Dr. Samuel Hahnemann was a German physician who earned his Doctor of Medicine degree in 1779. At the time of his graduation, scientific advances were beginning to be seen in the fields of chemistry, physics, physiology and anatomy. The clinical practice of medicine, however, was widespread with superstition and lack of scientific strictness. The treatments of the day, such as purgatives, bleeding, blistering plasters, herbal preparations and emetics lacked a rational basis and were more harmful than effective. Hahnemann recognized this need and wrote critically of current practices in several papers on topics such as arsenic poisoning, hygiene, dietetics and psychiatric treatment.
Law of Similars
While translating William Cullen’s A Treatise of the Materia Medica into German, Hahnemann was struck by a passage that deals with Cinchona bark, which was used to treat malaria. Cullen described its mechanism of action as a function of its stomach-strengthening properties. Hahnemann did not accept this explanation and took four good drams of Peruvian bark, twice a day for several days” to attempt to characterize the action of the quinine-containing bark.
Hahnemann reported that he began to develop symptoms identical to those of malaria. He concluded from this experience that effective drugs must produce symptoms in healthy people that are similar to the diseases they will be expected to treat. Today this principal is known as the “Law of Similars” and is the basis for the use of the term homeopathy (“similar suffering”). Hahnemann and colleagues began to test various substances to determine the types of symptoms they produced. These results suggested to Hahnemann what the drugs would be useful to treat.
Hahnemann reasoned that doses of these substances that produced overt symptoms would be inappropriate for the treatment of diseases with the same symptoms. Thus he advocated a reduction of the dose to infinitesimal levels by multiple serial dilutions of ten or hundred fold. Soluble compounds or liquids were diluted in alcohol; insoluble materials were serially diluted by grinding with lactose.
Organon of Rational Therapeutics
More specific descriptions of his reasoning can be found in the philosophical basis section. He compiled his results into a book called the Organon of rational therapeutics, which he first published in 1810. The sixth edition, published in 1921, is still used today as homeopathy’s primary text. Hahnemann practiced Homeopathic medicine for almost 50 years until his death in 1843. Historically, homeopathy has been practiced by medical doctors and other health care providers. It has been used for self-care by the general public worldwide. Homeopathy had an enormous impact on the practice of medicine. The first homeopathic hospital opened in 1832, and homeopathic medical schools opened all over Europe. Homeopathic hospitals and practitioners often had better outcomes compared to their allopathic counterparts. These improved outcomes were undoubtedly due to the harmful nature of allopathic remedies of the time compared to the non-toxic kind of homeopathic remedies. Thus the general public began to tout the benefits of homeopathy and demand better treatment from all physicians.
Allopathic medicine began to develop rational approaches to the study of disease, partially due to the competition offered by homeopathy. It began to make significant gains by the end of the 19th century. By the early part of the twentieth century, homeopathy was in severe decline. The last pure homeopathic medical school in the U.S. closed in 1920, although Hahnemann Medical School in Philadelphia continued to offer homeopathic electives until the 1940s. Homeopathy began to enjoy a resurgence in the U.S. in the 1970s as the public took a greater interest in holistic and natural approaches to medicine. Nowadays, homeopathic remedies like Oscillococcinum and Zicam are becoming common names in American households.