Homeopathy: History from Germany to the USA

Homeopathy: History from Germany to the USA

Thomas Carlyle wrote that "history is only the biography of great men". If it is true that great people are not formed by the times they live in, that it is the times that are formed by the great people, Samuel Hahnemann, M.D., must rank among the truly great men of medicine. He stands with the ancients, Hippocrates, Galen, and Paracelsus, and in more recent times with Andreas Vesalius, Ambroise Paré, William Harvey, René Laennec, Ignaz Semmelweis, Joseph Lister, John Hunter, and others.

Dr. Hahnemann -- Scientist and Experimenter

Dr. Hahnemann was born in Meisen, Germany, in 1755 and died at the age of 88 in Paris. His brilliance as a child was evident, as he learned Greek and Latin by age 12. By age 24, he also knew Hebrew, English, and French, and had graduated from medical school in Vienna. Within a few years, he left the practice of medicine to be a writer and translator of medical texts into German. It is said that he did this because of his disillusionment with the therapies of his time. With the translation of the text Treatise of the Materia Medica by the Scottish physician William Cullen, M.D. (who was a professor at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, and a professor of medicine at the University of Edinburgh, also in Scotland), the history of modern medicine was changed. The year was 1790.

Cinchona Bark, Source of Quinine

Dr. Cullen spent 16 pages of his text describing the nature of the cinchona bark, the source of quinine. It was known that the bark could treat malaria, but no one knew how. Dr. Cullen thought he knew: it was the bitterness and astringent qualities of the bark that confronted the fever and malaise of malaria. Dr. Hahnemann could not accept this explanation. Having already studied and translated other texts, he knew that there were many drugs even more bitter and more astringent that were useless against malaria. Dr. Hahnemann's own Materia Medica eventually became a standard text in German medical schools. (In the Treatise Dr. Cullen wrote: "I consider the Peruvian bark to be [a] substance in which the qualities of bitter and astringent are combined... As we have before shown that these qualities in their separate state give tonic medicines, so it will be readily allowed that, conjoined together, they may give one still more powerful."

Birth of Modern Medical Experimentation

Dr. Hahnemann, the physician and translator, thus became the scientist and experimenter. Modern medical experimentation begins here. His method is simple:

Dr. Hahnemann now asked: "What will happen if...?" As quinine was widely used with success to treat malaria-infected patients, he knew that the bark was nontoxic in small doses, so his first experiment was to ingest it. Following that one dose, about a teaspoonful of bark, Dr. Hahnemann began to develop the symptoms of malaria -- the chills, the malaise, the terrible headaches. Because he knew he did not have the disease, he wondered what had happened to his body.

Hipprocrates: What Cures Disease Will Also Cause It

He consulted Hippocrates for the answer. Hippocrates had written some 22 centuries earlier that what cures a condition will also cause it. The Greek word pharmakon means both "medicine" and "poison". This was the answer Dr. Hahnemann was seeking. "Like cures like." The substance that causes symptoms in a healthy person will treat those same symptoms in an unhealthy person. Dr. Hahnemann, in rediscovering an old principle, founded a new medical discipline: homeopathy.

In this discipline, Dr. Hahnemann proposed remedies, free from all harmful effects, as agents of cure. He offered objectivity, simplicity, originality, and independence in an era of medical arrogance.

Mixed U.S. Reception for Homeopathy

When homeopathy was first introduced into America, it was the period of Jacksonian democracy. From 1824 onward, America entered an era of distrust of not only the wealthy but of any elite well-educated group. There was no state licensing of physicians or medical schools. Between 1830 and 1840, the number of such schools doubled. The medical education of the time consisted, at best, of 16 weeks of lectures with little, if any, clinical work. With only very few drugs available and only the barest of an education, almost anyone could become a doctor, and almost anyone did.

It seemed an auspicious time for homeopathy, and it was. It was safe, it was effective, it was inexpensive (as it still is today). It was also packaged in kits for the isolated farmers to use. Within the cities, it was the most educated physicians who began to use the new homeopathic remedies, and the wealthiest patients who began to ask for them.

AMA vs. The Homeopathic Association

In 1832, when homeopathy was no financial threat, the New York County Medical Society made Dr. Hahnemann an honorary member. Fifteen years later, that honor was rescinded. At that time, the American Medical Association (AMA) had just been formed in response to the Homeopathic Association. In 1846, the AMA declared that homeopathy "would destroy the science of medicine". But homeopathy prospered.

By 1860, there were more than 2400 homeopaths in the country, and by 1900, 11,000. This represented almost 15 percent of all physicians. There were 22 medical schools and 100 hospitals. In England, acceptance was almost universal because of the endorsement of the British Royal Family. From the 1830s onward, they had used homeopathic physicians exclusively, and even today, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles never travel without their personal homeopathic kits.

Homeopathy: Success or Placebo?

As the number of homeopaths increased, so did the animosity of the "regulars". Physicians accused the homeopaths of success only from the placebo effect. "Imagination," they called it. If that was so, said the homeopaths, then go and do the same. Of course, as the homeopaths cured babies and infants who knew nothing of placebos, the physicians had no reply, and because the homeopath's remedies were gentle and apparently safe, the mothers of America called on them in increasing numbers to treat the ills of their children.

The true source of the conflict between the two disciplines, however, had nothing to do with the effectiveness of the therapy. In fact, in 1842, Oliver Wendell Holmes, M.D., Professor of Medicine at Harvard University, said, "cures meant little. The truth of medical doctrine has nothing to do with cures." The professional relationship that started amicably had deteriorated within 25 years to name calling and insults entirely as a result of competition. The regular physicians were losing business to the homeopaths.

Homeopathic Consultations Illegal in 1855

By 1855, the AMA had an anti-consultation clause in its charter. This meant that any contact, professional or otherwise, with a homeopath would result in loss of state and county membership, which could also mean loss of license. In 1878, a physician in New London, Connecticut, actually did lose his license. The homeopath he met with and spoke to was his wife. It is interesting to note that although female physicians were well accepted in homeopathic circles at that time, the AMA did not admit women until 1916.

In New York State, homeopaths fared slightly better. A law was passed in 1827 that permitted physicians to sue for nonpayment of bills but did not allow homeopaths to do the same. This law was finally reversed in 1844. In 1871, a New York Times editorial noted this bitter conflict and sided with the homeopaths, saying with no lack of sarcasm, "better the patient should die under the old remedies, than recover under the new".

Homeopathy Today

Today, homeopathy is widely accepted in most Western or industrialized countries except the United States. In France, some 25 percent of all pharmacies are homeopathic. In England, half of all physicians either use or recommend homeopathy. In India, it is taught in almost all medical and pharmacy schools. If the reason for opposition in the 19th century was competition, what is the reason today when homeopathy holds but the smallest portion of therapy? The answer I think can be found in a quote from Leo Tolstoy. He, of course, was not thinking of the AMA or the Food and Drug Administration when he wrote this, but the sentiments would fit.

I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.

Related book

Homeopathy Made Simple: A Quick Reference Guide
by R. Donald Papon

Homeopathy Made Simple Papon, a practicing homeopath, clearly demystifies the contents of the "homeopathic household kit." Following a chapter on FAQs, remedies are arranged by area of the body; there are also sections on fever, male and female disorders, mental states, and sleep disorders. A handy primer.

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About The Author

HERBERT ROTHOUSE, R.PH., M.S., lives in Boca Raton, Florida, USA, where he is a practicing pharmacist and a licensed nutritionist. This article was first published in the August 1999 issue of The American Druggist in response to letters to the editor in their May 1999 issue that were critical of homeopathy.

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