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.