The founder of homeopathy, Dr. Samuel Hahnemann, begins his treatise on medicine, health and homeopathy in general terms. He holds off on proposing a complete overhaul of healthcare practices until later in the Organon of Medicine. Instead, he begins at the beginning, by defining good medicine and then aiming a blowtorch at his contemporaries who didn't practice it.
We'll get to those sections soon enough, but first I should explain what separates homeopathy from conventional medicine and give a little background on their relationship.
Memorial in Scott
Circle, Washington, DC.
First up, what is homeopathy? The word itself means, "therapy of Similars." So, in homeopathy we use a tiny dose of a substance that would cause symptoms in a healthy person to remove those symptoms from a sick person. In other words, we look for the most similar substance and give that in a non-toxic, stimulating dose.
For example, suppose you swallow too much arsenic. You become restless. Your head becomes heavy, your body cold and sweaty. Three blankets aren't enough to stop the shivering. The weakness is overwhelming. You become scared. You start to have a burning, bloody diarrhea with painful cramps. While sitting on the toilet, you have to keep a trash can within reach. The blackened vomit burns your stomach and your throat. You're deathly thirsty. Every sip of water renews the vomiting. You think you must die soon. Perhaps it would be better if you went to another bed, another sofa, that soft chair over there. But for all your shifting from place to place, nothing is comfortable and the movement makes you weaker. If you could only get to sleep! At about 2 a.m. when you're so exhausted you might actually fall asleep, all the symptoms get worse.
Not coincidentally from a homeopathic perspective, there are flus that look quite like this, and those flus respond wonderfully to homeopathic arsenic oxide (arsenicum album).
Which brings me to the crucial second point: the Minimum Dose. At the time Hahnemann was writing the Organon, physicians were giving large doses of sulphur for rashes and mercury for ulcers. These were doses of similar medicines, true enough. Problem was, they were giving too much. It requires a strong constitution to recover from a teaspoon of poison. If you got a sick person who was sensitive to one of these drugs, you would make them much sicker. And you obviously couldn't be giving people teaspoons of arsenic!
Enter the Minimum Dose, Hahnemann's greatest discovery (the Law of Similars had been proposed already). Hahnemann tried giving his patients smaller and smaller doses of similar medicines. He found that the smaller the dose he used, the better results he got. He even diluted the medicines over and over again, at each step adding energy to the medicine by hitting it. When properly prescribed, these doses helped dramatically. Even when the remedy was not quite right, the side effects were mild. And those side effects helped further clarify the remedy choice.
These are the basic principles on which all homeopathic remedies are prescribed: The Law of Similars and the Minimum Dose.
The conventional approach to medicine, on the other hand, does not have an organizing therapeutic principal. It takes many approaches. The most common is to oppose the patient's symptoms ("antipathy?" ha! couldn't resist, mate). But sometimes conventional medicine uses a similars-type approach, sometimes a supplementary approach, etc. You might call the organizing principle of conventional medicine Chemistry, except that after the laboratory part of developing a medicine, how that medicine gets used in practice often has more to do with what works than with any single therapeutic principle. Hahnemann called this practice "allopathy" (using all therapies).
Dr. Hahnemann began publishing articles in 1796 suggesting a new approach to medicine. He published his Organon in 1810 to much opposition. When he successfully treated epidemics of typhoid fever and cholera with homeopathy, those who were paying attention were impressed. Homeopathy began to catch on.
Interestingly, at the end of the 19th century, homeopathy was the most popular form of medicine in the United States. The allopaths only took back their dominance of American medicine after they convinced the populace that with their antibiotics they had put an end to infectious disease.
Boring history lesson over! Except for one point I'd like to set straight. A couple of years ago, a widely circulated news article stated that homeopaths were responsible for bleeding people and sweating them with mercury during the 1800s. Don't believe it! Homeopathy was founded precisely to move medicine away from such practices. In fact, Hahnemann was so disgusted by standard medicine that he quit working as a physician while he searched out a kinder way to treat his patients.
In Hahnemann's own words: My sense of duty would not easily allow me to treat the unknown pathological state of my suffering brethren with these unknown medicines. The thought of becoming in this way a murderer or malefactor towards the life of my fellow human beings was most terrible to me, so terrible and disturbing that I wholly gave up my practice in the first years of my married life and occupied myself solely with chemistry and writing.