Christian Friedrich Samuel Hahnemann (1755 – 1843)
The latest practitioner of quackery to come under our microscope is the German physician, Samuel Hahnemann, best known for creating the branch of alternative medicine which we now as homeopathy.
Hahnemann obtained his medical qualifications (with honours) from the University of Erlangen on 10th August 1779 and started practising as the local doctor in the copper mining area of Mansfeld, where he settled down, married and sired 11 children. But he quickly became disillusioned with medicine as practised at the time, claiming that it did the patient more harm than good and that “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”.
Being fluent in a number of languages, Hahnemann made his living by translating medical journals and treatises. In one of the treatises he was working on he came across and became fascinated by a claim that the bark of a Peruvian tree called cinchona was an effective treatment for malaria due to its astringent qualities. Interest piqued he started experimenting on cinchona’s effect on the human body by self-application and noted that it induced malaria-like symptoms in him. This led to his light-bulb moment, the hypothesis, first aired in 1796, that like can cure like or, as he more eloquently put it, “that which can produce a set of symptoms in a healthy individual, can treat a sick individual who is manifesting a similar set of symptoms”, although he did not use the term homeopathy until his 1807 essay, Indications of the Homeopathic Employment of Medicines in Ordinary Practice.
Although homeopathy has its roots going back to ancient times, there has never been overwhelming medical corroboration as to its efficacy. Hahnemann created homeopathic potions which utilised the extracts from certain plants, minerals and animals which were then diluted down. According to his Law of Infinitesimals, the more dilute a solution is, the more powerful is its strength. Notwithstanding his theorising, Samuel sensibly demanded payment upfront for his potions. By 1810 his approach to homeopathic medicine was sufficiently advanced that he published his textbook, Organon of Rational Healing, which, shortly after his death, had reached its sixth edition.
One of Hahnemann’s theories developed at the turn of the 19th century, bizarrely, was that many diseases were caused by coffee, a claim he was happy to make in print. However, for some reason – perhaps he liked an espresso in the morning – he went off that theory and posited that the real cause of disease was what he called psora, a contagious skin infestation caused by the itch mite. It caused a vulnerability of skin tissue and reduced the germ-destroying properties of cells, with blood cells and blood serum. The cure was to utilise sulphur or calcarea or lycopodium which as well as fighting like with like significantly reduced the patient’s convalescent period and reduced their likely to contract other diseases.
Towards the end of his life Samuel and other homeopathists were waging a campaign against the newly developed anaesthetics, arguing that the use of artificial pain relievers was an unwarranted interference with nature’s system of benefical punishments. Somehow the fact that opium and morphine were natural products of the opium poppy seemed to escape him.
Hahnemann’s legacy lives on and homeopathy is a respected alternative to conventional medicine, particularly amongst heirs to the throne who commune with plants.