Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), a 19th century German physician and chemist, developed homeopathy, a form of medicine that uses minute doses of herbs and other substances to promote healing.
Appalled by the barbaric and violent medical practices of the time and concerned for the health of his growing family, Hahnemann spent years conducting experiments to study the healing properties of various materials. He believed that small doses of natural drugs could provoke symptoms of the diseases they sought to cure, prompting the body's own immune system to heal itself. The practice of homeopathy grew from this theory, based on Hahnemann's thesis that "like cures like." The doctor devoted his life to homeopathy, conducting endless tests, promoting his theories, and battling detractors. Homeopathy flourished around the world. Its popularity peaked in the United States in the early 1900s, then suffered a sharp decline due to protests from proponents of modern medicine, although it has remained immensely popular in many parts of the world, including India and Europe.
Fascinated by Science
Christian Friedrich Samuel Hahnemann was born April 11, 1755, in Meissen, Upper Saxony, Germany, to Johanna Christiana (Speiss) and Christian Gottfried Hahnemann. His father worked as a painter, decorating porcelain. As a child, Hahnemann studied Latin, Greek, Hebrew, history, physics, botany, and medical science, taken under the wing of teachers who recognized his academic gifts. His father, who disdained formal education, would often withdraw his son for what he called "thinking lessons," but Hahnemann persisted, drawn to the study of medicine. At age 20, he enrolled in the University of Leipzig, where he supported himself by tutoring and by translating books. After two years, Hahnemann moved to Vienna to study at a Catholic hospital. In 1779, Hahnemann received his doctor of medicine degree from the University of Erlangen.
Still fascinated with science, especially chemistry, Hahnemann further immersed himself in the study of pharmacy after his move to Dessau in 1781. There, he met Johanna Henrietta Leopoldina Kuchler. The two were married December 1, 1782, and settled in Gommern, where they welcomed the first of 11 children in 1783. The next year, Hahnemann published his first medical work.
Dissatisfied with Treatments of the Day
As the protective father of many children facing a host of diseases and illnesses, Hahnemann became increasingly uncomfortable with the medical techniques of the day, later dubbed the "Age of Heroic Medicine." Lack of medical knowledge coupled with a belief in evil spirits and curses led well-meaning physicians to prescribe such treatments as blood letting, in which doctors would remove nearly all of patients' blood. Another popular treatment was blistering, an attempt to draw toxins out of the body through the application of hot substances. Doctors also dispensed huge doses of drugs including mercury, arsenic, opium, and alcohol, often trying to induce vomiting and emptying of the bowels. "Massive doses of calomel," noted a writer for FDA Consumer, "not only cleaned the bowels, they also caused teeth to loosen, hair to fall out, and other symptoms of acute mercury poisoning. Such 'heroic' therapy often prolonged the illness, if it did not kill the patient outright." In the United States, George Washington died in 1799 after being treated for sore throat. His therapies included bloodletting and blistering with cantharides, a concoction made from dried beetles.
Hahnemann recognized the fallacy of such treatments, and instead encouraged his own patients to seek exercise, healthy food, and fresh air. Eventually, he became so disen-chanted with medicine and his inability to effectively treat disease that he quit his job and moved to Dresden. There he spent five years studying chemistry and working on translations of scientific texts and other books into German. Working on his own experiments, Hahnemann began to make important discoveries while gaining eminence for his own publications.
Like Cures Like
While translating William Cullen's Lectures on the Materia medica into German, Hahnemann began to doubt Cullen's theory about Cinchona bark, a Peruvian plant that is now the basis of the malaria cure quinine, so he launched his own experiments, using himself as a guinea pig. Taking large doses of the substance, Hahnemann developed the fever, chills, thirst, and throbbing headache that characterize malaria. This experience convinced Hahnemann that small doses of the same substance would prompt the body's own immune system to fight off the disease, in much the same way a flu shot carrying deactivated germs wards off the flu. This became Hahnemann's famous maxim, like cures like, or the Law of Similars.
For years, Hahnemann enlisted his family for experiments that involved inducing various symptoms, testing out more than 2,000 substances ranging from herbs to snake venom, and carefully recording the results. Finally, he began to apply his remedies to actual sick people, administering concoctions he hoped would mimic the symptoms already being exhibited by the patient. At first, Hahnemann noticed that his patients actually became sicker from his substances. This prompted him to dilute his medicines into smaller and smaller doses to find the tiniest possible portion that would still trigger the body's response. To his own surprise, Hahnemann discovered that the more diluted remedies were actually more effective at treating diseases. This became his Law of Infinitesimals, which holds that even though none of the original molecules may remain in a particular dilution, the vital forces, or healing power, of the substance remains.
Hahnemann's remedies were created systematically, in a process that included placing one drop of the substance in 99 drops of water or alcohol, then shaking the container vigorously, and repeating the process several times. In theory, after several dilutions, not a single drop of the original substance was left. However, scientists in the 1970s used a nuclear magnetic resonance machine to prove that "even though there is no substance left in most homeopathic remedies, their footprint remained in the alcohol/water that the substance was diluted in," wrote homeopathic physician and M.D. Jeffrey Migdow in New Visions Online.
Assisted by his four grown daughters, Hahnemann conducted hundreds of experiments, or provings, which he collected in his landmark 1810 book Organon der Rationellen Heilkunde, or Organon of Rational Healing. The book, which explains every one of Hahnemann's discoveries and experiments, is widely considered Hahnemann's most important work. In it, he dubs his practice homeopathy, from the Greek words homoio, or similar, and pathos, disease or sickness. Hahnemann called other medical practitioners "allopaths."
The publication of Hahnemann's Organon resulted in immediate controversy, even though homeopathy was used successfully to battle a number of disease epidemics. "He was attacked in medical journals of the day, [and] books and pamphlets were fulminated against him and his strange doctrines," wrote Dr. Sumit Goel in Life and Works of Samuel Hahnemann at HomeopathyHome.com. "He was called a charlatan, a quack, an ignoramus. His minute doses were declared to be impossible. The books and pamphlets written against homeopathy may be numbered by hundreds."
Pharmacists opposed Hahnemann because he prepared his own remedies, bypassing apothecaries. As a result he was run out of several towns and nearly forced to quit practicing by apothecaries who banded together and complained to authorities that Hahnemann was infringing on their business. In 1821, Hahnemann was saved by the Grand Duke Frederick of Anhalt-Coethen, a staunch homeopathy believer, who invited Hahnemann to live under his protection and practice freely.
Despite the controversy, homeopathy flourished, and developed a strong following that included many prominent people, like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Daniel Webster, Louisa May Alcott, James Garfield and John D. Rockefeller. Hahnemann lectured widely and in 1828 published another groundbreaking work, Chronic Diseases: Their Nature and Homeopathic Treatment.
In 1830, at the age of 66, Hahnemann's wife, Johanna, died. A year later, Hahnemann's long-time protector and patron, Grand Duke Frederick, also died. Hahnemann remained in Coethen, lecturing, writing, and receiving students. One of these students was a 35-year-old French woman by the name of Marie Melanie d'Hervilly, whom Hahnemann married in 1835. At the request of his new wife, Hahnemann moved to Paris, where he intended to retire.
Hahnemann, however, was too well-known and his knowledge of homeopathy too in demand. Within a few years, Hahnemann had a larger practice than ever, and students visited from around the world. He spent the last several years of his life visiting patients, lecturing, and revising a sixth edition of his Organon, all the while battling a chronic lung infection that reoccurred each spring. He died July 2, 1843, at the age of 90.
Homeopathy Spreads to the United States
Homeopathy flourished in the United States after Hahnemann's death. Philadelphia's Homeopathic Medical College was opened in 1848, founded by Dr. Constance Hering, a medical doctor whose original exposure to homeopathy was through experiments he designed to disprove it, wrote Migdow in New Visions Online. Hering contracted a serious infection in a laboratory accident. Instead of amputating his hand, which was the typical treatment of the day, "he opted to take a homeopathic trauma remedy, and within a few weeks his hand had healed. He subsequently became a firm believer and helped homeopathy grow quickly in the United States." In 1884, the school merged with the Homeopathic Hospital of Pennsylvania under the name of Hahnemann Medical College and Hospital.
By 1900, America was home to 111 homeopathic hospitals, and 22 homeopathic medical schools, and 1,000 homeopathic pharmacies, Migdow wrote, noting that a quarter of urban physicians practiced the art, and nearly half of the population sought its care.
Just like in Europe, however, non-homeopathic medical practitioners opposed homeopathy, for both scientific and economic reasons. "From the 1860s until after the turn of the century," advised the Family Guide, "medical groups attempted to expel any physician who practiced homeopathy or who even consulted with a homeopath about the care of a patient." Eventually the American Medical Association issued a report ordering all accredited medical schools to be modeled after the conventional Johns Hopkins University. "Thus," Migdow wrote, "homeopathic schools went unfunded and soon bankrupt." The number of American homeopathic medical schools dwindled to two in 1923. None survive today.
Decline and Rebirth of Homeopathy
Homeopathy suffered further decline after barbaric practices like bloodletting went out of fashion and new drugs like penicillin and antibiotics gained prominence. Still, "the National Center of Homeopathy carried on, getting all the remedies FDA approval in the late 30s," Migdow wrote. "The remedies were continually made by homeopathic pharmacies and when homeopathy resurfaced in the 60s the remedies were ready and waiting!" Homeopathic remedies are still largely unproven and unexplained by conventional science, although Pelletier notes that "for many commonly prescribed allopathic drugs, including aspirin and some antibiotics, the mechanism of action remains equally unknown."
The 1960s spawned a growing back-to-the-land movement that sparked new interest in alternative medicine, including homeopathy. By the 1990s, the alternative medicine movement had grown to the point that even the American Medical Association was forced to recognize it. A 1998 article in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, called homeopathy "another tool in the bag," acknowledging its prevalence. "In a sense, part of homeopathy's popularity may be due to this patient-centered view of illness, where the key to resolving health issues lies in understanding and treating all symptoms, not just those that fit the textbook description of a specific disease."
The practice remains widely accepted around the world, especially in India, Latin America, and Europe. The United Kingdom boasts five homeopathic hospitals, where homeopathy is covered under the National Health Service, wrote Dr. Kenneth R. Pelletier in The Best Alternative Medicine. France is home to eight schools offering advanced homeopathy degrees, and nearly all French and German pharmacies, Pelletier reported, "carry homeopathic medicine along with conventional medicines." In India, there are more than 100 homeopathic medical colleges and more than 100,000 homeopathic physicians.
Homeopathy has been found to be especially helpful for treating chronic illness, including allergies, headaches, arthritis, colitis, asthma, peptic ulcer, high blood pressure, and obesity. It can also help remedy colds and rashes. Many health food stores offer homeopathic first aid kits designed to treat basic injuries, like stings, sprains, cuts and bruises.
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Pelletier, Kenneth, The Best Alternative Medicine: What Works? What Does Not?, Simon and Schuster, 2000.
FDA Consumer, March, 1985, p. 33.
The Independent (London), November 17, 1998, p. 12.
JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association, March 4, 1998, p. 707.
Mother Jones, September, 1998. Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), August 14, 2000, p. 02A.
Encyclopaedia Britannica, www.britannica.com, (December 10, 2000.)
Life and Works of Samuel Hahnemann, www.HomeopathyHome.com, December 10, 2000.
New Visions Online, www.newvis.net.