The history of homeopathy combines the high drama and intrigue commonly found in the best efforts of the silver screen. Although a movie has not yet been made about homeopathy, it is a film waiting to happen.
Homeopathy became spectacularly popular in the United States and Europe in the 1800s and its strongest advocates included European royalty, American entrepreneurs, literary giants, and religious leaders. But at the time that it was gaining widespread popularity, it became the object of deep-seated animosity and vigilant opposition from establishment medicine. The conflict between homeopathy and orthodox medicine was protracted and bitter. We know who won the first round of this conflict. We await the results of the second round. Hopefully, we will soon discover that a "fight" over healing is inappropriate and that various approaches to healing are all necessary to build a comprehensive and effective health care system.
The history of homeopathy begins with the discoveries of its founder Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), a German physician. Hahnemann first coined the word "homeopathy" ("homoios" in Greek means similar, "pathos" means suffering) to refer to the pharmacological principle, the law of similars, that is its basis. Actually, the law of similars was previously described by Hippocrates and Paracelsus and was utilized by many cultures, including the Mayans, Chinese, Greeks, Native American Indians, and Asian Indians (1), but it was Hahnemann who codified the law of similars into a systematic medical science.
Hahnemann's first comments about the general applicability of the law of similars were in 1789 when he translated a book by William Cullen, one of the leading physicians of the era. At one point in the book Cullen ascribed the usefulness of Peruvian bark (Cinchona) in treating malaria to its the bitter and astringent properties. Hahnemann wrote a bold footnote in his translation, disputing Cullen's explanation. Hahnemann asserted that the efficacy of Peruvian bark must be for other factor, since he noted that there were other substances and mixtures of substances decidedly more bitter and more astringent than Peruvian bark that were not effective in treating malaria. He then described his own taking repeated doses of this herb until his body responded to its toxic dose with fever, chills, and other symptoms similar to malaria. Hahnemann concluded that the reason this herb was beneficial was because it caused symptoms similar to those of the disease it was treating. (2)
This account epitomizes Hahnemann. First, he was translating Cullen's work, which indicates that he was one of the more respected translators of his day. By the time he was only 24, Hahnemann he could read and write in at least seven languages. He ultimately translated over 20 major medical and scientific texts. This story reveals Hahnemann as both an avid experimenter and a respected chemist. He had authored a four volume set of books called The Pharmaceutical Lexicon, which was considered one of the standard reference texts for apothecaries/pharmacists of his day. (3) And this account also reveals Hahnemann as an audacious rebel. He was unafraid to speak his mind, even if it meant correcting the analysis of a very respected physician. He was unafraid to question commonly accepted truths. And he had enough initiative to seek his own alternative explanations.
After translating Cullen's work, Hahnemann spent the next six years actively experimenting on himself, his family, and a small but growing group of followers. In 1796 he wrote about his experiences with the law of similars in Hufeland's Journal, a respected medical journal in Germany. (4) Coincidentally, in 1798 Edward Jenner discovered the value of giving small doses of cowpox to people in an effort to immunize them against smallpox. Whereas Jenner's work was generally accepted into orthodox medicine, Hahnemann's work was not. In fact, there was so much antagonism to Hahnemann and the new school of medical thought he called homeopathy that entire medical journals were called Anti-Homoeopathic Archives or Anti-Organon (the Organon refers to the book that Hahnemann wrote as the primary text on the homeopathic art and science). (5)
Hahnemann was particularly disliked by the apothecaries because he recommended the use of only one medicine at a time and prescribing only limited doses of it. (6) Because he recommended only small doses of each medicine, the apothecaries could not charge much for them. And because each medicine required careful preparation, Hahnemann found that the apothecaries were not always making them correctly or were intentionally giving his patients different medicines. As he grew to distrust the apothecaries, he chose to dispense his own medicines, an illegal act at the time in Germany. The apothecaries then accused Hahnemann of "entrenching upon their privileges by the dispensing of medicines." (7) Arrested in Leipzig in 1820, he was found guilty and forced to move.
He moved to Kothen, where he was delegated special permission to practice and dispense his own medicines by Grand Duke Ferdinand, one of the many European royalty who supported homeopathy. (8)
Despite the persecution, homeopathy continued to grow. It grew not just because it offered a systematic approach to treating sick people, but also because orthodox medicine was ineffective and even dangerous. There is general agreement among medical historians today that orthodox medicine of the 1700s and 1800s in particular frequently caused more harm than good. (9)
Bloodletting and application of leeches were common practice even through to the mid-1800s. One French doctor bloodlet so much that some jokingly estimated that he spilled more blood in his medical practice than was spilled throughout the entire Napoleonic Wars. (10). Benjamin Rush, considered the father of American medicine, asserted that bloodletting was useful in all general and chronic disease. (11) As many as 41 million leeches were imported into France in 1833 alone. (12) In the United States, one firm imported 500,000 leeches in 1856; its competitor imported 300,000. (13). Besides bloodletting and leeches, orthodox physicians used medicines made from mercury, lead, arsenic, and various strong herbs to help purge the body of foreign disease-causing matter.
The combination of poor medical care and prejudicial reaction against homeopathy is certainly understandable in light of medical education at the time. Nathan Smith Davis, who was the driving force in the creation of the American Medical Association described medical education in 1845:
"All the young man has to do is gain admittance in the office of some physician, where he can have access to a series of ordinary medical text-books, and see a patient perhaps once a month, with perhaps a hasty post-mortem examination once a year; and in the course of three years thus spent, one or two courses of lectures in the medical colleges, where the whole science of medicine, including anatomy, physiology, chemistry, materia medica, pathology, practice of medicine, medical jurisprudence, surgery, and midwivery are all crowded upon his mind in the short space of sixteen weeks...and his education, both primary and medical, is deemed complete." (14)
Despite the fact that historians and scientists today consider medicine of the 18th and 19th century as unscientific and even barbaric, orthodox physicians had the audacity to call homeopathy "quackery," "unscientific," "cultish," and "devilish."
The Opposition to Homeopathy
Homeopathy posed a serious threat to entrenched medicine. Orthodox physicians criticized herbalists, midwives, and various other "non-regular" practitioners because they were not medically trained. Homeopaths, however, could not be discredited as being unlearned, since they had been were graduates from many of the same medical schools as "regular" physicians. In fact, many of the initial practitioners of homeopathy graduated from some of the most prestigious medical schools of the day. (15)
Orthodox medicine was also threatened because homeopathy offered an integrated, coherent, systematic basis for its therapeutic practice. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Social Transformation of American Medicine Paul Starr noted, "Because homeopathy was simultaneously philosophical and experimental, it seemed to many people to be more rather than less scientific than orthodox medicine." (16)
One of the most important reasons that orthodox physicians and drug companies disliked homeopathy was that inherent in the homeopathic approach was a sharp critique of the use of conventional drugs. Homeopaths were primarily critical of the suppressive nature of these drugs. They felt that they simply masked the person's symptoms, creating deeper, more serious diseases. Homeopaths also noted that this masking of symptoms made it more difficult for them ultimately to find the correct medicine, since the person's idiosyncratic symptoms are the primary guide to the individual selection of the medicine.
Perhaps the most important reason that conventional physicians disliked homeopathy and homeopaths was well expressed at an A.M.A. meeting by one of the more respected orthodox physicians who said, "We must admit that we never fought the homeopath on matters of principles; we fought him because he came into the community and got the business." (17) Although most physicians, past or present, won't as easily admit it, economic issues play a major role in what is practiced and what is allowed to be practiced.
Hahnemann's principles therefore posed a philosophical, clinical, and economic threat to orthodox medicine.
Homeopathy began growing in the New World shortly after Hans Gram, a Dutch homeopath, emigrated to the United States in 1825. It expanded so rapidly that the homeopaths decided to create a national medical society. In 1844 they organized the American Institute of Homeopathy, which became America's first national medical society. (18) Partially in response to the growth of the homeopaths, in 1846 a rival medical group formed which then vowed to slow the development of homeopathy. (19) This organization called itself the American Medical Association.
Members of the A.M.A. had a long-standing animosity towards homeopathy and homeopaths. This feeling ran so strong that shortly after the formation of the A.M.A., it was decided to purge all the local medical societies of physicians who were homeopaths. (20). This purge was successful in every state except Massachusetts. Because homeopathy was so strong among the elite of Boston, the A.M.A. allowed this exception, as long as the Society agreed not to allow any new homeopathic members. Then, in 1871, the eight remaining physicians were expelled from the Society for the heinous crime of being homeopaths.
In 1882 the AMA declined to acknowledge the delegates from the New York State Medical Society because this society had recently passed a resolution that recognized all properly graduated doctors (which thereby included homeopathic physicians).
Besides keeping homeopaths out of their societies, the A.M.A. wanted to discourage any type of association with homeopaths. In 1855 the AMA established a code of ethics which asserted that orthodox physicians would lose their membership in the A.M.A. if they even consulted with a homeopath or any other "non-regular" practitioner. (21) At the time, if a physician lost his membership in the local medical society, it meant that in some states he no longer had a license to practice medicine. Often, orthodox physicians, who controlled the medical societies, wouldn't admit homeopathic physicians and then would arrange for their arrest for practicing medicine without a license. (22) Ultimately, homeopaths set up their own local societies and established their own medical boards.