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Updated on February 3, 2010

Homeopathy is a method of therapy based on the premise that the most effective way to treat disease is to use drugs or other agents that produce the symptoms of the disease in healthy persons. In homeopathic therapy, for example, hot compresses are prescribed for treating bums.

Photo by Tin Palace
Photo by Tin Palace


As far back as 460 B.C. the Greek physician Hippocrates noted the similarity between the effects of some drugs and the symptoms of the diseases they seemed to relieve. Other early physicians also suggested the theory that "like cures like," but it was not until the late 18th century that the theory was tested and popularized. The man credited with popularizing this theory is the German physician Christian Friedrich Samuel Hahnemann, who used it as the basis for a new form of therapeutic treatment he called "homeopathy."


Hahnemann earned his medical degree at Erlangen University in 1779 and after practicing medicine for many years, turned to further study in chemistry, pharmacology, and philosophy. He had become disgusted with the crude medical treatment of his time, which included bleedings, purges, strange diets, and baths. Pharmacists lacked uniformity in filling prescriptions, and medicines were often meted out in conglomerates consisting of different drugs.

A popular drug at that time was cinchona, a Peruvian bark from which quinine is derived. Although the bark was known to be effective in treating malaria victims, Hahnemann believed that doctors were prescribing it haphazardly. To test the drug, he administered it to a healthy person, who soon developed the symptoms of malaria. When the drug was discontinued, the symptoms vanished. This discovery led Hahnemann to a 6-year study of different drugs. After testing scores of drugs on himself and others, he began using his findings as a basis for administering drugs to people who were ill. In 1796 he published his findings, entitled "On a New Principle for Ascertaining the Curative Power of Drugs" in a leading medical journal. Hahnemann also compiled a listing of the numerous symptoms that he and his subjects had experienced.

Selecting the proper drug and the correct dosage became the essence of Hahnemann's therapy, and he formulated his "minute dosage rule." According to this rule, the physician should use the smallest amount of the indicated drug that will produce the desired effect. Hahnemann believed that the more a drug's action matches the disease's symptoms, the less is needed to stimulate the body to heal itself.

The first great cholera epidemic that swept Europe in 1831 and spread to the United States gave impetus to the practice of homeopathy. As thousands of people were dying, Hahnemann began prescribing drugs that seemed superior to other forms of therapy. Although he was repudiated by other physicians (called allopaths in contrast to homeopaths), Hahnemann enjoyed a lucrative practice in Paris from 1835 until his death in 1843.

With the increasing popularity of Hahnemann's therapy, many homeopathic societies, journals, and clinics were established in various countries; in the United States, the American Institute of Homeopathy was founded in 1844. By 1900 there were 22 schools of homeopathy in the United States, and a monument honoring Hahnemann had been erected in Washington, D.C.

Other Practitioners

Forty years after Hahnemann's death, his minute dosage rule was modified by Hugo Schulz, a German professor of pharmacology at the University of Greifswald. Schulz, together with his colleague Rudolph Amdt, formulated a theory that became widely known as the Amdt-Schulz theory of drug action. According to this theory, small doses of drugs kindle or stimulate the body's vital activities, while moderate doses increase these activities, and large doses arrest or paralyze them. This theory was an attempt to explain Hahnemann's therapy using a more scientific basis. In the 1920's other revisions were made by the German physician Karl Kotschau who advocated the use of small doses based on individual cases.

Decline of Homeopathy

With the many scientific advances that occurred early in the 20th century, the popularity of homeopathy began to decline, and homeopaths themselves began turning to the new remedies and methods of treatment. Today, homeopathy is practiced mostly in Europe and Southeast Asia. There are only a few thousand practicing homeopaths in the United States, and not a single school of homeopathy remains. Among the last medical schools to discontinue their courses in homeopathy were the New York Medical College and the Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia.

Current Views

The critics of homeopathy have claimed that homeopaths are concerned only with the symptoms of disease and do not try to recognize or treat the underlying cause of disease. Hahnemann's minute dosage theory has also been scorned, as well as his erroneous belief that all chronic illnesses develop from three sources: syphilis, venereal warts, or psor (itch). The view of the American Medical Association is that homeopathy today is only of historical interest as a progressive departure from the primitive forms of therapy it surpassed.


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