Note from the editor: Naturopathic doctors are NOT homeopaths. Many NDs do practice homeopathy and although the science is not widely accepted this should not dissuade practitioners from its potential application. Medicine is always growing and is only limited by our innovation.
IT IS DIFFICULT TO EXPLAIN the homeopathic tradition without a reference to the history of medicine from which it emerged.
At the time of Hahnemann there were two great schools of medicine.
1. The Rationalist School
The rationalist school of medicine believed that it understood the disease process with its advanced scientific knowledge, deriving from the new fields of physics, chemistry and hydraulics. Thus, the duty of the physician was to determine what disease the person had and, thus, what process within the body was malfunctioning.
Knowing this, the physician would administer medicine to oppose the effect of the disease on the body. For instance, if a disease provoked fever, anti-fever drugs were given (antipyretics). This approach has continued essentially to this day. Its descendants are modern day MDs, or allopathic doctors.
2. The Empirical School
The second school, or the empirical school, had a different approach. Rather than focusing on the disease to be cured, the empirical school focused on what each individual medicine could cure. Very detailed manuals were created of cured patients symptoms, and what remedies relieved them. A pharmacology was developed, and indications for the various medicines used were developed.
Holes in the Medical Theory
However, each school had its weaknesses.
The rationalist school of therapy was dependent on its theories about the nature of disease in order for the therapy to be decided on. If the theory was incorrect (for instance, as in the theory that syphilis was due to insufficient stimulation of the body) the resulting therapy (often mercury) would often not help, and at times when medicines were largely toxic, and used in large doses, would often irrevocably harm or kill the patient.
The empirical system, with its emphasis on the actual experience (ie, remedies that actually had cured things in the past) avoided this problem. However, the process of acquiring this information was painfully slow, due to the need for trial and error in trying out medicines for patients with unusual conditions, or for new diseases. Many times physicians would simply try one remedy after another, with no guide toward what might be useful or not.
This however changed with the experience of Samuel Hahnemann.
Dr. Hahnemann, MD
Hahnemann was an MD who had removed himself from practice in the late 1780’s due to his disgust at the inability of the allopathic practitioners to aid, or even not harm, their patients.
He made his living at this time as a translator of medical texts. One day he translated a text on the then commonly used cinchona bark. During the translation, he noticed that the symptoms of overdosing of the bark were identical to the symptoms of malaria, which cinchona bark was indicated to treat.
Over a time of pondering this, Hahnemann wondered if these two facts were connected. He began taking doses of cinchona himself, and did indeed experience the symptoms of malaria. Over time, Hahnemann developed the idea that the reason why cinchona was so active against malaria ( which the medical science of his day was unable to explain) was in fact due to this similarity.
Hahnemann suspected that the inherent curative ability of the body (which was a long standing idea within the empirical school of medicine) was aroused by the action of the cinchona bark, and then acted against both the malaria and cinchona bark jointly.
The two diseases could be dealt with at once because of their similarity.
This idea of similar diseases became stated as “like cures like” that is, a medicine producing a symptom complex that is similar to the symptom complex the body has will provoke the body into reacting, and purging itself of both diseases, the one induced by the medicine, and the one inherent to the body.
This doesn’t mean, as is often stated, that medicines producing similar symptoms will cure those symptoms. The symptoms complex, or disease as a whole, is the key term here. Hahnemann found that a medicine caused the whole organism to react.
Symptoms of any particular part were simply a manifestation of the state of the whole body ( as has recently been confirmed by the groundbreaking work of Divya Chhabrha, soon to be discussed). As such, the entire picture of the patient, the whole complex of their symptoms, were significant to determining the curative medicine.
Hahnemann began to experiment with more medicines, eventually adopting the term “proving” for these trials. He indeed began to discover in his restarted clinical practice that these medicines are indeed effective in patients with similar symptom complexes and demonstrated in homeopathic practice, and some of the trials of homeopathy recently published. He named this method Homeopathy, or “similar suffering”, in recognition of the centrality of the law of similars to this practice of medicine.
Provings are the system through which homeopathy determines the curative properties of its medicines.
With this idea and method, suddenly empirical physicians could proactively test medicines, and had reliable methods for doing so, and a consistent theory for applying them. This discovery alone would have been enough to ensure Hahnemann’s place in medical history. However, another discovery of his also ensured his fame, as well and the infamy of his system. That discovery was a technology, the infinitesimal dose.
Hahnemanns Demise — The Ultramolecular Dose
In truth very few people understand the “law of similars” aspect of homeopathy. The idea most people have of homeopathy is that of the ultramolecular dose, or the dose of a medicine that contains no molecules of the substance it was originally made from.
When Hahnemann was in practice (1790’s to the 1840’s), the medicines were generally very toxic, and used in extremely high doses. Typical medicines were Cinchona bark, mercury, tartar emetic and others, most of which had profound side effects and, in the allopathic medicine of the time, very vague indications for use.
Hahnemann equipped with his new discovery of provings now had excellent indications for use of these medicines. But the side effects, even when the medicines were correctly used, still troubled Hahnemann.
What good was it to have a patient get better from a medicine if they were troubled afterwards by permanent toxic effects afterwards? In addition to this, he began noticing that a patient was peculiarly sensitive to their similar medicine, and thus would respond to much lower doses than were normally used.
So Hahnemann began using smaller and smaller doses of his medicines. Due to the impracticality of giving microscopic doses of medicines, he began triturating his medicines with lactose and then after 3 triturations began diluting the triturated mixtures with alcohol. In order to provide for an easier administration method, he would drip the alcohol onto lactose pills and administer these pills to his patients.
The critical factor here was Hahnemanns methodological rigor in pharmacy. In order to ensure equal distribution of the medicines he was working with he triturated and scraped the remedies, and shook the remedies repeatedly when working with alcohol dilutions.
As Hahnemann began working with these new triturated and diluted remedies, he noticed his patients responded more strongly to medicines that had been through the process.
Over time he began serial dilutions of his remedies, that is, he began taking 1 part of alcohol from his remedies, and further mixing that one part with fresh alcohol, then using this further dilution of the remedy to soak the lactose pills used in therapy.
These new further diluted remedies produced even more powerful responses.
Eventually Hahnemann started using a notation system to count how many triturations and dilutions he had preformed. C referred to a 1 to 100 dilution level. A remedy of 12 C had been triturated, diluted and shaken 12 times, each time diluting it in a 1 to 100 ratio.
At the level of 12C there is statistically very little chance that any molecules of the original substance are left in the remedy.
Contrary to popular opinion, Hahnemann was a contemporary of Avegadro, the chemist who determined that mass was not infinitely divisible. In all likelihood Hahnemann was aware of the fact that there was almost none of the original substance left in the remedies.
Hahnemann did not ascribe the curative powers of remedies to their physical or chemical properties. In his own words:
“Our life force, as spirit like dynamis, cannot be seized and affected by damaging impingements on the healthy organism (through inimical potencies from the external world that disturb the harmonious play of life) other than in a spirit-like dynamis way. In like manner the only way the medical art practitioner can remove such morbid mistunements (the diseases) from the dynamis by the spirit-like (dynamic, virtual) tunement altering energies of the serviceable medicines acting upon our spirit-like life force” (Aphorism 16, the Organon by Hahnemann, Trans: Wenda Brewster O’Reilly).
Hahnemann though disease was a dynamic vital process which could only be cured by the energetic process of medicines on the vital force. The vital force, while present in a crude substance, was vastly developed by the process of dilution and trituration that Hahnemann stumbled upon and later embraced.
This idea makes clear that Hahnemanns idea of disease wasn’t dependent upon material or chemical causes, but upon the “spirit-like dynamis” and can only be affected by the dynamis of medicine, developed and amplified by the process of trituration and dilution.
This insight, and the technology that goes along with it are completely separate from Hahnemanns insight into the law of similars. Either discovery on its own would have been impressive, but to make two such discoveries in one life was an amazing achievement.
Now, in medicine, it was possible to both have accurate knowledge of the curative properties of medicines, and to utilize them in such a fashion as to arouse the curative ability of the vital force without the risk of extensive side effects of crude doses.
This principle has become further developed over time through the development of the concept of the state, and in the new development of the trituration movements.
Coulter, H. Divided legacy Volume 4. Twentieth-Century Medicine: The Bacteriological Era. North Atlantic: Berkeley.
Hahnemann, S. The Organanon of Medicine (6th ed.). Trans by Wenda Brewster O’Reilly. Birdcage. Palo Alto, CA.