MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

In 1790, as Hahnemann was translating the Scottish physician’s, Cullen, ‘Treatise on Materia Medica’, he came across the passage where Cullen explains the actions of Peruvian (or China bark, [Cinchona officinalis]) which contains quinine, an effective treatment of malaria. Hahnemann disagreed with Cullen’s explanation that Cinchona worked through “a tonic effect on the stomach”. Therefore he decided to conduct experiments of his own to prove Cullen wrong.

Hahnemann thus ingested high doses of Cinchona and noticed that subsequently he developed several of the symptoms that are characteristic of malaria. This is how Hahnemann later described his experience:

I took for several days, as an experiment, four drams of good china daily. My feet and finger tips, etc., at first became cold; I became languid and drowsy; my pulse became hard and quick; an intolerable anxiety and trembling (but without rigor); trembling in all limbs; then pulsation in the head, redness in the cheeks, thirst; briefly, all those symptoms which to me are typical of intermittent fever, such as the stupefaction of the senses, a kind of rigidity of all joints, but above all the numb, disagreeable sensation which seems to have its seat in the periosteum over all the bones of the body – all made their appearance. This paroxysm lasted for two or three hours every time, and recurred when I repeated the dose and not otherwise. I discontinued the medicine and I was once more in good health.

Hahnemann repeated this experiment several times and eventually concluded that he had discovered something of great general importance: there seemed to be a similarity between the symptoms of a disease and the symptoms caused by the drug that is effective in treating that very disease.

After several more experiments, Hahnemann became convinced that he had, in fact, discovered a law of nature: similia similibus currentur (often translated as ‘like cures like’ yet meaning ‘like should be cured with like’). This became the basis of homeopathy and is, in fact, its definition.

In 1796, Hahnemann published his theory in an article entitled ‘Essay on a New Principle’. In 1806, he wrote a more detailed treatise ‘The Medicine of Experience’ and, in 1810, the first edition of his major work ‘The Organon’ followed. He continued to revise his ‘Organon’ throughout his long life, which thus saw a total of six editions (the last was only published well after his death).

Since Hahnemann’s days, several attempts have been made to reproduce Hahnemann’s quinine experiment. The results of the most rigorous of these replications have failed to confirm Hahnemann’s original findings: neither Cinchona bark nor its main ingredient, quinine, produce the symptoms of malaria in health individuals.

And what is the explanation?

The dose Hahnemann took contained about 400 to 500 milligrams of quinine. After ingesting it, he felt languid and drowsy (hypotension); he noticed palpitations (ventricular tachycardia), pulsation in the head (headache), redness in cheeks (rash), prostration through limbs (general weakness), thirst (fever) and cold fingers and feet with trembling which are indicative of an allergic reaction. One has to praise Hahnemann’s skills of (self-) observations. Unfortunately, his ability to interpret them correctly was, at least in this particular instance, wanting.

The most likely cause of his symptoms is, according to many experts who have analysed the case in much detail, an allergic reaction to quinine. Hahnemann described his symptoms accurately, yet he was mistaken in his interpretation of the event.

If this conclusion is correct – and I have little doubt that it is – the main assumption of homeopathy, the notion on which the entire school of homeopathy rests, is based on a misunderstanding.

16 Responses to The prime assumption of homeopathy is based on… a misunderstanding

  • If it was a humoral or more likely a cellular allergic response then Hahnemann would have had prior exposure without symptoms. This suggests his first experiment failed and he failed to report it. Homeopathy started cherry picking from the beginning.

  • important tweet of today:

    Alistair Burt The Minister of State, Department of Health

    We are currently considering whether or not homeopathic products should continue to be available through National Health Service prescriptions. A consultation on proposals will commence early in the new year. The consultation will be undertaken by the Department utilising on-line tools such as the governmental digital platform gov.uk. We do not anticipate any additional external costs.

  • I’d read this anecdote before, somewhere, but this will do as a source:
    http://sueyounghistories.com/archives/2008/01/26/constantine-hering-and-homeopathy/

    How strange that Dr, Hering should suffer the precise same allergy, and go on as a result of that happy coincidence to become recognised as the “father” of homoeopathy in North America.
    Of course he could not have done that if he had died of that dissecting wound.

  • yes, Hering and other admirers of Hahnemann had similar experiences – due to expectation and admiration, one might speculate. but as I wrote in the post: “Since Hahnemann’s days, several attempts have been made to reproduce Hahnemann’s quinine experiment. The results of the most rigorous of these replications have failed to confirm Hahnemann’s original findings: neither Cinchona bark nor its main ingredient, quinine, produce the symptoms of malaria in health individuals.”

    • No need to speculate. Some people develop chinchonism and Hering just happened to be one who also went on to promote homeopathy…

    • Surely an experienced physician as Hahnemann would have recognized he was suffering an allergic reaction (whatever he would have called it) rather than intermittent fever.

      • @Ben White
        No. Hahnemann had no means of differing between them. This was in the last decades of the eighteenth century. The principles of contagion was recognised decades later and immunology and allergy not until at least a century later.
        See here

        Hahnemann saw the need for better medicine but simply went off on the wrong track. Others were more lucky or smart or both, which meant the birth of genuine and effective medicine.

        • Hahnemann was also not an experienced clinician at that stage; he had given up clinical practice soon after realising that the ‘heroic’ medicine of his time was mostly harming patients. furthermore, he was under considerable financial pressure and wanted to ‘discover’ something new. the comment by Ben is very ill-informed altogether.

  • Hey, chinchona has been “proved” as remedy for malaria. There’s no need to repeat that, it would be a waste of time when there’s so many other things waiting for homeopaths to find out what conditions they can treat. Multiple provings of the same thing can only lead to uncertainty (unless proper precautions are taken to ensure that the conclusions of the previous proving are accurately replicated, of course).

    And of course, taking the one observation that gave you the inspiration for your ‘principle’, and counting it as a major part of the support for that principle, is not at all absurd, not at all likely to lead you to believe all kinds of nonsense (even if, as is apparently not the case here, it were a valid observation) [Hypothesis: All tall men with elaborate combovers are extremely wealthy, narcissistic, obnoxious Dunning-Kruger exemplars. And are running for president].

    In case there is any question as to whether homeopaths consider Hahnemann to have ‘proved’ chinchona by his work in 1790, I refer you to a statement by Melanie Oxley of the Society of Homeopaths https://youtu.be/s1UJ_qGZ24k?t=3m32s – this is at the end of the interview while she successfully runs out the clock, and avoids answering the one question she was invited in to answer – what actual consequences homeopaths would face from the Society for selling homeopathic ‘prophylaxis’ for malaria. And implies that she doesn’t need to answer it because the remedy was already “proved”.

    It’s been 200+ years since Hahnemann did his work with a *known* *good* malaria treatment, and based all of homeopathy on this; and today, homeopathy can’t treat, prevent, or cure malaria. Yet chinchona still has an effect. And really that’s all you should need to know about homeopathy as a ‘system of medicine’. Wrong from day one, still wrong.

  • I always thought it was the results of the dose of bark he was taking: Symptoms of mild cinchonism (which may occur from standard therapeutic doses of quinine) include flushed and sweaty skin, rashes, vertigo, dizziness, dysphoria, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. And not everyone gets the same symptoms at any dose.

    Yes, Hahnemann’s ideas, at the time, saved lives compared to the popular medicine because the bleeding and purging that passed for medicine in those days was killing people by dehydratikon is nothing else.. The full homeopathioc treatment was not just tinctures and sugar pills with tincture dropped on them – being in a comfortable room with fresh air,comfortable blankets, plenty of fluids and a light nourishing diet can do a lot towards keeping someone alive.

  • I find it hard to believe that the basis of Homeopathy is due to this single observation. Did he actually not bother testing Cinchona on other healthy patients, or test other known remedies for similar effects, before postulating such a far-reaching “principle”? Maybe standards were different at that time, but that sounds like a pretty basic mistake in scientific reasoning that should have been recognized, by others and by himself.

    • the ‘provings’ that followed this 1st observation of Hahnemann were all wide open to expectation and were thus just as unreliable.

  • That’s interesting; do you have any sources about this? (Failed attempts to replicate, etc.)

  • That’s so funny Ernst. In your book Trick or treatment:

    ‘One key piece of research that helped to change Ernst’s view was conducted in 1991 by the German pharmacologist Professor W. H. Hopff, who repeated Hahnemann’s original experiment with Cinchona – according to Hahnemann’

    False, Hopff only write a critical assesment. Bastard.

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