(Investigator 90, 2003 May)

A scientific test of homeopathy — with $1million at stake — concluded, "Homeopathy is impossible."

This conclusion was on the ABC television program Catalyst (2003, April 10) and the $1million was put up by paranormal researcher, James Randi.


Homeopathy was founded by German physician Christian F.S. Hahnemann (1755-1843). He believed that substances that produce symptoms of sickness could relieve the symptoms when administered in very dilute form.

Other doctors disagreed with Hahnemann. From 1798 to 1810 he was prosecuted in every town he tried to settle in. He then went to Leipzig (Germany) where he taught his system until 1821 before being chased from Leipzig too.

Nevertheless, homeopathy became popular.

Hahnemann believed that the curative power of a substance lay in a force that resided in it. Repeated dilution with water released the curative force from the substance and it’s the force in the water that does the curing.

Often the substance is so diluted that none of it — no molecules at all — are left. It's "medicine" without any active ingredients.


In recent years some scientists researched homeopathic medicines and found measurable effects.

Both homeopathy and conventional medicine, for example, use pollen as a treatment for hay fever.  But in homeopathy the starting material is diluted until none remains.

The Catalyst program reported on clinical trials by Dr. David Reilly on 35 patients suffering from hayfever. Half received homeopathic medicine made from pollen and half received sugar pills. The patients recorded the severity of their symptoms in a diary for four weeks. Reilly found improvement in patients taking the homeopathic remedy compared to a control group that did not get homeopathic treatment.

Skeptics dismissed the result because there was no explanation for how homeopathic preparations — in effect pure water — could cure or reduce symptoms.

The scientific explanation for the apparent success is the placebo effect: Patients often show marked improvement in their symptoms when given nothing more than sugar pills without any active ingredient. They believe the pills will work and therefore often they do. Belief in a cure reduces stress and if the symptoms were due to stress they decline.

Homeopathic care, furthermore, often includes long consultations. The patient is listened to non-judgmentally and this also alleviates stress and anxiety. The patient may also get and follow advice on eating, sleeping and on relationships and this may also be curative.

Therefore many scientists conclude, "the beneficial effects of homeopathy [are] due to the placebo effect."

If so, then homeopathy ought not to work on babies or animals as they don't understand that they are taking a medicine. Yet it apparently does work in such cases.

 Catalyst introduced Mark Elliot who treats animals with homeopathic medicines including horses, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs and reptiles.

In particular Elliot tried a homeopathic remedy on horses with Cushing's (a disease caused by cancer) and achieved success rates equivalent to medical drugs.

A claim of Homeopathy is that water has a "memory" so that the substance diluted down to non-existence is remembered.  The "memory" might be the mechanism that produces the cures.

The search for an explanation of Homeopathy's apparent success therefore comes down to proving water has a memory — a conclusion that would contradict the known laws of science.

Professor Madeleine Ennis seemed to find evidence of "memory". She diluted histamine to homeopathic levels and tested its effect on blood cells — and got an effect.

This is where James Randi got involved. On his website Randi offers $1million for demonstrating a paranormal phenomenon under test conditions.


Scientists from respected institutes conducted a repetition of Ennis' experiment.

Professor Peter Mobbs of University College, London, prepared homeopathic dilutions of histamine. The first set of procedures diluted the solutions 10,000 million times. Tubes of plain water to act as controls underwent the same procedure.

Another professor coded each of the initial ten tubes so that later the tubes with homeopathic dilutions could be distinguished from those with plain water.

Further dilution was then done down to levels equivalent to one drop in all the world's oceans.

The result was 40 tubes — 20 with homeopathic dilutions and 20 of pure water but all of them without any molecules of histamine.

Ennis's procedure was then repeated. A drop of water was taken from each tube and a sample of living human cells added.

Next, Wayne Turnbull of Guys Hospital analysed the cells to see whether the homeopathic water had any effect.

He used a flow cytometer that pushes cells in a single stream passed a focused laser beam. Laser light reflected from each cell and measured by electronic detectors determined whether the cells reacted or not.

When this was completed the code identifying the homeopathic solutions from pure water was broken and a statistician analysed the results. The results showed no difference between solutions that started off as pure water and solutions that started off with histamine.

Water, therefore, does not have a memory. We are left with no reason other than the placebo effect for why homeopathy should work. James Randi retained his $1million.