Homeopathy “Similia Similibus Curentur”

Edward L.W. Scofield, M.D.
Retired Thoracic Surgeon

Presented to the Innominate Society June 20, 2001


          The ancient belief, that like is cured by like, has appeared in myth and legend as well as medicine throughout the centuries. Anthropologists have described its functions in relatively undeveloped societies, and a prominent example in legend is in Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde”—only a touch of the spear that wounded Tristan can heal him. Similia similibus curentur is the conceptual basis for homeopathy, which is often defined as the art of curing by administering minute amounts of remedies that produce effects in a healthy person similar to the patient’s symptoms. Historians of homeopathy point out that Hippocrates practiced ancient homeopathy, that it was written about in 4th Century B.D Greece, and that there are references to it in Medieval medical texts. An early one is a 1658 Geneva edition of one of Paracelsus’ (1490-1541) works in which the words similia similibus curentur are in the margin of a page.

As a system of vitalistic healing, homeopathy was named and brought into prominence by the German Physician Dr. Samuel Christian Friedrich Hahnemann in 1796. It emphasized the importance of both hygiene and a healthful diet along with giving very small, graduated doses of drugs to promote healing. The growth of homeopathy, which reached its height of popularity in the middle decades of the 19th century, is attributable to frustration with the traditional medicine of the era that often relied mainly on bleeding and purging to cure by reducing the noxious disease agents in the body and also to the influence of the Enlightenment and its profound questioning of dogma and tradition.

Much of the success of homeopathy is owed to Hahnemann’s efforts and fame. He was born at Meissen in Saxony in 1755, and before age 10, his father, who believed in the principles of the Enlightenment, insisted on his studying “thinking and thought: and emphasized the necessity to question all existing precepts and dogma. Hahnemann studied medicine at both the University of Leipzig and the University of Vienna, and practiced in Leipzig from 1789 to 1821. While translating Cullen’s Materia Medica into German in 1790 and also by personally taking cinchona bark, he learned that in a healthy person, quinine could produce malaria-like symptoms, that the results of taking quinine were somewhat similar to those of the disease it was intended to cure. That finding led to his development of the ‘law of similars” and the view that diseases should be treated by small doses of the drugs that would produce symptoms similar to those they were to ameliorate. In 1796, he advanced his theory in C.f. Hufland’s Journal, and in 1800 developed it further by outlining the doctrine of potentization or dynamization, which held that very much smaller doses of drugs than were being used were curative.

In his “Organon der rationellen Heilkunst”, Hahnemann presented the system of medicine that he named homeopathy, to indicate similarity in contrast to allopathy, which he also named in order to signify the difference between the medication and the patient’s symptoms. In addition to “like cures like”, other major concepts of homeopathy are that the symptoms of an illness represent the body’s attempts to return to health; therefore the homeopathic physician’s aim is to promote the further development of symptoms in order to accelerate the body’s self-cure. A fundamental tenet of homeopathy is the belief in the efficacy of minute doses of drugs, for example, tinctures in sixth, hundredth, or even thousandth dilutions. The curative power of a drug is “proved” by giving healthy persons gradually increasing doses until symptoms develop. (A clinical trial of yesteryear?). The goal of homeopathic medicine is health, being free of physical and emotional symptoms, whereas the goal of traditional allopathic medicine usually is the reduction or elimination of symptoms.

In 1821, Hahnemann was forced by the enmity of the establishment, especially the apothecaries, to leave Leipzig. The grand duke of the small German state of Anhalt-Coethen induced him to live in Coethen, which he did for fourteen years until he moved to Paris in 1835 to practice. During the years from about 1825 until his death in Paris in 1845, Hahnemann’s fame as the Father of Homeopathy and as a healer spread throughout much of the Western World. He was invited to London to treat royalty and the wealthy and even to South America to care for persons of prominence. It has been said that he was the most famous physician of his time.

Homeopathy was brought to the United States by Hahnemann’s pupil, the German physician, Constantine Hering (1800-1880), who is considered the ‘father” of American homeopathy. Three of Hahnemann’s maxims were named Hering’s laws at the insistence of Dr. James Tyler Kent (1849-1916) who played a leading role in “refining and popularizing” homeopathy in the USA.  They continue to be basic principles of vitalist medicine and many gestalt therapies and are recognized today by acupuncturists. The three are:

1)                          A true cure takes place from within to without and away from the more important organs toward those of lesser importance as can be seen when a patient’s mental and general symptoms are the first to lessen after proper treatment begins even though they may have temporarily seemed worse as a result of the primary action of the remedy;

2)                          A true cure takes place from above to below inasmuch as the brain is the essential organ of the body, and as the    relief of symptoms moves down through the abdomen and the lower extremities it is following the age-old “Direction of Cure:”

3)                         The vital force heals the symptoms in the reverse chronological order of their development; thus, the last symptoms to heal are those that were first to appear.

           During the 1820’s and 1830s, some of Hahnemann’s pupils came to the USA. The first was Dr. Hans Burch Gram, a German homeopathic physician who visited New York in 1825. He soon “fell upon hard times” and was compelled by necessity to begin to practice. In 1841, he and eight other immigrant physicians organized the New York Homeopathic Society.

            Pennsylvania was the second state in which Homeopathy became established. The Swiss, German educated, physician, Dr. Henry Detweiler, is credited with writing the first homeopathic prescription (1828). In Philadelphia, four physicians and a few laymen organized the first Hahnemann Society in 1833, a year or two earlier than New York. It is considered to be the pioneer homeopathic organization in the USA. The first formal educational institution was the Allentown Medical Academy that was staffed by a number of well-known German professors.  All of the instruction was in German.

            Philadelphia soon became the center of homeopathy in Pennsylvania and in the USA. In 1833, Hering, who was a poet, scientist, scholar, naturalist, and psychologist, came to Philadelphia. He had outstanding qualifications: he graduated first in his class from the prestigious University of Wurzburg and also had been one of Hahnemann’s outstanding pupils. In 1848, Hering had a major role in establishing the Homeopathic College of Pennsylvania, the premiere homeopathic educational institution in the USA. In 1884, it became the Hahnemann Medical College and Hospital and, later, Hahnemann University.  In the 1990s, it consolidated with other institutions in Philadelphia and is now The Medical College of Pennsylvania Hahnemann University, operated by Drexel University under an agreement with Tenet Healthcare Corporation.

            Homeopathy spread throughout the United States in the middle decades of the 1800s. Many well-known persons, for example, Louisa May Alcott, endorsed it and by 1900 there were 22 homeopathic medical schools, 100 homeopathic hospitals, 14,00 practitioners, and 1,000 homeopathic pharmacists in the country.  But, beginning in the mid-1840s it encountered opposition, especially from the American Medical Association when it was formed in 1846. One major opponent was the famous poet and physician, Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was a Harvard graduate and professor of anatomy and physiology at Dartmouth College. Nevertheless, in 1900 there were 14,000 osteopathic practitioners in the USA.

            Homeopathy was introduced into Kentucky by Dr. J. C. Rosenstein, an allopathic physician who came to Louisville in 1839 to Practice homeopathy. In 1840, he published a volume on the ‘Theory and Practice of Homeopathy” which was well received by both allopathic and homeopathic physicians and considered to be fair and rational. Little or nothing is known about his past or of what happened to him after he left Louisville in 1842.

            In 1849, the Southwestern Journal of Homeopathy noted that a Kentucky State Homeopathic Society had been formed and that homeopathy was gaining ground in Kentucky because of the homeopaths success in treating the recurring Asiatic cholera of the era. In 1857, there were 13 osteopathic physicians in Kentucky.  That number grew to 117 by 1904 when there were practitioners in Eastern and Western Kentucky as well as the cities in the middle of the state.  In 1892, the 30 homeopathic physicians in Louisville organized to develop the Southwestern Homeopathic College and Hospital of Louisville, Kentucky.  They incorporated it with $20,000 capital stock and opened in a large old building at 635 Sixth Street.  In 1895, it was given a standing equal to the five white and the one “Negro” allopathic colleges in the city.  The Southwestern moved to the corner of Floyd and Walnut in 1903 and in its first few years graduated about 100 physicians.  Its graduates settled throughout the state.  In 1904, the Kentucky legislature passed a medical law that called for the state board of health and of examiners to be composed of three allopathic, one eclectic, one homeopathic, and one osteopathic physicians. Candidates for licensure were to be examined by the member representing their schools.

            A number of developments converged in the first few decades of the 20th century to bring homeopathy into a slow, steady decline.  Some of them were the advances in microbiology and efficacy of antibiotics, the growth of the pharmaceutical industries, continuing discoveries and advances in both the basic and the clinical medical sciences, the power of organized medicine that resulted in homeopathic physicians not being commissioned as medical officers in either World Wear I or II, and the increasing bureaucratization and regulation of the profession of medicine that has been accelerated by the growth of managed care.

            Homeopathic medicine has not completely disappeared. Many of its precepts have been incorporated, for example, into acupuncture, aromatherapy, massage therapies, biofeedback and other alternative therapies. Also, there is a National Center for Homeopathic Courses and Homeopathy and a national Center for complementary and Alternative Medicine (CALM).

Innominate Society History of Medicine Lecture, edited by John J. Schwab, M.D.