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Feature
Winter 2017/18 issue

Doctor and demagogue

The contradictory life and work of Dr John Henry Clarke

The British people’s decision to leave the European Union (EU) has led to huge political and economic uncertainty, the consequences of which still remain impossible to predict. What is clear, however, is that the fierce debate on the merits of leaving or remaining part of the EU has caused divisions within British society so deep some observers believe it will take years for them to heal.

An unsavoury aspect of this debate is the xenophobic tone that has characterised the arguments of some when voicing their opposition to EU membership in general and EU immigration in particular. The intemperate language frequently adopted by some politicians and certain sections of the media has been blamed for the increase in reported hate crimes since the EU referendum. According to police figures from England and Wales, there was a 23% rise in recorded hate crimes in the 11 months following the Brexit vote. Even more worrying is that in July 2016, one month after the referendum, crimes motivated by racial and religious intolerance rose by a staggering 41% compared with figures for the corresponding month the previous year.

What, you may ask, has this to do with the benign, healing art of homeopathy? A vocation for healing the sick and the dissemination of vile racist propaganda seem so grotesquely inconsistent it is difficult to believe they could be the principal interests of the same man. But these dual contradictory themes preoccupied the life of one of most eminent practitioners from homeopathy’s past: Dr John Henry Clarke.

Pictures of Dr John Henry Clarke reveal a handsome, confident man at the top of his profession. There’s not the slightest hint in his appearance of the dark malevolence that seethed beneath the respectable physician’s facade. That there was malevolence cannot be denied, for the urbane Dr Clarke was also one of the leading anti-Semites of his time.

Conversion to homeopathy

John Henry Clarke was born in 1853. He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh Medical School and qualified as a doctor in 1877. Following his graduation he became a ship’s physician responsible for the health of emigrants sailing to New Zealand. On returning to the UK he settled in Liverpool and it was here that he was introduced to homeopathy. His “conversion” was initiated by the relatives with whom he was staying. Homeopaths themselves, they suggested Dr Clarke visit the Homeopathic Dispensary in Hardman Street and observe for himself the work being done there. Later he would describe this experience by paraphrasing Julius Caesar.

“I went, saw and homeopathy conquered me,” he said.

During his time at the Homeopathic Dispensary he was impressed by the number of different medical conditions he saw responding so well to homeopathy and carefully studied how the treatment was selected and administered. He was soon able to put his new knowledge to the test when he was asked to treat a young relative suffering from a bad case of warts. The boy’s mother explained that two years earlier a cat had badly scratched her son on the forehead, and when the scratches healed a crop of warts appeared where the original wounds had been. Despite the boy’s doctor prescribing numerous conventional treatments the warts remained, so in desperation the mother turned to Dr Clarke for help.

Dr Clarke acknowledged that all the correct conventional treatments had been tried, but to no avail. After consulting with homeopaths at the Homeopathic Dispensary he determined to try the remedy Thuja occidentalis, more by way of an experiment than in expectation of it producing a positive result. “If there was truth in homeopathy,” he said, “it ought to cure.”

In a few days signs of improvement could be seen; in three weeks the warts were all gone. “Rightly or wrongly I attributed, and still attribute, the result to Thuja,” said Dr Clarke. “I concluded that if homeopathy could give me results like that, homeopathy was the system for me.”

Passionate advocate

From this early curiosity and these tentative trials, Dr Clarke quickly became a passionate advocate of homeopathy, so much so that he readily admitted to coming close to endorsing Oliver Wendell Holmes’s disparaging dismissal of the curative effects of conventional medicine. “If all drugs were cast into the sea,” said the American physician and poet, “it would be so much better for mankind and so much worse for the fishes.”

This stance not only mirrored his growing disillusionment with conventional medicine, it also showed Dr Clarke to be a man of independent thought who was not afraid to speak his mind, whether it incurred approval or opprobrium. It was a characteristic that he would exhibit frequently throughout his medical career and in his fiercely held political views.

His disaffection with conventional medical approaches saw him make new alliances with many of the leading homeopaths of the time, including Dr James Compton Burnett, Dr Thomas Skinner and Dr Robert Cooper. By now, Dr Clarke had moved to London where he had a practice in Piccadilly, as well as being a consulting physician at the London Homeopathic Hospital. As his reputation grew, his forthright character and firmly held beliefs on the practice of homeopathy resulted in acrimonious disagreements with several principal members of the British Homeopathic Society (BHS) and he eventually split with the organisation in 1908.

The reasons for him severing ties with the BHS were twofold. Firstly, he had become disenchanted with the direction homeopathy in England had taken, believing it was no longer challenging conventional medicine and therefore failing to attract new converts. Dr Clarke accused the homeopathic establishment of lacking the resolve to fight for the future of the therapy, preferring instead to occupy a cosy niche in society where it only served the rich upper classes. He was therefore convinced homeopathy’s future development rested with non-medically trained practitioners rather than with doctors who, in his view, had abandoned their homeopathic principles and “sold out” to conventional medicine. And it was this conviction that was to further alienate him from his fellow doctors and the BHS.

Teacher and author

True to his beliefs, Dr Clarke began teaching homeopathic theory and practice to eager pupils from outside the narrow confines of the medical world, many of whom would become prominent lay practitioners, including Noel Puddephatt and Canon Roland Upcher, who is credited with developing the gunpowder remedy (Carbon Sulphur Kalium Nitricum).

He was also involved in expanding the Materia Medica, focusing on that specialised group of remedies classified as Nosodes, which have as their source material various forms of diseased matter. His approach to proving the efficacy of these remedies was the same as homeopathy’s founder, Samuel Hahnemann, and again demonstrates his commitment to advancing the therapy.

The doctor would test the new remedies on himself and record extensive notes on their effects. During his career he introduced many new Nosode preparations to homeopathic practice, including Pertussin (whooping cough), Scarletinum (scarlet fever), Parotidinum (mumps) and Morbillinum (measles).

Dr Clarke possessed a prodigious work ethic and in addition to his clinical and teaching commitments, he was a prolific author; it has even been said that he had a writing desk fitted in his carriage. He wrote many books on homeopathy and several have become important texts and are still in print today. They are The Prescriber, The Dictionary of Practical Materia Medica and A Clinical Repertory. On top of this he was the editor of the journal The Homeopathic World for 29 years.

But his literary output was not limited to the subject of homeopathy and he also wrote about the importance of diet and lifestyle to good health, as well as the polymath William Blake. However, it is his political writings that make Dr Clarke such a controversial figure.

Extreme nationalism

The origins of Dr Clarke’s anti-Semitism are not clear. Some say they lie in his anti-vivisectionist principles because, they argue, at that time so much medical research involving animal experimentation was being conducted by Jewish doctors and scientists. What is clear, however, is that throughout his medical career he was actively engaged in promulgating far-right political ideology that depicted the Jewish people as enemies of Britain.

Much of this political propaganda was published through his association with the Britons, an anti-Semitic and anti-immigration organisation that Dr Clarke joined in 1919, when it was founded, and of which he remained a leading member until his death in 1931. His extreme nationalism was based on the belief that the British were a superior race, a view he articulated in his book The Call of the Sword, “…it has been a weakness of the British to imagine foreigners can do things better than they can themselves”. The concept of racial purity also formed an important part in Dr Clarke’s nationalism: “No nation should admit into its blood-alliance alien elements which are detrimental to the national character.”

Racial intolerance and nationalism on the rise. Photo: Clive Chilvers/Shutterstock
Racial intolerance and nationalism on the rise. Photo: Clive Chilvers/Shutterstock

But it was towards the Jews that he directed his most vicious enmity. Writing a preface for Democracy or Shylocracy, a book by the American anti-Semite Harold Sherwood Spencer, Dr Clarke claimed the Jews were responsible for “world unrest”. Describing Jewish influence on English society he wrote, “…an alien and sinister power has so permeated and polluted the life and thought of England”. And in another of his political tracts Under the Heel of the Jew, Dr Clarke reiterated his view that the Jewish race were a malignant force: “…the Jew touches nothing he does not pollute”.

Reading these shocking words it is impossible not to draw parallels with Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda. Although there is no evidence Dr Clarke advocated violence to resolve what he referred to as the “Jewish Question”, history has taught us how hate-filled words are often a harbinger to violent persecution and even genocide.

His political writing raises the inevitable question: how can a man dedicated to the relief of suffering simultaneously harbour such hatred for some of his fellow human beings? His views are even harder to comprehend when you learn the right-wing, Jew-hating Dr John Henry Clarke was a close friend of James Ellis Barker, a fellow homeopath who shared Clarke’s aspiration to bring homeopathy to the masses, but who was a committed socialist—and a Jew.

Legacy

Divisive and contradictory in life, Dr Clarke continues to divide opinion almost 90 years after his death. Undeniably he made a significant contribution to the development of homeopathy, but it is impossible to judge the man’s legacy without considering his political beliefs.

While not excusing Dr Clarke’s racist views, there are those who try to explain them by pointing out he was living in an age when anti-Semitism was rife and fuelling nationalist politics across Europe. But we are all subject to the political and social influences of our time, both benign and malign; it is up to each one of us how we respond to those influences, as it was for Dr Clarke.

He was a highly educated man who throughout his career was steadfast in forming his own opinions. So it’s inconceivable his political ideology was the result of him somehow being caught up in the populist anti-Semitic fervour sweeping the continent during much of his lifetime. Not only did he freely choose to adopt anti-Semitism as the basis for his pernicious nationalism, through his writings he attempted to recruit others to its cause. It is for this that Dr John Henry Clarke’s reputation will for ever carry a permanent stain.