RogerBW's Blog

The Origins of Homœopathy 11 July 2014

Homœopathy has some very strange ideas. But where did it actually come from?

I should say first that, because I am not innumerate, I regard homœopathy as arrant nonsense, at best a waste of money and at worst fatal when its practitioners cause patients to avoid real medicine. The placebo effect is a real, powerful and very useful tool, but there are far better ways of achieving it.

But like any medical scam it must have sounded convincing when it was originally invented. If one considers the date, all becomes clear: 1796, the year Edward Jenner demonstrated his smallpox vaccine. The idea of variolation had been in England since 1721, but it had been slow to catch on; the idea of a small dose of a disease preventing the larger disease was obviously silly.

But then Jenner made a clear demonstration, and the world changed. And that same year Samuel Hahnemann invented homœopathy, based on the very similar idea of a small dose of a disease curing the larger disease. Coincidence? I rather suspect not. Oh, Hahnemann claimed to have got the idea from the symptoms of an overdose of quinine being similar to those of malaria, but that's the sort of founding myth every religion needs.

The dilution is simply a safety measure. The more you dilute your drugs, the less likely you are to overdose your victim, and it's a bad idea to kill the marks because then they can't pay you any more.

Of course, Hahnemann also claimed that negative states of mind could attract disease-causing spirits, sorry, miasms. But given the basic idea, a spoonful of misappropriated vaccination and a cupful of safety measures to avoid having any physical effect on the patient (unlike the bleeding and cupping that was still part of orthodox medical practice), one can quite see how it could have become popular in a largely pre-scientific age.

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