Half-Life of Facts: Medicine (Homeopathy)

By Claire Layton

Homeopathy has been a discipline with a contentious history. The legitimacy of the practice has been questioned since its origin in 1796. This alternative medical system was created by Samuel Hahnemann, based within the premise that a substance that causes symptoms of disease in a healthy person would cure similar symptoms in a sick person. The major proponents of this practice were trying to move away from the conventional systems of medicine, pushing against what they saw as a trend towards dangerous over-medication of patients. The biomedical regime was one of deep-rooted hierarchy and a veil of being unquestionable to patients as they administered treatments.

In the early 19th century, homeopathy gained popularity, brought to the United States in 1825 by a student of Hahnemann. By 1900 there were 22 homeopathic colleges and 15000 practitioners in the United States. The ironically positive effect of homeopathy in the 19th century may have led to the abandonment of the ineffective and harmful treatments of bloodletting and purging and might have begun the move towards more effective, science-based medicine. In the 20th Century, there was a resurgence of homeopathy, with the Nazi regime in Germany apparently being fascinated by the practice.

A book found in the Study of the Hillary House, written by William Sharp, M.D., from 1859 demonstrates the feeling among many medical practitioners of the time; that this was a dangerous pseudoscience. This practice continues today, despite continued critique from the medical field. Sharp writes, “Professor Simpson, of Edinburgh, considers the writings of Hahnemann a tissue of ‘discreditable medical charlatanry’” (1859:iii), later referring to his work as ‘knavery.’ He notes that a vast majority of the profession are of the same opinion. On Hahnemann’s writings, he states “They are so filled with unproven assertions illogical arguments, fanciful speculations, and obvious contradictions, as to render them, to me, exceedingly distasteful writings” (1859:iv).

Sharp notes that homeopathy is not a novelty, including references to “poison as the remedy for poison” (1859:4) from Sanskrit poems written in 56 BCE. He also notes that it is not ‘quackery,’ referring to the lack of secrecy and deviousness in homeopathy. As well, he notes that homeopathy is not an uncertainty, it is not vague or a ‘wild theory,’ rather it is carefully studied with concrete examples and nuanced understandings of cures based in the central premise of similia similibus curentur ‘like cures like.’ As well he rejects the notion that homeopathic treatments are infinitesimal, pointing to the homeopathic argument that large doses of medicine have been lethal in themselves, so why administer more than necessary? Proponents believe that small interventions are the best answer to the problem of over-medicating patients. He takes the position of ‘it doesn’t hurt to try,’ with this being the only truly reasonable way to go about opposing homeopathy, on a case-to-case basis of examining the outcomes of the practice. Positing assertions rather than proofs.

What the history of homeopathy demonstrates about this notion of ‘fact’ we are calling into question in this series is that scientific research is not to be taken out of its political, social, economic contexts. The way a ‘pseudoscience’ such as homeopathy can prevail as legitimate in the minds of medical practitioners through centuries is largely due to trends such as the recent widespread distrust of western biomedicine and an attachment to ancient practices as holding intrinsic value, despite the trend of facts having a half-life refuting that way of thinking. The aversion to biomedicine in lieu of homeopathic remedies is rooted in the rejection to autocratic and often patriarchal systems of medical practice that place the doctor as the unquestionable expert, medicine did not belong to the people, it belonged to ‘medicine,’ the New Age movement and the resurgence of homeopathy was due to this reclamation of the individual over their health. This indicates that the reasons that a pseudoscience such as homeopathy has prevailed since the 1850s despite critique, is due to a larger political and social climate and cannot be simply reduced to the ‘idiocy’ of people who ascribe to its dogma. This indicates the need for continued diligence of the individual to keep up-to-date with new medical discoveries and practices.

Visit us and see if you can find these and any other examples from the past. If you have any questions about these items in our collection, please inquire or schedule an appointment to work with our curator to find out how other “facts” have changed over time.

Works Cited and Further Reading

Kaufman M (1971). Homeopathy in America: The rise and fall of a medical heresy.

Ernst, E. (2002). A systematic review of systematic reviews of homeopathy. British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 54(6), 577–582.