The principles of homoeopathy go back to the origins of medicine but the principles of modern homoeopathic practice were established by Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843) in the early part of the nineteenth century.
It was known at that time that cinchona bark (which contains the drug we know as quinine) relieves the symptoms of the ague (a disorder we now know as malaria). In experimental mood Hahnemann decided to see what happened when he took some quinine himself – even though he didn’t have the ague. He was startled to discover that when he took the drug he developed the fever and the other symptoms normally associated with the disease. In due course he noticed that the symptoms of the disease disappeared when he stopped taking the drug.
Hahnemann knew that according to Hippocrates if an individual who is suffering from an illness can be made to suffer symptoms similar to those produced by his illness then he will be cured. This is the ancient theory of ‘like curing like’, also known as the law of similars. Hahnemann realized that quinine satisfied this law and immediately set about trying to find more drugs that had a similar effect. During the following few years he experimented with all sorts of things: metals, salts, animal products and vegetable substances. He discovered an enormous range of products which fitted his theory and which could be used to produce symptoms similar to those associated with specific disorders.
As he continued his research Hahnemann also discovered something else: he didn’t need to use large doses of his medicines in order to obtain the desired effects. Indeed, on the contrary, to his great surprise he discovered that the smaller the dose he used the more effective it was. And thus the practice of homoeopathy was born.
In homoeopathy minute doses of drugs are given with the intention of triggering off some sort of defensive reaction within the body and stimulating the body’s natural resistance to disease. Homoeopathy has, it seems, a good deal in common with vaccination, in which a small amount of an infective organism is introduced into the patient’s body in order to stimulate the body’s defence mechanisms to prepare suitable defences.
The dilutions that homoeopathic practitioners use are so small that in order to prepare their medicines homoeopathic practitioners effectively empty a bottle of concentrated medicine into a lake and then use the lake water as medicine.
For a homoeopath, making the correct diagnosis is a vitally important part of the whole business of healing. The first interview a patient has with a homoeopath can take as long as two hours. The questions the homoeopath will ask cover a wide range of mental, physical and emotional characteristics, for the homoeopath must find out as much as he possibly can about his patient as an individual. It is only by this lengthy period of questioning that the practitioner can decide what sort of treatment to use because in homoeopathy the treatment is designed to fit the patient not the disease.
The medicine that is to be selected must be one that will suit the patient’s psychological make-up, temperament and lifestyle. The homoeopath will be keen to find out what changes the patient has experienced in recent days and weeks. He will want to know about personal feelings and behavioural changes. He will have to know about the patient’s needs and fears if he is to choose the correct treatment. The homoeopath with want to know how his patient responds to the temperature, the weather, the environment, and the time of the day.
The homoeopath believes that the symptoms are a sign that the body is fighting a danger of some kind. In order to provide the correct treatment the homoeopath needs to know as much as possible about the individual’s strengths and weaknesses so that he can provide the correct type of help.
In order to evaluate possible treatments homoeopaths have to do ‘provings’ of potentially useful substances. To do this they must give very small doses of animal, vegetable and mineral substances to healthy people for several weeks. During that time they record any symptoms which are produced.
By his death in 1843 Hahnemann had done ‘provings’ on 99 substances. By the year 1900 over 600 more medicines had been added to the list of useful remedies. Today there are nearly 3,000 substances which are available to homoeopaths. The materials used include onions, indian hemp, St John’s wort, gold, copper, mercury, sulphur, cadmium, honey-bee sting venom, snake venom and spiders.
Once the homoeopath has made his diagnosis then he must choose the correct substance from this list of possible remedies. By and large homoeopaths prefer to use a single cure – however many symptoms the patient has. If, for example, you go to see a homoeopath complaining of a headache and diarrhoea, the homoeopath will probably give you one remedy to treat both problems rather than two separate remedies. The homoeopath always has to remember that it is the patient he is treating – not the disease.
According to homoeopaths there are no incurable diseases, only incurable people.
Over two thousand years ago Hippocrates wrote that ‘through the like, disease is produced, and through the application of the like it is cured’. Paracelsus, who was a vital figure in the re-emergence of medicine as a science during the Renaissance, said much the same thing. Hahnemann’s basic principle is that ‘a substance which produces symptoms in a healthy person cures those symptoms in a sick person.’
One of the main reasons why Samuel Hahnemann was keen to develop a new form of medical practice was that he was disenchanted by the medicines available to and used by his medical colleagues. (Remember that this was back in the early part of the nineteenth century.) Hahnemann knew only too well that patients were often made worse by being given huge doses of potentially harmful products. He wanted to find a technique that would reduce the risk of patients developing unpleasant or dangerous side effects. And, indeed, one of the main advantages of homoeopathy over most other forms of medicine (both orthodox and alternative) is that side effects are virtually unheard of.
One problem that does occur when homoeopathic medicines are used is that the symptoms may sometimes appear to move outwards – producing fresh symptoms such as skin disorders, boils and diarrhoea. These symptoms, claim homoeopaths, show that the treatment is working and that the disease is being eradicated from the body.
Homoeopaths are among the most sensitive and cautious of medical practitioners. Most of them, like Hahnemann, have turned to homoeopathy because of a fear of the side effects and dangers associated with modern, powerful drug therapy.
But despite this, all good homoeopaths agree that many serious disorders may need treatment from orthodox practitioners or other alternative practitioners.