Richard C. Cabot in his lab, 1914. (Wikimedia Commons)

When Medicine and Metaphysics Got Along

The extraordinary career of scientist Richard C. Cabot is a case study in collaboration — and results

Mitch Horowitz
10 min readMay 23


Amid a wave of medical licensing laws, the early 20th century was not a promising moment for religiously or psychologically oriented approaches to medicine.

Most physicians regarded any form of mind or faith-based methods, even when used as complementary treatments, as smacking of Christian Science, a philosophy they considered cultish and dangerous, a reactive summary judgment.

Protestant churches took a similar view. While Catholicism had long maintained measured faith in healing miracles and shrines, most Protestant seminaries and pulpits saw religious healing as something that had ended with the apostolic era.

Indeed, during the Reformation, Protestant movements often cast aspersions on the healing claims of the Catholic Church, considering talk of medical miracles as nothing more than the church’s attempt to shore up its role as the exclusive organ of God’s word on earth. That attitude more or less prevailed at the start of the 20th century.

A few early-20th century physicians grudgingly used bread pills or sugar remedies to placate hypochondriacal patients, and some doctors recognized the usefulness of hypnosis as an analgesic. But any talk of using mental or faith-based treatments was considered heresy in the medical community.

Richard C. Cabot, a young, Harvard-educated physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, had a different take.

Born in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1868, Cabot, from his earliest years, inhaled the atmosphere of New England Transcendentalism. His father, James, was an intimate friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s, to whom he served as editor, literary executor, and early biographer. The Cabot family attended a liberal Unitarian church, and Richard studied at Harvard under William James and Idealist philosopher Josiah Royce.

William James was already devising the principles of the philosophy known as pragmatism. The heart of James’s pragmatic outlook was that the measure of an idea’s value was its effect on conduct. On this, James was uncompromising. To speak of allegiance to one creed or…



Mitch Horowitz

"Treats esoteric ideas & movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness"-Washington Post | PEN Award-winning historian | Censored in China