Healing In Small Doses: The Origin of Homeopathy

The origins of homeopathy lie in both a mistrust of "modern" medicine and the empirical evidence of a few men and women.

| March 2014

  • Important to understanding the origin of homeopathy is the law of similars, an early concept which entailed treating sickness with small doses of itself.
    Photo by Fotolia/marilyn barbone
  • "Marketplace of the Marvelous" from Erika Janik tells the story of eccentric "quacks" who somehow managed to shape our modern understanding of medicine and wellness.
    Cover courtesy Beacon Press

Marketplace of the Marvelous (Beacon Press, 2013) illustrates a fascinating period in America's history, when many would-be patients fled from the induced vomiting and "medicinal" bleedings to a plethora of burgeoning practices that promised new ways to cure their ills. Author Erika Janik offers an entertaining introduction to the "quacks, snake-oil salesman, and charlatan" that arose in such a cultural climate as this. While many of the fads were defrauded, some of those notions still exist in our accepted medical curricula. The following is excerpted from the fourth chapter, "Dilutions of Health," and traces the origins of homeopathy.

For Elizabeth Cady Stanton, homeopathy felt like nothing less than liberation. Even better: this freedom could be purchased through the mail. “Dear me, how much cruel bondage of mind and suffering of body poor woman will escape,” wrote Stanton to her friend and fellow women’s rights advocate Lucretia Mott, “when she takes the liberty of being her own physician of both body and soul.” Stanton had first heard about homeopathy from her brother-in-law Edward Bayard in the 1830s. Diagnosed with heart disease, Bayard had received a discouraging prognosis from his New York City doctor. Dismayed by the news, Bayard tried homeopathy at the urging of his wife. Bayard’s recovery under the care of homeopath Augustus P. Biegler, using concoctions of diluted drug treatments, so astonished Bayard that he gave up his law practice to devote himself to the study of homeopathy.

Bayard’s miraculous turnaround also convinced Stanton to give homeopathy a try. “I have seen wonders in Homeopathy,” she reported to her cousin Elizabeth Smith (she of hydropathic wet-dress fame), and “I intend to commence life on Homeopathic principles.” She purchased a home homeopathy kit and began doctoring her family, friends, and neighbors in Seneca Falls, New York. Stanton found taking charge of her health incredibly powerful, and she expressed great pride in her self-reliance. She nursed her children through malaria, whooping cough, mumps, and broken limbs with homeopathic therapies. She described the 1852 homeopathic birth of her daughter as an “easy” fifteen-minute labor with a quick recovery. Practicing do-it-yourself homeopathy, Stanton joined the tens of thousands of lay practitioners who, along with formally trained homeopaths, made homeopathy a real and formidable contender to radically reform the practice of medicine.

Despite its egalitarian leanings, homeopathy did not share the populist origins of Thomsonism and hydropathy. Instead, like phrenology, the origin of homeopathy began with a regular doctor. Homeopathy developed from the experimental pharmacology of disillusioned German physician and scholar Samuel Christian Frederick Hahnemann. Born in Meissen, Germany, in 1755, Hahnemann exhibited a remarkable aptitude for languages from a young age, mastering eight foreign tongues by the age of twenty-four. He used his language skills to finance his medical education in Leipzig, Vienna, and Erlangen, teaching German and French and translating medical, historical, and philosophical works. But by the time of his graduation from the University of Erlangen in 1779, Hahnemann had begun to question the effectiveness of the existing medical system. The medicine he had learned seemed to lack the scientific rigor found in other fields, founded more on superstition than reason. A doctor trying to find a cure for intermittent fever, explained Hahnemann, would logically “turn his attention solely to learn what medicines the experience of bygone ages has discovered.” He searches “and to his amazement discovers that an immense number of medicines have been celebrated in intermittent fever. Where is he to begin? Which medicine is he to give first; which next, and which last? He looks round for aid, but no directing angel appears.” And even if one remedy did emerge as the clear favorite, Hahnemann complained that the same prescription sent to ten pharmacies resulted in ten different preparations. So the doctor “must hope for the best, and trust to good luck!” He examined common medical treatments for arsenic poisoning and psychiatric disorders and found them far from adequate. Contemporary medicine, declared an exasperated Hahnemann, was far too uncertain to be scientific, “founded upon perhapses and blind chance” rather than anything demonstrably provable. Hahnemann became so appalled by the practice of medicine that he abandoned it completely in 1782 and turned to writing and translating scientific texts full-time. He also studied botany, pharmacology, and chemistry, searching for the answers that regular medicine had failed to provide him.

One book seemed to offer a possibility. While translating Scottish physician William Cullen’s A Treatise on the Materia Medica into German in 1790, Hahnemann became intrigued by Cullen’s explanation of how cinchona bark healed malaria. The dried bark of a South American tree, cinchona contained quinine and had been used in Europe since the sixteenth century. It also had the rare distinction of being one of few drugs in common usage with an unquestioned and demonstrative therapeutic value. Cullen claimed that cinchona also strengthened the digestive system, but Hahnemann’s own experiences taking cinchona had left him nauseated and sick. Skeptical of Cullen’s claim and curious by nature, Hahnemann decided to experiment on himself. Hahnemann hoped his experiments might provide a scientific and rational explanation for how and why this particular drug worked for malaria, which he believed regular medicine sorely lacked.

For several days, Hahnemann ingested large doses of cinchona, taking careful note of its effects on his stomach. The cinchona left him feeling chilled, feverish, weak, and without appetite. He reported that his “feet, finger ends, etc., at first became cold. I grew languid and drowsy; then my heart began to palpitate and my pulse grew hard and small, intolerable anxiety, trembling (but without cold rigour), prostration through all my limbs.” The once healthy Hahnemann now appeared to have all the symptoms of malaria. When he stopped his daily dose, the symptoms disappeared. His observations soon led him to conclude that “substances which excite a kind of fever . . . extinguish the types of intermittent fever.” Cure a fever with a fever, or like cures like. This epiphany led Hahnemann to articulate what he called the law of similars, or Similia similibus curantur. It became the first law of his new system, one that he and later his followers hoped would revolutionize medicine.

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