Homeopathy is the brainchild of Samuel Hahnemann, a German doctor practicing at the beginning of the 19th century. As a young physician, Hahnemann became discontented with the mainstream medicine practiced during his era, which often employed harsh and doubtful measures such as bloodletting, purging, blistering and excessive doses (1). His own experience and observation led him to propose a radically new medicine, homeopathy, which could be translated as “the cure is like to the disease”. Homeopathy is based on a few pillar principles developed by Hahnemann, which I will attempt to summarise below:
1. The law of “similars”. This law, which is rightfully considered as the basic tenet of homeopathy, had been the mainstay of several ‘dissident’ physicians such as Hippocrates, Paracelsus or Stahl. The law maintains that cure should be similar, rather than opposed to disease. In other words, patients should take medicine that is apparently ‘stimulating’ the illness. This may sound rather absurd in our day-and-age, when it is ‘self-understood’ that the medicine should be contradictory to the disease: thus, when we have an infection we take antibiotics to ‘reduce’ or ‘eliminate’ it. Who would even consider taking something that would increase the infection? Yet some famous physicians, including Hahnemann, thought that a contrary medicine only quashes the symptoms, without addressing the real problem. The infection may be reduced or eliminated, but the body’s disease would only find some other outlet to express itself. That is because, in Hahnemann’s views, disease goes deeper than what we normally think as illness. Disease is a spiritual entity, rather than a physical one (2).
2. Theory of the vital force (“vitalism”). Homeopathy belongs to a long lineage of scientists or philosophers that believed that, behind the apparent materiality of the universe lay a spiritual force that organized matter (3). Proponents of this theory include Aristotle, Hippocrates, Paracelsus, Van Helmont, Stahl, Bergson, Driesch and others (4, 5). Hahnemann subscribed to this view, maintaining that the body was animated by a spiritual force he called “dynamis”, which was responsible for maintaining and regulating the body (6). Far before the ideas of homeostasis and immunity were introduced into medicine, he believed that the body had the capacity of self-regulating itself. However, he also considered that, when disease takes over, the body is no longer able to protect itself and the physician must then intervene.
3. Disease as a spiritual entity. As mentioned above, Hahnemann thought that illness was not the physical expression of it (the disease is not ‘stomach ulcer’, for instance) but a spiritual imbalance that eventually becomes a disease. He considered that disease attacked the vital force of the body at the spiritual level, and overcoming it the body was then overtaken by a physical illness. However, the disease would not be really defeated by tackling the physical illness, but by going to its spiritual source.
4. Cure by similar medicine. According to the law of similars, the elimination of the disease is done by medicine that is alike to the illness. In other words, Hahnemann looked for plants whose effect on the healthy human was similar to the disease. For instance, quinine bark taken by a healthy person would give him or her a slight fever. Therefore, Hahnemann used quinine to cure fever in sick persons. This identification of the impact of medicine on healthy bodies was done methodically, often by testing it on oneself. Hahnemann stated that he had taken tens of medicines to verify their effects (7). His commitment to experiment in medicine made him one of the first physicians to use rigorous empirical testing.
5. Infinitesimal dilutions. Hahnemann recognized that many of the plants he prescribed caused a serious, even possibly deadly, reaction in a person. For instance, if a patient was prescribed belladonna to cure a certain disease, taking it in heavy doses could easily endanger his or her life. Hahnemann attributed this effect to the reaction of what we would now call the body’s immune system. He realized that this reaction might be too strong and too dangerous to do any good to the patient. Instead, he considered that if the medicine was diluted enough, this would allow the body to accommodate itself to the treatment and not react to it (8). The dilution was achieved by combining one drop of plant tincture to ten parts water, and then shaking it vigorously. This process repeats several times. After ten dilutions, there will not be one single molecule left of the substance according to Avogadro’s Law. This fact has made many skeptics ridicule homeopathy for not leaving any trace of the plant left in the medicine (9). However, for homeopaths, the higher the dilutions, the higher the potency of the medicine (10).
6. Replacement of the disease. Hahnemann considered that, by taking a medicine similar to the disease, the physical illness is ‘overtaken’ by a medicinal illness (11). The medicine replaced the disease at the spiritual level, changing it with its own manifestations. After the patient began taking the treatment, his body began to suffer the effects of the medical plant, rather than the disease itself. The illness departed, and the only suffering remaining was that caused by the slight reaction of the body to the medicine. However, the body, freed from the disease, was again able to sustain its own health and soon all the negative effects disappeared, leaving the body completely healthy.
7. Holism. Hahnemann condemned the medicine of his age, which was tackling disease locally. He firmly considered that the disease, as a spiritual entity, affected the entire body, even though it may express the disease locally. Therefore, cure had to address the entire body’s system, rather than one part only. In this, Hahnemann proved a holistic and systemic thinker avant-la-lettre, with his insistence on addressing the body as a coherent and self-regulating whole.
This is an oversimplified view of Hahnemann’s views of homeopathy. What is remarkable is that, two centuries onwards, these principles are still generally acknowledged as the mainstay of homeopathic medicine. It proves the long-lasting insight of Hahnemann and the strength of his observations and experimentation approach to medicine.