Samuel Hahnemann was born in Eastern Germany, in 1755. At age 23 he decided to study medicine and become a doctor. He established a village practice in 1780, and eventually moved to the regional centre, Dresden.
It wasn’t long before he became disillusioned with the therapies he was expected to offer to his patients. Medicine had moved on little since Hippocrates. Many treatments involved brutal, inhumane methods. Bloodletting and purges were common, and various substances including mercury, arsenic and lead were used which often poisoned patients. He began a lifelong quest to find kinder, more natural ways of treating illnesses.
From 1789, now living in Leipzig, he devoted himself to the study of chemistry and medicine. Hahnemann was no witch doctor. He believed in the scientific method. He was a keen experimenter, observer and documenter of his findings. He experimented using various substances on healthy subjects to see what effect they would have, and discovered that even poisonous substances could have curative properties.
One experiment used cinchona bark extract, which yields quinine, a known treatment for malaria. Puzzled by his findings, he repeatedly took it himself. That confirmed his suspicions – cinchona bark extract caused him to develop fever-like symptoms similar to those caused by malaria. He surmised that if a substance could cause disease symptoms in a healthy subject, small amounts could cure a sick person who had similar symptoms. He called his system ‘homeopathy’.
He then developed a testing method called ‘proving’ to determine which substances could be used as remedies and which medical conditions they could be used to treat. Healthy volunteers took highly diluted potions of the test remedy for several weeks and recorded any physical or emotional symptoms they felt. If a patient later presented the same symptoms, Dr Hahnemann prescribed a substance that had caused the same symptoms in the healthy volunteers. The ‘proving’ method is still used by homeopaths today.
Another innovation was the process of ‘potentisation’ derived from his theory of ‘infinitesimals.’ Hahnemann used many dangerous ingredients in his research, but he realised that such compounds needed to be diluted to ‘safe’ levels before use. Potentisation involved dissolving the active ingredient in water and repeatedly diluting and shaking it vigorously. He believed that the more a remedy was diluted, the more powerful it became.
Dr Hahnemann was responsible for several other ‘firsts’. He was the first to prepare medicines in a systematic way and test them on healthy human beings to determine how they acted to cure disease – previously medicines were prescribed on the basis of trial and error and tradition without experimental corroboration.
He was the first to differentiate between ‘acute’ and ‘chronic’ diseases. Acute diseases are serious but transitory; they have a beginning and an end. Chronic diseases are ongoing. They could be lying latent and made manifest at any time in a variety of ways.
He identified poor hygiene as a contributory cause in the spread of disease, and his success with cholera and typhoid fever was in part due to this. He recognised the healing contribution made by a balanced diet, rest, and isolating patients during epidemics. He became known for his work with people with mental health problems, regarding their treatment in his day as cruel and harmful, and urging a more humane approach. He was famous for his success with insane patients using homeopathy.
He published his first treatise in 1810 – The Organon of the Healing Art – in which he explained the fundamentals of homeopathic medicine and guidelines for practice. He later published Pure Materia Medica which included details of his research and the remedy provings. In Chronic Diseases, Their Peculiar Nature and Their Homeopathic Cure, he explained how natural diseases become chronic in nature when suppressed by improper treatment.
Dr. Hahnemann treated thousands of difficult cases. Many had defied medical practitioners all over Europe. Physicians from the Old and New Worlds flocked to him for training in his methods, but they were in the minority. The majority of his contemporaries saw this giant of medicine as a quack of the first order! His theories and practices were derided by most medical practitioners of his day, and still are.
The ‘Scientific’ Verdict
Frankly, the scientific evidence is inconclusive, but this doesn’t prevent most doctors and medical researchers regard homeopathic remedies as placebos at best and quackery at worst. They point out that most studies have concluded that there is no evidence to support homeopathy as an effective treatment for any particular condition. Where studies report positive findings, they dismiss them as flawed: flawed sampling, flawed methodology, flawed conclusions and so on. Homeopathic medicines are infamous for containing no active chemical ingredients. Conventional bio-chemical science has no explanation for their efficacy. It can’t be true, they say, therefore it isn’t.
The ruling pharmaceutical-based medical establishment delight in attacking homeopathy. For example, in 2009, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned, with Africa’s rural poor in mind, that homeopathy should not be used for conditions such as HIV, TB, infant diarrhoea, influenza and malaria. Under a banner headline, ‘Homeopathy not a cure,’ they wrote, ‘We hope that by raising awareness of the WHO’s position on homeopathy we will be supporting those people who are taking a stand against these potentially disastrous practices.’ (Please note: the authors were referring to a handful of conditions; the headline gave the impression homeopathy could not cure anything at all!)
In the same report, a specialist in infectious diseases at the Royal Liverpool University Hospital, was quoted as saying: ‘I think it is irresponsible for a healthcare worker to promote the use of homeopathy in place of proven treatment for any life-threatening illness.’
Needless to say, the Society of Homeopaths strongly disagreed. ‘This is just another poorly wrapped attempt to discredit homeopathy,’ said their Chief Executive. ‘The irony is that in their efforts to promote evidence in medicine, they have failed to do their homework. There is a strong and growing evidence base for homeopathy and this also includes childhood diarrhoea.’
Surely, in view of its positive track record, it is reasonable to consider what beneficial role homeopathy can play in any circumstances. What is needed is not crude dismissal but further research and investment into homeopathy.
So what’s the truth? Hahnemann was, above all, a man of integrity who devoted his life to rigorous testing of homeopathic cures. It has benefited millions since and continues to do so, but there are no recent large scale studies that show homeopathy as conveying any benefit over and above the placebo effect, only small scale observational studies and laboratory research.
What’s wrong with the science?
In science, if something cannot pass a controlled trial using conventional methods, it is assumed not to work. With homeopathy (and other alternative medicines) even though practitioners know it works because they have seen it with their patients, when it fails in scientifically controlled trials they conclude that the trial must be flawed. Conventional methods are not the way to prove it.
According to mainstream science the humble bee is incapable of flight. Its wings are too small, its body too cumbersome. Similarly, there is a strong and growing evidence base for homeopathy. Let’s hope homeopathy can take its place as a scientifically proven and properly understood therapy in the future, helping lots of people. Then we will know for sure whether Hahnemann was truly an idiot, importer or genius!
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