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The Eighteenth-Century Founder of Homeopathy Said His Treatments Were Better Than Bloodletting

Samuel Hahnemann was trying to fix the unscientific field of medicine

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smithsonian.com

Although the field of homeopathy is most definitely not accepted by the medical community today, its founder was a doctor who was trying to create medical practices that were gentler on the body than, say, bloodletting.

Hahnemann, born on this day in 1755, was a Swiss physician and translator. “He was one of many physicians in the 1700s who set out to explore systematically the use and effects of medical drugs,” according to the Science Museum in London.

In the context of medical practice at the time, writes scholar Michael Emmans Dean in the journal History of Science, Hahnemann was trying to create a new system of medicines that “he believed to be more humane and effective than any known before that time,” he writes. It was a time when opium, blood-letting and alcohol were all common treatments for illnesses, and the field of medicine was only starting to catch up to the scientifically framed ideas of the Enlightenment.

Hahnemann's ideas stemmed from translating a work that dealt with the use of quinine in treating malaria, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Hahnemann first observed that quinine’s effect of causing fever in a healthy person if taken was the same effect that malaria had on an infected person. “From this, Hahnemann developed the central idea of homeopathic medicine: the principle of ‘like cures like’ or the ‘law of similars’–an idea that was also central to folk medicine,” writes the museum.

He published an essay, followed in 1810 by the fundamental text of homeopathy, the Organon of the Rational Art of Healing, and homeopathy was born. The encyclopedia notes that Hahnemann “proved” his methods worked by administering the drugs to healthy subjects and watching for effects that would correspond to disease.

By 1821, local hostility to his practices resulted in him leaving the German city of Leipzig, where he was practicing, and he eventually ended up in Paris, “where he practiced medicine with great popularity until his death,” according to the encyclopedia.

The medical people who surrounded him in Liepzig were quick to disregard his ideas, Dean writes. “He was portrayed as a quack unable to earn a living from orthodox medicine, dishonest or insane and, in a dismissal extending to all who followed his precepts, as ‘too weak mentally to practice medicine or even to take care of himself,’” Dean writes.

Ironically, bloodletting and other such treatments eventually fell out of favor, but homeopathy is a thriving field today in spite of the medical community largely rejecting it. “Most rigorous clinical trials and systematic analyses of the research on homeopathy have concluded that there is little evidence to support homeopathy as an effective treatment for any specific condition,” according to the NIH's National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

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