Phineas Parkhurst Quimby: The Mind Can Heal the Body

The Quimby mss.
Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802-1866) delved into metaphysics and psychology to underscore his belief that the body was simply a vessel for the five senses and the faculties of the human mind. Phineas Parkhurst Quimby Resource Center

Science, religion and medicine have intermingled (and sometimes clashed) in fascinating ways throughout the course of human history. And one little-remembered, controversial American figure symbolizes this clash better than most: Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, whose writings, unpublished during his time, provided the underpinnings for the New Thought movement, which is based on the idea that the spirit is more powerful and real than matter and the mind has the ability to heal the body.

Reverend Lux Newman is a clinical hypnotherapist who edited and published "The Complete Collected Works of Dr. Phineas Parkhurst Quimby" in 2013. She describes his work as essentially a sort of 19th-century precursor to the modern field of psychology.


"He called himself a physician. I would also say that he was a psychologist. Because he studied the mind...he talked about things that were very peculiar that had nothing to do with his day and time. Like chemical changes taking place in the brain. This is over 150 years ago. He was observing the placebo effect and many other things that would be under the realm of psychology," said Newman.

Quimby (also known as PPQ for short or "Dr. Quimby" to his patients) was born in 1802 in New Hampshire. As an adult, he built clocks and watches, but his true vocation would come in the form of his work in the realm of healing. Quimby possessed no formal institutional training in medicine and was often skeptical of the prowess of doctors who did. The following quote is an excerpt from the Quimby manuscripts, which were a collection of Quimby's key writings and articles, edited and published by his disciple Horatio W. Dresser decades after Quimby's death:

Thus man is a mere lump of clay in the hands of blind guides and whatever they say to the people they believe. Their beliefs disturb their minds and the doctors sow the seed of disease which they nurse till it grows to a belief, then comes the misery.


Disdain for Medical Doctors

Quimby's mistrust of doctors grew out of personal experience. Quimby himself was once deathly ill (he probably had tuberculosis) and was diagnosed as a hopeless cause by a medical doctor. Quimby had all but given up on life, but found his life force renewed by a vigorous horseback ride. This experience set off Quimby's lifelong disdain for the medical profession and his passionate exploration of the human mind, which started with studies of animal magnetism — which pertains to mysterious forces said to influence individuals, including hypnosis — and expanded over time to using his psychological understanding to diagnoses diseases of the mind. Newman notes that Quimby's teachings were radical for the time, because although he acknowledged Jesus in his field of work, he disavowed all major religions and disputed belief in the power of God as a means of curing individuals.

"He opposed all religions. These are just beliefs and opinions. And he said you should never trust somebody else's belief or opinion. It isn't the truth. It's just a belief. You can't prove it. He believed in science. He called science 'wisdom,'" said Newman. "He believed that there was a method of science that could be used for healing. He called it thought and reasoning. He didn't cure people by any special means or power."


Keith McNeil, author of the academic study, "A Story Untold: A History of the Quimby-Eddy Debate," cites a passage from one of Quimby's flyers to lay out how the treatment method worked in practice:

"PPQ simply sits down by the patients, tells them their feelings and what they think is their disease. If the patients admit that he tells them their feelings, &c., then his explanation is the cure; and, if he succeeds in correcting their error, he changes the fluids of the system and establishes the truth, or health. The Truth is the Cure. This mode of practise applies to all cases. If no explanation is given, no charge is made, for no effect is produced."

So, essentially, Quimby listened to patients explain their ailments, and if there was a mental source contributing to their disease — say, anxiety — Quimby would then diagnose and explain that phenomenon in a way the patient could understand. He called these diagnoses "the truth." His research delved into metaphysics, underscoring how the body was just a vessel for the five senses and the faculties of the human mind, according to Newman.


The Mind-Body Connection

McNeil further explains that "PPQ believed that the human mind could create material conditions such as disease, so that it was necessary to change the human mind to create a healing condition."

Mary Baker Eddy
Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910)
H. G. Smith/Wikimedia Commons

However, Newman maintains that Quimby did not believe that all diseases stem from the mind, unlike one of his disciples, Mary Baker Eddy, who eventually founded the Christian Science religious denomination that focused on spiritual healing and divine connection to God.


"You can't cure some diseases just by the power of your mind like Mary Baker Eddy claimed. This is ridiculous. It puts people responsible for their own diseases when some of them are definitely not their fault. Some can be. And those would be the ones where the explanation would be the cure. Otherwise, they'd better get to a doctor," says Newman.

In an age when it feels like everyone has a therapist on hold, Quimby's approach to healing may not seem like anything visionary, but it was an unorthodox method for the time. However, despite Quimby's spurning of organized religion, he did imbue his course of treatment with some spiritual inklings and reference to Jesus. McNeil describes the unique way that Quimby blended these different worlds.

"He was not a religious leader, but he knew the Bible and tried to bring his philosophical and metaphysical views together with religious themes. (It was customary for non-medical healers, mesmerists, faith healers, etc. to liken their methods to Jesus.)"

Several of Quimby's teachings were published posthumously by the aforementioned Dresser, though there is some dispute over whether these were actually Quimby's writings, considering that, you know, he had been dead for several decades by the time the manuscripts saw the light of day. Some scholars like McNeil believe that the main text is indeed the work of Quimby, but that Dresser edited the articles in such a way as to present a somewhat biased view of Quimby.


The New Thought Movement

Newman believes the teachings are Quimby's but found out that several of Quimby's documents and journals had not been published in Dresser's version of Quimby's manuscripts, so she took it upon herself to research and publish her own edited book with Quimby's writings in full. Today, Quimby is perhaps most famously known for inspiring the mind-healing philosophy of the New Thought spiritual movement, though Newman disputes the idea that Quimby significantly influenced the religious group's modern-day teachings.

During his life, Quimby acquired thousands of fervent patients and disciples, including Eddy. Eddy was quite sick at the time, and no doctors had been able to successfully cure whatever plagued her. Eddy's husband wrote to Quimby, and the couple joined the innovative thinker in Maine. There, Eddy received treatment from Quimby and observed his unique methodology.


Although Eddy was by all accounts loyal to Quimby during his lifetime, critics of Eddy accused her of essentially taking Quimby's works to form the tenets of Christian Science after his death. This led Eddy to ardently assert the independence of Christian Science from Quimby. Newman, too, argues that the lessons of Christian Science are fundamentally different from Quimby's beliefs, stating that the "Dressers went after [Eddy] with a vengeance."

"She made a whole movement of her own, really, from what I've read. I could find nothing [similar]...If Quimby would have been alive, I'm sure he would have stepped up and protected Mary Baker Eddy. That it was all nonsense. If those Dressers had wanted to start a movement, they should have started it themselves. Not going after Mary Baker Eddy because she was once a client of Quimby's."

However, while McNeil stresses that although there were significant differences between the philosophies of Eddy and Quimby, there were also similarities:

"Both promote a non-medical methodology for healing, both based on the belief that the medical profession was wrong in its methodology. Christian Science is based on the belief that all is spiritual in reality thus seeming material conditions are ultimately not real, like the night dream seems real but is not real," says McNeil. "Christian Science is a theological whole. PPQ believed in an alternate reality ultimately but his healing methodology was, as noted by many, far more materialistic than his followers wished to admit."

So, why should we care about Quimby and his manuscripts nowadays? Well, some scholars have asserted that the rising popularity of New Age and non-traditional spiritual movements at the turn of the 21st century has been remarkably similar to the mind healing, spiritual science, New Thought and Christian Science movements that cropped up at the turn of the 19th century. So although Quimby's mortal body died long ago, he lives on — in a sense — through the teachings of the those who were inspired by him. And so does Mary Baker Eddy.