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Evolution of a Medical Paradigm:
The Hope and History of Homeopathy
Posted: September, 2002
by Douglas Brown, CCH, FNP, RSHom(NA)
It’s 1849, and a cholera epidemic is sweeping through Cincinnati. The morgues are
filling up faster than people can be buried. 45 to 60% of patients admitted to the
allopathic medical hospitals die. Yet in the homeopathic hospitals, only 3% of
cholera patients die.
It was the glory days of homeopathy. Historian Harris Coulter reports that by 1892
"homeopaths controlled about 110 hospitals, 145 dispensaries, 62 orphan asylums
and old peoples’ homes, over thirty nursing homes and sanatoria, and 16 insane
asylums." Communities and state governments regarded homeopathy highly. In
1870 the New York State Legislature appropriated $150,000 toward the
construction of a homeopathic psychiatric hospital, and the New York Ophthalmic
Hospital, one of the largest and best-endowed eye and ear hospitals in the country,
passed into homeopathic hands. After the Westborough Massachusetts Insane
Asylum was transferred to homeopathic control the Springfield Republican devoted
an admiring column in praise, reporting that "the cost of maintenance is much less,
and the recoveries and general success greater than in allopathic asylums"
100 years later homeopathy was barely alive in the U.S. The homeopathic medical
schools had locked their doors or become allopathic institutions. The homeopathic
hospitals were forgotten. A tiny band of heroic elder homeopaths continued to
practice, but few younger practitioners were available to take their places.
Meanwhile, allopathic medicine had abandoned mercury poisoning and blood-
letting, discovered the power of antibiotics, anesthesia, x-rays and steroids,
thereby developing a credible diagnostic and therapeutic armamentarium with
which to combat disease. The medico-industrial complex was rapidly developing
into a powerful financial, ideological, and political empire.
Much has been written about the conspiracy of the American Medical Association
and the pharmaceutical companies to destroy homeopathic practice. But it is now
generally recognized that while these powerful economic interests contributed to
the near demise of homeopathy, other factors may have been at least as
important. An aspect of the history and hope of homeopathy that I’d like to focus on
here is the relationship of its underlying assumptions to the zeitgeist, or spirit of the
times. For no one makes decisions about health care in a social and ideological
vacuum: the model of health care we select is intimately tied to our deepest beliefs
about what causes illness, and what constitutes health.
Homeopathy was "born" as the 18th century expired, as industrialization was
spreading like wildfire across Europe and North America. Its principles of using "like
to cure like", non-material dosing, and careful individualization of prescriptions had
more in common with medieval alchemy than modern ideas of mass production, the
germ theory of disease, efficiency, reductionism, and classification. Expert
homeopathic practitioners witnessed daily seemingly miraculous cures with
remedies that had no substance and were considered spiritual in nature,
reinforcing their deeply-held religious views of the world. The world, on the other
hand, became increasingly enamored with its power to control material forces with
technology and rational, causal thinking.
Fast forward to the present: It is the dawn of the new millennium. There is a rebirth
of interest in spiritual matters, along with growing disillusionment, malaise and
alienation produced by the one-sided emphasis on growth, technology, and
exploitation of the earth. Homeopathy, along with many other once-suppressed
healing techniques, is enjoying a resurgence of popularity.
Growth presents an opportunity as well as a challenge: How do we explain what we
do? How do we relate to today’s zeitgeist, to peoples’ need to understand their
health in the context of today’s deeper appreciation for the interconnectedness of
all things? For all of its newfound popularity, homeopathy retains an antiquated,
dated image. ‘Little placebo sugar pellets for running noses’ was my first thought
when it was suggested that I take my then two year old child to a homeopath for an
ear infection that didn’t respond to the antibiotics I prescribed. It was only after I
experienced, through my son’s miraculous homeopathic recovery, the power of
homeopathy that I began to investigate it seriously.
While Chinese medicine, herbalism, and shamanism are increasingly understood
and sought out, homeopathy remains a mysterious relic from the past. What is the
difference between naturopathy and homeopathy? How does homeopathy work?
What is actually in those remedies? These are questions I am asked every day,
and I find myself digging deeply into myself each time I hear one of these most
basic, important questions.
Most of my patients come to me after they’ve exhausted all other options. They’ve
been to the specialists, and they’ve taken the drugs. They’ve had lots of tests but
little relief. People with fatigue, pain, anxiety, irritable bowel, depression, allergies,
confusion and memory loss, unexplained symptoms often find dramatic relief where
no other previous treatment could help. Why didn’t they come sooner? Because
first and foremost people want to understand what’s going on with them. The
promise of a diagnosis is a promise of meaning, of making sense of what they are
experiencing. And modern medicine promises just that: a diagnosis, a
categorization, and an explanation.
Homeopathy promises a cure: it doesn’t promise an explanation. This is both its
strength and its weakness. In Part Two, I’ll discuss how homeopathy needs to
overcome this weakness; how it needs to explain itself as part of an emerging
consciousness of who and what we are, and of how it can contribute to the
important question: What is our place in the cosmos?
Doug Brown, CCH, FNP, RSHom is a nationally-certified classical homeopath
specializing in the treatment of chronic emotional, physical, and mental illness in
adults and children. He can be reached at (503) 253-6334, or by email at