This summary history of homeopathy by Jerome Whitney spans its response to abusive 'Heroic Medicine' and rise to major popularity in the latter 19th century; its subsequent decline; and reemergence in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
From 1600 onward the practice of formal medicine in Europe and North America became progressively more and more abusive. Patients were subjected to repeated and excessive bloodletting by leaches, purging, and blistering for even the most minor complaints. This debilitating mode of treatment reached such a level of severity that it became known as 'Heroic Medicine' because one had to be a 'hero' to survive it, while it was less depleting to be treated by the local herbalist or bonesetter.
By the late 18th century compassionate doctors began to question the severe methods of the 'Heroic' advocates and independently initiated a search for or devised more moderate alternate forms of treating and healing their patients. Prominent among this group is Dr Samuel Hahnemann, founder of Homeopathy.
Hahnemann, who trained as a doctor, found this practice of 'Heroic Medicine so detrimental to patient recovery, that he gave up seeing patients for ten years and became a translator of medical literature instead. Then, in 1790 while translating a medical treatise on the effects of quinine, he had a burst of inspiration and proceeded to engage what was intended to be a one-off experiment. However, the implication that emerged from evaluating its result proved to be the beginning of an approach to medicine that within 50 years was being practiced around the world.
What Hahnemann did was to drink so much quinine water that he poisoned himself to the point of sickness. When he analysed his symptoms he discovered that they matched those experienced by people who had contacted malaria. Further reflection and experimentation lead Hahnemann to conclude that substances that can cure an illness when prescribed in small doses, can poison a person when taken in large or extreme doses. This was to be proved by several German research chemists ninety years later and is now known as the Arndt-Schulz Law.
This insight was tested experimentally in repeated trials over the next six years, during which Hahnemann treated family, friends and volunteers, utilising the principle of 'like cures like'. By 1796 he published his treatise on “A New Medicine", and in1810 the first edition of the Organon of Medicine, summarising his clinical experiments and the principles of homeopathy, which he went on to expand and revise over the next 33 years.
Meanwhile other doctors too had become averse to the excesses of Heroic Medicine and chose to become students of Hahnemann, so by 1811 homeopathy was being exported beyond the Germanic speaking regions into the rest of Europe and even to India. By 1825 homeopathy was actively practiced in England, North & South America, India, Africa and the Near East by doctors, colonial administrators and military personnel. One group with a particular interest in homeopathy was mothers who found that the sweet homeopathic pills were eagerly dissolved in the mouths of their children. This positive response to homeopathic remedies was in stark contrast to their offspring’s rejection of the horrible tasting potions prescribed by the 'heroic' doctors.
The demand for homeopathy spread rapidly and by 1834 Queen Victoria had begun using homeopathic remedies. This is a tradition that has continued and today one of the panel of five physicians to Queen Elizabeth II is always a homeopath.