Sometimes topics for this column fall, unbidden, into my lap. Such was the case during our recent trip to Romania, where we'd booked a room in the heart of old Sibiu on Strada Samuel Brukenthal. The name rang a bell for me, not because of Brukenthal's 13-year stint as governor of Transylvania — thanks to his being a favorite of Empress Maria Theresa — but because he was a patron and mentor of the doctor who went on to found the alternative medicine system of homeopathy.
Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843) was desperately poor, trying to finish his medical studies in Saxony (in modern day Germany), when Brukenthal took him under his wing. Soon after, having passed his exams, Hahnemann moved to Sibiu where he spent nearly two years both as Brukenthal's personal doctor and as cataloger of the governor's vast — 280,000 volume! — library of medieval books. In this latter role, he was exposed to the alchemical lore of such medieval physicians as Paracelus and, notably, Jean Pharamond Rhumelius (1600-1660). Rhumelius was probably the first to propose the homeopathic principle of similia similibus curentur: like cures like.
Hahnemann formalized this aphorism as "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." Experimenting on himself with the Peruvian tree bark cinchona, he noted that cinchona both causes malarial-like symptoms and cures malaria, thus, he thought, proving his hypothesis. (He apparently missed the more mundane explanation, that cinchona contains quinine.)
And so was born the quack science of homeopathy, the general idea being to administer a super-dilute, very specific, "homeopathic" remedy for an illness. Yet Hahnemann was far from a quack doctor. Rather, he was one of the brightest and most conscientious medical researchers in late 18th century Europe. Master of many languages (he regularly supported himself as a translator) and a prolific writer, he was appalled at what passed for medical science. "After I had discovered the weakness and errors of my teachers and books," he wrote, "I sank into a state of sorrowful indignation, which had nearly altogether disgusted me with the study of medicine."
At its heart, homeopathy, along with other "energy field" practices such as Reiki, chakra healing and therapeutic touch, represents the last stronghold of the ancient theory of vitalism. This is the belief that living organisms contain some non-material energy, often referred to as élan vital (or, perhaps, soul), absent in inanimate entities. So the fact that a homeopathic solution is diluted to the point where no molecules of the original substance remain is of no concern. In fact, for Hahenmann and his modern followers, that's the whole point: The dilution removes the harmful effects of a substance while, in his words, "arousing the spirit-like medicinal powers of the crude substances."
Two hundred years on vitalism is all but dead, materialism ("We're just rearranged food!") reigns and homeopathy, according to mainstream medicine, is, at best, a placebo. And Hahnemann? Insofar as he was dissatisfied with the medical science of his time and tried to fix it, he was a hero. Wrong, yes, but still a hero.
Barry Evans (firstname.lastname@example.org) muses that if homeopathy worked, Big Pharma would fight it.