it to the impossibility of learning to swim by reading a book on swimming. "You have to get in there, make your own mistakes and then be corrected by a mentor or teacher," he says. "And you have to do that over and over, and as you do that you grow, and learn more and more different skills." The students do clinical rotation in the Southwest Naturopathic Medical Center, and the homeopathy students are on-call if patients have questions or emergencies. It is generally estimated that only 10% of students graduating from homeopathy programs around the country continue practicing after the first year. But SCNM has totally different statistics. Messer estimates that 85% of homeopathy graduates are still practicing homeopathy, and not only surviving, but thriving.
Although he is happy about this outcome, he sees that the profession of homeopathy as a whole is not at its best right now. "I am an old fashioned homeopath, and all I see are ineffective practitioners being taught ineffective methods in ineffective ways," he says. "The remedies work, sales in the retail stores are doing well, going up, but the number of practitioners is going down, down, down." He says the homeopathic pharmacies are doing fine, but they are not selling to practitioners, they are selling remedies like Arnica and Teething tablets to lay people who may not even know these are homeopathic, or even what the term means.
The dwindling number of homeopaths makes his work all the more important, something like what his own teachers did for him, the mission of rescuing a craft that is so precious, yet difficult to teach. He says that a good teacher needs to first be a good homeopath. But being an effective homeopath does not make someone a good teacher; the teaching aspect is also an art. This is what makes Messer so unique: his science background, his teaching experience and willingness to explore different educational methods, and his passion and deep knowledge of homeopathy. And last but not least, the environment where the students are learning needs to be supportive. What can happen in naturopathic schools that are teaching different modalities is that internal conflict sometimes develops leaving students dispirited and confused. Luckily, Dr. Messer feels that the whole department and staff at SCNM are supportive, and that is very valuable for students with an interest in homeopathy.
Dr. Messer has broad vision for how homeopathy can be integrated into the mainstream medical system. "My dream is to see our ND's treating surgical patients with Arnica or whatever the appropriate remedies after surgery, going into the ER and helping people with panic attacks with Aconite or Gelsemium, integrating into community health clinics, becoming very mainstream so that many people can benefit from homeopathy." With the incredible work that he and the other teachers are doing at SCNM, the likelihood of that happening seems tangible. Having come from the olden days of scruffy hippies to a polished effective curriculum in one generation, anything is possible!
With thanks to copy editor Michelle Decary