Medical Self-Care: What Is Homeopathic Medicine?

A guest author provides a brief history of homeopathic medicine, an explanation of its therapeutic principles, and a discussion of its contentious relationship with conventional medicine.

| September/October 1984

homeopathic medicine - assorted dried leaves on cutting board

The remedies used in homeopathic medicine are derived from plants, animals, and other sources.

Photo by Fotolia/kalcutta

Homeopathic medicine is based on a philosophy of healing that's quite different from the biomedical model used by orthodox (allopathic) physicians. Homeopaths believe that most of the pharmaceutical drugs commonly prescribed by allopaths simply suppress symptoms without curing the illness. So, instead of traditional medications, homeopaths prescribe tiny doses of specially prepared remedies derived from plants, animals, and other sources to help the body mobilize its own healing energies.

A Little History

The guiding principles of homeopathy were developed in the early nineteenth century by a German physician, Samuel Hahnemann. Disenchanted with the accepted medical practices of his day — such as bleeding and blistering patients to rid them of "bad bodily fluids" ­— Hahnemann stopped practicing and became a medical translator, in order to learn about health care methods used in other parts of the world. During his research he read that quinine cured malaria "because of its astringent and bitter qualities." That explanation seemed inadequate to him, so he proceeded to look for a better one by ingesting quinine himself. As he took repeated doses, he observed that the medicine produced the symptoms of the very disease it cured. As the drug wore off each time, the malarial symptoms disappeared. He concluded that quinine cured malaria by reproducing its symptoms.

This observation, and others like it, were recorded by Hahnemann and became the basis for the fundamental principle of homeopathy: the law of similars, which states that a substance that produces the symptoms of a disease in a healthy person can be used to cure that disease.

Hahnemann spent the remainder of his life experimenting with other remedies — nearly 100 in all — and testing (homeopaths call it "proving") the extracts on himself and other healthy people. He carefully cataloged he preparations and the symptoms they produced, and then referred to his journal in order to treat sick people, prescribing very small doses of whatever substance was known to bring on symptoms similar to those of the illness in question. (Homeopathic physicians today still rely largely on Hahnemann's observations, which have been incorporated into reference works known as homeopathic materia medica: books that list the substances and symptoms noted through "provings.") The approach worked well, and by the mid-1800's homeopathy was practiced widely in Europe and North America despite the fact that it was branded as "unscientific" by many orthodox physicians.

The American Institute of Homeopathy was established in 1844, and two years later the American Medical Association was founded. The AMA refused homeopaths admission to their fledgling society, even though most homeopaths had also been trained in the allopathic medicine of the day. The AMA also expelled some of its members for merely consulting with homeopaths.

Nonetheless, homeopathy flourished in the United States during the late nineteenth century as an alternative to allopathic bloodletting and purging. Many members of the social, intellectual, and political elites turned to homeopathy after seeing its impact on epidemics of cholera, yellow fever, scarlet fever, and meningitis in Europe. Some epidemiological studies of the time showed homeopathic treatment to be actually more effective than allopathic care.

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