Hahnemann’s first comments about the general applicability of the law of similars were in 1789 when he translated a book by William Cullen, one of the leading physicians of the era. At one point in the book Cullen ascribed the usefulness of Peruvian bark (Cinchona) in treating malaria due to its bitter and astringent properties. Hahnemann wrote a bold footnote in his translation, disputing Cullen’s explanation. Hahnemann asserted that the efficacy of Peruvian bark must be for other factor, since he noted that there were other substances and mixtures of substances decidedly more bitter and more astringent than Peruvian bark that were not effective in treating malaria. He then described his own taking repeated doses of this herb until his body responded to its toxic dose with fever, chills, and other symptoms similar to malaria. Hahnemann concluded that the reason this herb was beneficial was because it caused symptoms similar to those of the disease it was treating. (2)
This account epitomizes Hahnemann. First, he was translating Cullen’s work, which indicates that he was one of the more respected translators of his day. By the time he was only 24, Hahnemann could read and write in at least seven languages. He ultimately translated over 20 major medical and scientific texts. This story reveals Hahnemann as both an avid experimenter and a respected chemist. He had authored a four volume set of books called The Pharmaceutical Lexicon, which was considered one of the standard reference texts for apothecaries/pharmacists of his day. (3) And this account also reveals Hahnemann as an audacious rebel. He was unafraid to speak his mind, even if it meant correcting the analysis of a very respected physician. He was unafraid to question commonly accepted truths. And he had enough initiative to seek his own alternative explanations.
After translating Cullen’s work, Hahnemann spent the next six years actively experimenting on himself, his family, and a small but growing group of followers. In 1796 he wrote about his experiences with the law of similars in Hufeland’s Journal, a respected medical journal in Germany. (4) Coincidentally, in 1798 Edward Jenner discovered the value of giving small doses of cowpox to people in an effort to immunize them against smallpox. Whereas Jenner’s work was generally accepted into orthodox medicine, Hahnemann’s work was not. In fact, there was so much antagonism to Hahnemann and the new school of medical thought he called homeopathy that entire medical journals were called Anti-Homoeopathic Archives or Anti-Organon (the Organon refers to the book that Hahnemann wrote as the primary text on the homeopathic art and science). (5)
Hahnemann was particularly disliked by the apothecaries because he recommended the use of only one medicine at a time and prescribing only limited doses of it. (6) Because he recommended only small doses of each medicine, the apothecaries could not charge much for them. And because each medicine required careful preparation, Hahnemann found that the apothecaries were not always making them correctly or were intentionally giving his patients different medicines. As he grew to distrust the apothecaries, he chose to dispense his own medicines, an illegal act at the time in Germany. The apothecaries then accused Hahnemann of “entrenching upon their privileges by the dispensing of medicines.” (7) Arrested in Leipzig in 1820, he was found guilty and forced to move.
He moved to Kothen, where he was delegated special permission to practice and dispense his own medicines by Grand Duke Ferdinand, one of the many European royalty who supported homeopathy. (8)
Despite the persecution, homeopathy continued to grow. It grew not just because it offered a systematic approach to treating sick people, but also because orthodox medicine was ineffective and even dangerous. There is general agreement among medical historians today that orthodox medicine of the 1700s and 1800s in particular frequently caused more harm than good. (9)
Bloodletting and application of leeches were common practice even through to the mid-1800s. One French doctor bloodlet so much that some jokingly estimated that he spilled more blood in his medical practice than was spilled throughout the entire Napoleonic Wars. (10). Benjamin Rush, considered the father of American medicine, asserted that bloodletting was useful in all general and chronic disease. (11) As many as 41 million leeches were imported into France in 1833 alone. (12) In the United States, one firm imported 500,000 leeches in 1856; its competitor imported 300,000 (13). Besides bloodletting and leeches, orthodox physicians used medicines made from mercury, lead, arsenic, and various strong herbs to help purge the body of foreign disease-causing matter.
The combination of poor medical care and prejudicial reaction against homeopathy is certainly understandable in light of medical education at the time. Nathan Smith Davis, who was the driving force in the creation of the American Medical Association, described medical education in 1845:
“All the young man has to do is gain admittance in the office of some physician, where he can have access to a series of ordinary medical text-books, and see a patient perhaps once a month, with perhaps a hasty post-mortem examination once a year; and in the course of three years thus spent, one or two courses of lectures in the medical colleges, where the whole science of medicine, including anatomy, physiology, chemistry, materia medica, pathology, practice of medicine, medical jurisprudence, surgery, and midwivery are all crowded upon his mind in the short space of sixteen weeks…and his education, both primary and medical, is deemed complete.” (14)
Despite the fact that historians and scientists today consider medicine of the 18th and 19th century as unscientific and even barbaric, orthodox physicians had the audacity to call homeopathy “quackery,” “unscientific,” “cultish,” and “devilish.”
Orthodox medicine was also threatened because homeopathy offered an integrated, coherent, systematic basis for its therapeutic practice. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Social Transformation of American Medicine Paul Starr noted, “Because homeopathy was simultaneously philosophical and experimental, it seemed to many people to be more rather than less scientific than orthodox medicine.” (16)