I had all but forgotten about these trials until a comment by ‘Mojo’ (thanks Mojo!) reminded me of this article in the JRSM by M.E. Dean. It reviewed these early trials of homeopathy back in 2006. Here are the crucial excerpts:
The homeopath in both trials was a Dr Herrmann, who received a 1-year contract in February 1829 to test homeopathy with the Russian military.3 The first study took place at the Military Hospital in the market town of Tulzyn, in the province of Podolya, Ukraine.4 At the end of 3 months, 164 patients had been admitted, 123 pronounced cured, 18 were convalescing, 18 still sick, and six had died. The homeopathic ward received many gravely ill patients, and the small number of deaths was shown at autopsy to be due to advanced gross pathologies. The results were interesting enough for the Russian government to order Herrmann to the Regional Military Hospital at St Petersburg to take part in a larger trial, supervised by a Dr Gigler. Patients were admitted to an experimental homeopathic ward, for treatment by Herrmann, and comparisons were made with the success rate in the allopathic wards, as happened in Tulzyn. The novelty was Gigler’s inclusion of a ‘no treatment’ ward where patients were not subject to conventional drugging and bleeding, or homeopathic dosing. The untreated patients benefited from baths, tisanes, good nutrition and rest, but also:
‘During this period, the patients were additionally subjects of an innocent deception. In order to deflect the suspicion that they were not being given any medicine, they were prescribed pills made of white breadcrumbs or cocoa, lactose powder or salep infusions, as happened in the homeopathic ward.’3 (page 415)
The ‘no treatment’ patients, in fact, did better than those in both the allopathic and homeopathic wards. The trial had important implications not just for homeopathy but also for the excessive allopathic drugging and bleeding that was prevalent. As a result of the report, homeopathy was banned in Russia for some years, although allopathy was not.
… A well-known opponent of homeopathy, Carl von Seidlitz, witnessed the St Petersburg trial and wrote a hostile report.5 He then conducted a homeopathic drug test in February 1834 at the Naval Hospital in the same city in which healthy nursing staff received homeopathically-prepared vegetable charcoal or placebo in a single-blind cross-over design.6 Within a few months, Armand Trousseau and colleagues were giving placebo pills to their Parisian patients; perhaps in the belief that they were testing homeopathy, and fully aware they were testing a placebo response.7,8 A placebo-controlled homeopathic proving took place in Nuremberg in 1835 and even included a primitive form of random assignment—identical vials of active and placebo treatment were shuffled before distribution.9 Around the same time in England, Sir John Forbes treated a diarrhoea outbreak after dividing his patients into two groups: half received allopathic ‘treatment as usual’ and half got bread pills. He saw no difference in outcome, and when he reported the experiment in 1846 he added that the placebos could just as easily have been homeopathic tablets.10 In 1861, a French doctor gave placebo pills to patients with neurotic symptoms, and his attitude is representative: he called the placebo ‘orthodox homeopathy’, because, as he said, ‘Bread pills or globules of Aconitum 30c or 40c amount to the same thing’.11