(Investigator 140, 2011
Homoeopathy is a system of therapeutics based upon the "law of
similars", introduced by Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), a physician and
chemist of Meissen, Germany.
Many points of Hahnemann's system were borrowed from Hippocrates who
over 2,300 years ago wrote, "Through the like, disease is produced and
through the application of the like, it is cured", and from Paracelsus
(1490-1541), "You there bring together the same anatomy of the illness
into one order. This simile gives you understanding of the way in which
you shall heal." The complex modern system of homoeotherapeutics was
expanded by Hahnemann into a systematic, empirical health practice and
today attracts a wide "New Age" following.
The Holistic approach was also given a boost in 1926, with the
publication of Jan Christiaan Smuts' philosophical treatise Holism
and Evolution, which attracted the attention of philosophers
The essential tenets of homoeopathy are that the cure of disease is
effected by drugs that are capable of producing in a healthy individual
symptoms similar to those of the disease to be treated, and that to
ascertain the curative virtues of any drug it must be "proved" upon
healthy persons — that is, taken by individuals of both sexes in a
state of health in gradually increasing doses.
Hahnemann's "Law of Similia" that treated "like with like" is believed
to have originated after he ingested a dose of cinchona bark (the
source of quinine) and experienced symptoms similar to those of
malaria. He reasoned that as the symptoms were similar to the condition
it was used to treat, his Law of Similia could be used to evaluate the
efficacy of a particular medicine. This process is known as "proving" a
medicine. Hahnemann's theory appears to have been based on a revival of
Paracelsus' Doctrine of Signatures, which declared that herbs would
cure conditions or the anatomical parts they resembled — snakeroot for
snakebite for example. Much the same as the primitive view of monism,
where the ancient practice of eating various organs of animals and
humans were believed to endow the consumer with the qualities they
associated with them — a lion's heart for courage for example.
A feature of homoeopathy is its theory of dose. Most homoeopathists
believe in the action of minute doses of medicine which are prepared as
follows: If the medicinal substance is soluble, one part is diluted in
9 or 99 parts water and/or alcohol solution and shaken vigorously; if
insoluble, it is ground and mixed in similar proportions with milk
sugar. One part of the diluted mixture is diluted and shaken again in
proportions ranging from one tenth to one millionth. Most remedies
today range from one millionth to one sixth of one millionth part
compound to water. Although according to the laws of chemistry there is
a limit to the dilution that can be made without losing the original
substance altogether, Hahnemann believed that the vigorous shaking with
each step of the dilution (Succussion, or Trituration in the case of
non-solubles) leaves a spirit-like essence that allegedly cures by
reviving the body's "vital force." He further believed that dilution
increases potency, a remarkable conclusion when one considers things
such as pesticides or poisons where it could be claimed that a lesser
rather than a greater amount is the more potent. I doubt too, that one
would be more likely to become intoxicated by drinking a greater
quantity of soda water with one’s whiskey than less.
As homoeopathic remedies do not have the side effects caused by some
modern drugs and because of the current disaffection with and the
scepticism of the efficacy of brief and hurried visits to conventional
physicians, the popularity of homoeopathic practitioners and
homoeopathic medicines has increased dramatically in the past two
decades or so. Currently, Homoeopathy seeks to be accepted as a viable
In an attempt to answer the obvious question, "how can a sub-molecular
compound possibly have any effect?" homoeopaths believe that the
pounding and vigorous shaking with each step of the dilution imparts a
memory which helps revive the body's "vital force." However, while many
hypotheses have been put forward to explain "vital force", none have
stood up to scientific scrutiny.
A recent attempt to validate homoeopathy came from the French Institute
of Health and Medical Research at the South Paris University in 1988,
where Dr Jacques Benveniste put forward experimental results supporting
the idea that no matter how small the dilutions of a substance, it
would still have an effect.
Dr Benveniste found that human white blood cells respond to a solution
of antibodies, even when the solution is so dilute that it no longer
contains a single molecule of the antibody. Dr Benveniste and his
colleagues estimated that less than one molecule of antibody remains
present when the solution is diluted to 1 x 1014 yet in this
instance the dilution procedure was taken to 1 x 10120
there was still an apparent effect. This claim was taken as proof of
homoeopathy and its "law of infinitesimals."
The scientific community was agog and incredulous, for if the results
were confirmed it would question the entire basis upon which molecular
scientists work. However, an investigation instigated by Nature
in conjunction with sceptical investigator James Randi, Walter Stewart
of the US National Institute of Health and John Maddox, editor of Nature,
found that the results of the experiments were due to wishful thinking
and were "a delusion."
Consumer Reports concluded in its January 1987 issue:
laws of chemistry have gone awry, most homoeopathic remedies are too
diluted to have any physiological effect... CR's medical consultants
believe that any system of medicine embracing the use of such remedies
involves a potential danger to patients whether the prescribers are
M.Ds, other licensed practitioners or outright quacks. Ineffective
drugs are dangerous drugs when used to treat serious or life
threatening disease. Moreover, even though homoeopathic drugs are
essentially nontoxic, self-medication can still be hazardous. Using
them for a serious illness or undiagnosed pain instead of obtaining
proper medical attention could prove harmful or even fatal."
The last warning is not to be taken lightly. In 1954, a four year old
Long Island boy, Jerald Winston, died of leukemia. For 16 months he had
been treated only with a homoeopathic remedy by his mother, the
daughter of a homoeopathic doctor. The parents were charged with
manslaughter. Among the latest whose death can be blamed on alternative
therapies is that of a fourteen year old Canadian resident Rachel
Brarsky, who died of asthma in January 1989, after being treated by
"chemicals and various therapies from a chiropractor." The coroner's
jury found that Rachel's condition was reported to be treatable by
conventional means and that her health care had been inadequate.
A comment from a reputable Fellow of the Royal Pharmacological Society
draws attention to the fact that after brushing one's teeth with
fluoride toothpaste and thoroughly rinsing your mouth, you will still
ingest a dose of both fluoride and flavouring in quantities of the
order of a homoeopathic dose. Also many foods and beverages contain
flavours, colouring, preservatives and impurities in small amounts, so
that the quantity ingested approximates to a homoeopathic dose. Many of
these factors could influence human physiology at least as much as
There have been many controlled studies of homoeopathic remedies
(Kleijen 1981, Scofield 1984) and while the evidence of clinical trials
is positive it is not sufficient to draw definitive conclusions because
most trials are of low methodological quality and because of the
unknown role of publication bias.
In view of the absence of scientific evidence of the efficacy of
holistic medicine, why are people flocking to alternative
A 160 page report completed by the British Medical Association in May
1986, points to a paradox, that along with the great modern
developments in rational therapeutics and the diagnostic techniques
which have revolutionized the effective expectations of medical
science, there has also been a significant change in patient/doctor
relationship — less time to counsel and to support the patient. In
bygone days when there was little else to offer, a long personal chat
was in many cases a therapy in itself. Alternative practitioners, who
according to a Council of Europe report, spend up to eight times longer
over a consultation than an average general practitioner, seem to
fulfill the personal attention and support expectations of many
Due to the incredible increase in the number of effective drugs that
have become available since the end of World War II, patients expect
and demand instant cures. If conventional medicine cannot supply one,
then maybe alternative, albeit irrational cures can. The very
efficiency of modern medicine too, turns people away. Those afraid of
organic disease, especially of a malignant nature, may prefer to go to
an alternative therapist because they are afraid what the orthodox
diagnostic process might reveal.
What of the testimonies of those who claim to have been cured by fringe
medicines? First there is the natural variability of all diseases where
the pain or symptom has important points of remission. The patient may
feel as though the pain is diminishing or getting worse. It doesn't
matter whether the patient starts treatment (and the treatment can be
anything from a sugar pill, glass of coloured water or a "healing
crystal") on a worsening slide or an improving climb, the result will
eventually be one of perceived improvement. The important point is the
way we perceive illness — we tend to ascribe cause and effect where
Finally there is the placebo effect. Many of our ill-effects are
psychosomatic — a variety of problems, particularly headaches, brought
on by tension, anxiety or depression and which, if they arise for
psychological reasons would probably go away for the same reasons.
Therefore, belief in a therapy, regardless of what it may be, and in
the therapist whether genuine or a quack, will lead to an affect on the
mind which in turn will produce an effect on the body.
Barratt, Stephen. MD. 1987. Homoeopathy: Is it Medicine? Skeptical
Coulter, H. 1972. Homoeopathic Medicine. Formur International.
Danciger, E. 1987. The Emergence of Homoeopathy. Century
Grossman, R. 1986. The Other Medicines. Pan Books Ltd.
Hahnemann, S. 1980. The Chronic Diseases. Their Peculiar Nature and
Their Homoeopathic Cure. Jain Publishing Co. New Delhi.
Kleijnen, Knipschild. 1991. British Medical Journal. 302:316-23.
Jones, Lewis. 1987. Alternative Therapies: A report on an inquiry by
the British Medical Association. Skeptical Inquirer.
Leeser, O. 1943. The Contribution of Homoeopathy to the
Development of Medicine. Hippocrates Publishing Co.
Mitchell, G.R. 1975. Homoeopathy: The First Authorative Study of
Its Place in Medicine Today. W.H. Allen. London.
Nature. 1989. Human basophil degranulation triggered by very
dilute antiserum against IgE. Vol. 333, June 30, p 816.
Panos, M.B. and Heilich, J. 1980. Homoeopathic Medicine at Home.
J.P. Tarcher. Los Angeles. CA.
Scofield. 1984. The British Homeopathic Journal. 73:161-226.
Sharma, C.H. 1977. A Manual of Homoeopathy and Natural Medicine.
Turnstone Press. Wellingborough. UK.
Stalker, D. and Glymour, C. 1985. Examining Holistic Medicine.
Prometheus Books. Buffalo NY.
From: Edwards, H. A Skeptic's Guide to the New Age