What Inspires Me: Another 19th Century View On Homeopathy

10 Sep

“Some of you will probably be more or less troubled by that parody of medieval theology which finds its dogma in the doctrine of homeopathy, its miracle of transubstantiation in the mystery of its dilutions, its church in the people who have mistaken their century, and its priests in those who have mistaken their calling.”

[Oliver Wendell Holmes, Medical Essays. The Young Practitioner, [A Valedictory Address delivered to the Graduating Class of the Bellevue Hospital College, March 2, 1871.] ”


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5 responses to “What Inspires Me: Another 19th Century View On Homeopathy

  1. Tom

    September 10, 2008 at 8:13 AM

    Can you imagine this being presented to a graduating classes in current times?

  2. Christopher

    September 10, 2008 at 8:21 AM

    Don’t want to be cynical, but I have a “feeling” it would not be received well in todays “anti-science” environment.

    Sad, but how amazing is it, given the recent advances in science and medicine, that in 1871 it was clearly “pseudo-” to some!

    Brittan is only RECENTLY removing coverage for it from their state health care! Yipes!

  3. Dana Ullman

    September 10, 2008 at 8:23 PM

    I am always amazed that people still quote Oliver Wendell Holmes as though he gave a “good” critique of homeopathic medicine. Read this excerpt from my book, THE HOMEOPATHIC REVOLUTION, to see if you feel comfortable standing with this person:

    The most famous anti-homeopathy book written in the nineteenth century was by Oliver Wendell Holmes, MD (1809–1894). Called Homoeopathy and Its Kindred Delusions, this book was written just six years after Dr. Holmes graduated from medical school. Before Holmes went to medical school, he authored a famous poem in 1830 called “Old Ironside” as well as two articles in 1832 and 1833 entitled “Autocrat at the Breakfast Table” (published in The Atlantic Monthly), which gave him a national reputation as a leading American writer and scholar.

    Although Holmes had become a professor at Harvard Medical School and although he was a respected poet and author, he actually had very little direct experience practicing medicine before he wrote his attack on homeopathy. Dr. Holmes’s essay on homeopathy gained a lot of attention, and today is commonly referred to as a strong critique of homeopathy. However, Holmes’s book should actually have been a significant embarrassment to its author and others antagonistic toward homeopathy because it is so full of obvious errors, which authors today still quote as though the book was factual.

    It is amazing to note, first, that Dr. Holmes wrote that the one physician who typifies the American medical thinking and practice of that time was Benjamin Rush, MD (1745–1813), a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the surgeon general of the Continental Army. Dr. Rush was one of the leading advocates of “heroic medicine,” that is, the frequent and aggressive use of including bloodletting, intestinal purging (with mercury), vomiting (with the caustic agent tartar emetic), and blistering of the skin.

    Dr. Rush recommended bloodletting for virtually every patient, and he considered it quackery if a physician did not bloodlet his patients. He even once boasted that he had drawn enough blood to float a seventy-four-gun man-of-war ship (Transactions, 1882).

    Rush was also an advocate of forced psychiatric treatment, which in part explains why his portrait is on the emblem of the American Psychiatric Association. One of Rush’s favorite methods of treatment was to tie a patient to a wooden board and rapidly spin it so blood flowed to the head. He placed his own son in one of his insane asylum hospitals for twenty-seven years, until he died. Rush also believed that being black was a hereditary illness which he referred to as “negroidism.”

    In addition to Dr. Holmes’s glorification of Dr. Rush’s heroic medicine, Holmes had the audacity to call homeopathic medicine “barbaric” because it uses various snake venoms (Holmes, 1891, x). This statement is especially ironic when you consider that one of Dr. Holmes’s most famous quotes (from an 1860 article) was his own critique of conventional medical drugs: “I firmly believe that if the whole materia medica (materials of medicine), as now used, could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be all the better for mankind—and all the worse for the fishes” (Holmes, 1891).

    Dr. Holmes’s primary attack was on the extremely small doses that are used in homeopathic medicine. However, Dr. Holmes had seemingly never read a single book on homeopathy or had any meaningful dialogue with a homeopath because he committed a classic error of calculation. When a homeopathic pharmacist makes a medicine, he dilutes one part of the original substance in 9 or 99 parts water (thus, a 1:10 or 1:100 dilution); the glass bottle is then vigorously shaken approximately 40 times, and then the medicinal solution is again diluted 1:10 or 1:100. Ultimately, to make a homeopathic medicine to the 30X or 30C (X being the Roman numeral for 10, and C for 100, the letter referring to the type of dilution), the total amount of water needed is 30 test tubes of water (considerably less than a gallon of water).

    However, Dr. Holmes got his calculations confused, and he incorrectly assumed that the homeopathic manufacturer had to have 10 times or 100 times more water than in the previous dilution. Dr. Holmes estimated that the ninth dilution would require ten billion gallons of water and the seventeenth dilution required a quantity equal to 10,000 Adriatic Seas. Dr. Holmes could have easily corrected his error if he had simply gone into one homeopathic pharmacy or had a short conversation with a homeopath. Sadly and strangely, Dr. Holmes and other conventional doctors of that era prided themselves on never talking with a homeopath. What is even more ironic is that Dr. Holmes arranged for the reprinting of this article in various books from 1842 to 1891 without changing a single word, despite this and numerous other errors.
    Dr. Holmes explained in his book that the growth of homeopathy was primarily because conventional physicians tended to overmedicate their patients, even though Holmes later wrote that the public itself “insists on being poisoned” (Holmes, 1891, 186).

    Dr. Holmes also attempted to “prove” that homeopathic medicines do not work by quoting a “scientific study.” To do this, Holmes referenced in an 1842 article a study by a Dr. Gabriel Andral, professor of medicine in the School of Paris. Holmes referred to Andral as “a man of great kindness of character … of unquestioned integrity.” Holmes reported on Andral’s experiment on 130–140 patients using homeopathic medicines, and Holmes quoted Andral saying that on “not one of them did it have the slightest influence” (Holmes, 1891, 80).

    Although Dr. Holmes and others have asserted that Andral’s experiment provided strong evidence for disproving homeopathy, it must be noted that later in his life, Andral himself acknowledged the serious problems in his study. Although Andral claimed to have used Hahnemann’s Materia Medica Pura as his guide, he neglected to mention at the time that the book was in German and that he could not read German. One other book by Hahnemann was translated into French at the time of this study, but Andral did not prescribe any of the twenty-two homeopathic medicines in this book for any patients in his study. Even Andral’s assistant for this study acknowledged that Andral did not know how to select homeopathic medicines for patients and that he “excuses his ignorance by saying it was unavoidable” (Dean, 2004, 112).

    Additional evidence of Andral’s complete ignorance of homeopathy was revealed in a review of each of his prescriptions and his use of dosages. He never prescribed any homeopathic medicines for any patient’s unique syndrome of symptoms. Instead, he selected a single symptom of his own idiosyncratic choosing and then guessed at the medicine for it. For instance, his prescriptions of Arnica for one woman with painful menstruation and for one man with tuberculosis were guesses that were not based on any homeopathic textbook. Further, 75 percent of the patients were given just one dose of one remedy without any follow-up remedy (Irvine, 1844). If patients were not immediately cured by this one dose, he considered homeopathy a failure and then referred the patient for conventional medical treatment.

    Andral later asserted that he had never formally granted anyone permission to publish his report on homeopathy, and further, by 1852 he had changed his mind about homeopathy and asserted that it deserved close examination by every physician (Dean, 2004, 112). Despite these facts, Dr. Holmes never changed a word of his essay on homeopathy.

    When you consider that Dr. Holmes’s book was considered the best critique of homeopathy written in the nineteenth century, one must rightfully acknowledge that serious or sophisticated criticism of homeopathy at this time was neither rational nor accurate.

    In 1861, Dr. Holmes finally confessed that homeopathy “has taught us a lesson of the healing faculty of Nature which was needed, and for which many of us have made proper acknowledgements” (Holmes, 1891, x, xiii–xiv). However, he still never instructed his publisher to change a word of his previous writings on homeopathy.

  4. Christopher

    September 10, 2008 at 9:25 PM

    The quote stands on its own merit: brilliant.

    It is depressing, to me, that in the year 2008, homeopathy still professes itself as “medicine”, and even more depressing is that many place trust in homeopaths who “heal” with nothing more, or less, than the placebo effect to place their hat on.

  5. James Pannozzi

    November 21, 2008 at 11:04 AM

    “Christopher’s” comments, repeating the old falsehood about Homeopathy being nothing more than placbeo, has been completely refuted numerous times, recently, in the Journal of Clinical Epidemeology and in the journal Homeopathy – they dissected and reconstructed a questionable article from the Lancet in 2005 which claimed that its meta-analysis of Homeopathy determined that it was no better than placebo.
    The recent research results completely discarded the Lancet article results as flawed and essentially worthless. There has been NO respone from the original author of the Lancet article.

    In addition, there are numerous scientific tests, including double blinded placebo controlled randomized tests, which show Homeopathy performs well above placebo for several conditions.

    The ONLY thing that leaves Homeopathy open to attack is its lack of a theoretical mechanism to explain its effect – and the work of M. Ennis and St. Laudy has opened the way for at least the possibility of a start towards a fully scientific explanation.


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