I use a lot of visual elements in my presentations because a picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words. These days “go to source” is the internet, and that’s exactly where I went when I was looking for a photo of the tomb of Samuel Hahnemann, founder of homeopathy. Oddly enough, one of the images that appeared was of a coffee mug with a picture of Hahnemann on it. Why was that curious? Because in 1803 Hahnemann published his treatise on the effect of coffee in which he claimed that coffee was the cause of impotence, sterility, rickets, stammering, melancholy, malicious envy, and insomnia. At least he was right about the insomnia.
Seven years before his attack on coffee, Hahnemann introduced the famous saying “like cures like” in his article on a new principle to assert the curative power of drugs. At the time, eucalyptus bark powder was used as a treatment for malaria but there was always a question about how much to use. Hahnemann, as a guinea pig, took increasing doses to see how much a patient could safely take. As the dose was increased, he began to experience symptoms of malaria. At that moment the concept of homeopathy was born. If the patient has a disease, then the treatment is a substance that, if given to a healthy person, produces symptoms similar to those experienced by the patient. To many, that seemed reasonable, given that Hahnemann cited Edward Jenner’s use of cowpox vaccination to prevent smallpox. In fact, injecting a small dose of cowpox produced symptoms similar to smallpox and provided protection against this dreaded disease.
However, controversy was aroused when Hahnemann suggested that doses too small to produce any symptoms would still be effective in treating the disease. His dilutions were so severe that it seemed inconceivable that they would have any therapeutic effect, but Hahnemann had a rationale. He claimed that diluted preparations retained their healing power if the solution was shaken violently after each dilution. This “reinforcement” resulted in a “non-material spiritual force” that produced the cure. Even at that time, when science was still in full swing, doctors considered this nonsense. Hahnemann was further ridiculed when he continued to claim that almost all chronic diseases were caused by scabies.
Today, the scientific view of homeopathy is that molecules that are not present cannot cure existing diseases, but that homeopaths can provide some relief to patients by eliciting a placebo response. Also, the circumstances in which patients consult homeopaths are generally transient and disappear spontaneously or periodically. If taking a homeopathic “remedy” is followed by remission, then the remedy takes credit.
Given that I’ve rigged a profession to separate meaning from nonsense, you might think I’d be keen to dismiss Samuel Hahnemann as a misguided idiot. not like that. We have to remember that at that time traditional medicine had little to offer other than bloodletting, purification, and poisonous substances such as mercury, strychnine, or opium. Hahnemann concluded that such practices only tormented the sick and sought gentler treatments. While he was wrong about the effect of his homeopathic remedy on his physiology, he offered patients an alternative to the brutal medical practices of the time. No wonder patients were much happier to take a sugar pill infused with a solution that contained nothing but cleanse them or emptied their blood.
There is one more reason why I particularly care about Hahnemann, and it has nothing to do with his medical practice. In 1788, before his scheme “like cures like” hatched, he wrote an essay that began thus: “I do not know if I am wrong, but it seems that one can obtain more truths, important to humanity, from chemistry than from Any other science.” At the time, Hahnemann was a struggling physician and was more active as an alchemist than as a physician. He became fond of chemistry while studying medicine at the University of Leipzig, taking a course in experimental chemistry from the famous physician and chemist Johann Gottfried Leonardi.
In the article that began with the glorification of chemistry, Hahnemann described his experiments to develop a test for lead and iron in wine. Lead is sometimes added to wine to act as a preservative as well as increase sweetness, while iron ends up in wine from spikes in barrels. Lead was known to be toxic, but the problem is that the current test for lead, based on adding a solution of arsenic sulfide to produce a dark precipitate of lead sulfide, also gave a positive result for harmless iron. Hahnemann discovered that an acidified solution of hydrogen sulfide added to wine results in a precipitation of lead, but not iron.
To get the chemicals he needed, Hahnemann visited the local pharmacy. There was an additional impetus for the frequent visits as he fell in love with the daughter of the pharmacist’s wife, whom he had married. They have been married for 48 years and have 11 children. Five years after her death, Hahnemann, at the age of eighty, covered again with Marie Melanie de Herville, who was forty years his junior and had come to consult him about her health. She convinced him to move to Paris where he developed a large following and consulted patients from all over the world. She followed in her husband’s footsteps and became the first homeopath, but was not welcomed by the homeopathy community. There have been accusations of delaying publication of Hanemann’s final work because she made a more lucrative bid.
Hahnemann adored his wife. Speaking of whom he trusts to carry on with his work, he declared, “I have long searched for a man and found him in my wife.” It was his stated wish that they be buried side by side, indeed lying together in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. In 1900, the International Conference on Homeopathy erected a beautiful granite monument over the cemetery, but there is no mention of Melanie Hahnemann, Samuel’s beloved wife who helped propel him to fame and fortune. There is no mention of his contributions to chemistry.
Now you see why I was looking for a picture of Hahnemann’s tomb. As far as a coffee mug with a photo of Hahnemann goes, needless to say, I asked for it.
Joe Schwartz is director of the Office of Science and Society at McGill University (mcgill.ca/oss). Hosted by Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Radio 800 am every Sunday from 3 to 4 pm
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