Homeopathy is a system of medical practice that originated with the work of the German physician Dr. Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), who as well as being an experienced orthodox physician was also a competent chemist, a good mineralogist and botanist, and an able translator of eight different languages. He discovered that patients with certain diseases could be cured with substances that produce similar toxic effects, e.g. cholera could be cured with a dose of arsenic, scarlet fever with a dose of belladonna etc. He termed this principle ‘similia similibus curentur’ – ‘let likes be cured by likes’, otherwise known as the ‘similia principle’ or ‘law of similars’. Although the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates – the founder of western medicine – was the first one to moot the idea of curing ‘like with like’ more than 2,000 years ago, it was Hahnemann who made this principle into a system of treatment.

Testing medicines

Hahnemann spent several years experimenting on himself, his family and a group of followers, testing a wide range of natural substances, such as plants, minerals, metals, etc. In fact, he was the ‘father’ of experimental pharmacology. He and his colleagues catalogued over 200 medicines, primarily of plant, mineral and animal origin. Each substance was tested, i.e. taken by healthy volunteers who kept detailed records of their physical, mental and emotional reactions. The reported symptoms of these experiments –’homeopathic pharmacodynamics’– were compiled in a Materia Medica. Repeating this type of experiment led him to observe and describe the basic principles of homeopathy.

States of illness

First Hahnemann assumed that for certain diseases specific remedies could be found, but gradually his ideas about homeopathy became more refined. For instance, he discovered that patients with other diseases than cholera could also be cured by arsenic, provided they showed other common ‘arsenic characteristics’. And, on the other hand, that not all cholera patients responded to arsenic but needed another medicine depending on their individual symptoms. So he changed his thinking in terms of diseases to a concept of specific individual states of illness.

Minimal doses

Another observation arose from his desire to minimise the harmful effects of the medicines which doctors were using. He did this by repeatedly diluting and succussing (shaking) each medicine to reduce its potential to poison and cause harm. What surprised him in his use of these preparations was that the more stages of dilution and succussion the drug had gone through, the greater its potential to cure quickly and harmlessly.

Hahnemann’s three major publications show how he developed his ideas of homeopathy. In the ‘Organon of Medicine’ (revised six times), the fundamentals are laid out. ‘Materia Medica Pura’ records the symptoms of the medicine provings. In his book, ‘The Chronic Diseases, Their Peculiar Nature and Their Homeopathic Cure’, he showed how the natural diseases become chronic in nature.

Expansion of the method

In the nineteenth century this revolutionary method rapidly spread all over Europe and by European emigrants to North and South America. Well-known historical names are Clemens von Boenninghausen, Johann Stapf, Constantin Hering, Georg Jahr, Adolph Lippe, Robert Dudgeon, Bernard Fincke, Thomas Skinner, Francis Boericke, Richard Hughes, Henry C. Allen, Timothy F. Allen, James Compton Burnett, Ernest A. Farrington, Calvin B. Knerr, William Boericke, James T. Kent, John Clarke, Margaret Tyler, Cyrus M. Boger, R. Gibson Miller, Herbert A. Roberts, Arthur Grimmer, Douglas Borland, William Ernest Boyd, Pierre Schmidt, Elisabeth Hubbard.

Homeopathy also expanded through the British Empire, the later Commonwealth countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Ghana etc. Particularly in India and Pakistan homeopathy found an important breeding ground because of homeopathy’s similarity with traditional Ayurvedic medicine. Through Pakistan and India homeopathy has started to find its way to the Arabic countries (Middle-East and Northern Africa) and recently it has also started growing in Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and China.

For more detailed information on the history of homeopathy readers are referred to the Homeopathy Timeline website and to the IGHDR for libraries with a collection on homeopathy. Photos of well-known homeopathic doctors can be found at the Homéopathe International website.