The Birth of Homeopathy

Similia Similibus Curantur

Homeopathy was invented in the late 18th century by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann1. Hahnemann was very gifted with languages, and at this point in his life he made a living from writing and translating2. In 1790, while he was translating a medical text – Professor William Cullen’s Materia Medica (Vol. 1, Vol. 2) – into his native German he read a claim about the use of the bark of the Cinchona plant (called Peruvian Bark in Cullen’s text) in treating “intermittent fevers” (it was, in particular, used as a treatment for malaria). Cullen claimed that the bark worked in this case due to its effect on the stomach3:

I consider the Peruvian bark… to be a substance in which the qualities of bitter and astringent are conjoined.

As a bitter and astringent conjoined, I consider the bark as a powerful tonic.

It is in no instance, however, more remarkable than in the cure of intermittent fevers. That the bark in this case operates by a tonic power exerted in the stomach…

Hahnemann did not believe this claim, and decided to test it by dosing himself with the bark and recording its effects on his body. He dosed himself with “four good drams of Peruvian bark, twice a day for several days”, and instead of finding that it affected his stomach as Cullen claimed it would, Hahnemann recognised its effects as being very similar to the symptoms of the fevers which are meant to be treated by this bark*. It is from this experience that he thought up the first homeopathic principle: “similia similibus curantur“, most commonly translated as “like cures like”.

It is from this principle that Hahnemann derived the term homœopathy (it is now usually written “homeopathy”, although you may also encounter “homoeopathy”) from the greek homœ-, meaning “similar” and -pathy, meaning “suffering”. In contrast, he also created the term “allopathy”, which he used to refer to forms of medicine that attempted to treat disease via mechanisms that oppose their symptoms (greek allo-, meaning “other”). Considering its origin, this term is generally considered derogatory, and you’ll rarely see it used today except by homeopaths and their sympathisers.

* It’s worth noting that in 1820, 30 years after Hahnemann’s experiment with conchina bark, French chemists Pierre-Joseph Pelletier and Joseph-Bienaime Caventou isolated the chemical quinine in conchina bark4, which was used as a treatment for malaria until the 1940s5.

References

  1. History of Homeopathy. Omaha: Creighton University School of Medicine [updated 03 August 2009; cited 04 April 2012]. Available from: http://altmed.creighton.edu/Homeopathy/history.htm
  2. Grimes, Melanie. Samuel Hahnemann, Founder of Homeopathy. Knol [updated 07 August 2008; cited 04 April 2012]. Available from: http://knol.google.com/k/samuel-hahnemann-founder-of-homeopathy
  3. Cullen, William “Tonics” A treatise of the Materia Medica, Volume 2. Edinburgh: printed for Charles Elliot, and for C. Elliot & T. Kay, London, 1789. 90-91. Google Books. Web. 31 March 2012.
  4. Quinine. Medical Discoveries [cited 04 April 2012]. Available from: http://altmed.creighton.edu/Homeopathy/history.htm
  5. Quinine – a miracle against malaria. Human Touch Of Chemistry [cited 04 April 2012]. Available from: http://www.humantouchofchemistry.com/quinine-a-miracle-against-malaria.htm
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