Homeopathy: A brief history

Dr Samuel Hahnemann(1755-1843)

Homeopathy originates in the work of the German physician Samuel Hahnemann and it was he who coined the word Homoeopathy (Greek homoios = same or similar, pathos = disease or suffering).

Hahnemann was of humble origins, his father was a painter of the famous Meissen porcelain. This was a brutal period in medicine: ‘lunatics’ were chained and beaten, massive blood-letting was widely used. Hahnemann condemned these practices.

He became so disillusioned that for a while he abandoned medical practice altogether, instead earning his living translating medical books. It was while translating a book by the Edinburgh physician William Cullen that he had his inspiration. Cinchona bark, the source of quinine was something of a wonder drug at the time; it is an effective treatment for malaria, at that time common in parts of Europe.

Hahnemann disagreed with what Cullen said about Cinchona, and experimented on himself. He got symptoms very similar to malaria, and from this starting point developed the idea of similarity. He launched homeopathy with an article entitled ‘On a New Curative Principle’, published in 1796.

The early homeopaths introduced many new medicines and used some existing medicines in radically different ways. Homeopathy grew rapidly in the 19th century, largely because of its success in treating epidemics. In an infamous cholera epidemic in London in 1854, eventually traced to the Broad Street pump in Soho, the average mortality rate at London hospitals was 52% (over 500 people), but at the London Homoeopathic Hospital (as the Royal London Homoeopathic Hospital was then known), the mortality rate was 16%.

Homeopathy is now used worldwide. It is particularly popular in western Europe, 40% of the French people have used it at some time in their lives. It is also popular in the Indian subcontinent and Latin America.

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