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Logo of bmjThis ArticleThe BMJ
BMJ. 2007 December 1; 335(7630): 1158.
PMCID: PMC2099555
Past Caring

Homoeopathy and the star that fell

Wendy Moore, freelance writer and author, London

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some tragically squander greatness in a hopelessly misguided obsession, launching centuries of self delusion.

Take Samuel Hahnemann. Born in Meissen in 1755, he displayed early brilliance in languages before opting to study medicine, graduating in 1779 with a promising medical career before him. Rapidly disillusioned by the barbaric medical practices of the day, Hahnemann condemned his peers' ignorant reliance on copious bloodletting, toxic purges, and caustic enemas. By contrast Hahnemann advocated the healing effects of a sensible diet, fresh air, plentiful exercise, and routine hygiene as “the preliminary conditions of wellbeing.” His proposals for preventing epidemics in prisons urged well ventilated cells and regular washing of inmates, their clothes, and bedding; and during his brief spell running an asylum he introduced humane treatment.

A prolific writer, Hahnemann devoted as much time to studying chemistry as medicine. And as one contemporary noted, he “would have made a great chemist”—or indeed a pioneering public health doctor, enlightened psychiatrist, or champion of evidence based medicine—“had he not turned out a great quack.”

Sadly his stellar trajectory faltered when he turned his inquiring mind to investigating certain treatments by testing them on himself, in time honoured medical tradition, and—through good or bad luck—alighted on cinchona, one of the very few effective treatments in the medical bag of the time. Discovering that it produced symptoms similar to those of the ailment it treated—malaria—he vaulted to the conclusion that therefore all effective medicines must show similar symptoms to the disease they cured.

So the principle of treating “like with like” was born and the enduring industry of homoeopathy emerged. Roaming Germany as a peripatetic physician with his ever expanding family in tow, Hahnemann expounded his doctrine in his Organon der rationellen Heilkunde (Organon of Rational Healing) in 1810. His views excited vociferous opposition and widespread support from the start.

Students attended his lectures in Leipzig only to mock, while the city authorities banned him from practising in 1820. Yet in the same year Prince Karl of Schwarzenberg travelled expressly to the area so that Hahnemann could treat him after a stroke. The prince's death from a second stroke a few months later did nothing to deter continuing patronage from royalty over the ensuing centuries, which helped popularise homoeopathy throughout Europe and especially in England.

Given the fact that homoeopathic remedies were just as likely to work, and much less likely to harm, as the dangerous treatments offered by conventional physicians in Hahnemann's day, early 19th century patients might be excused for their enthusiasm. Later advocates might like to consider Hahnemann's own creed: “One should proceed as rationally as possible by experiments of the medicines on the human body. Only by these means can the true nature, the real effect, of the medicinal substance be discovered.”


Hahnemann's work is published by Orion as the Organon of Medicine (ISBN 978-0752849720). See also Neil McIntyre, “Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843),” Journal of Medical Biography (2002), vol 10, p 80, and Trevor M Cook, Samuel Hahnemann: Founder of Homoeopathic Medicine (Thorsons, 1981).

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