Spring/Summer 2018 issue

Looking back at the life of Samuel Hahnemann

Samuel Hahnemann's tomb
This year marks the 175th anniversary of Samuel Hahnemann’s death. The founder of homeopathy made such an impact during his lifetime, news of his passing was reported in many newspapers throughout Europe. H&H reproduces the original obituary from the French newspaper l’Illustration and the English translation. As well as commemorating his life, it reveals striking parallels between Hahnemann’s time and the present day.

Saturday 15 July 1843

The founder of homeopathic medicine, Samuel Hahnemann, passed away in Paris on 2 July 1843 at the age of 88. The medical doctrine that he propagated and has put into practice over 50 years has lately gained enough in importance so that a report on this system and its author is not at all irrelevant.

Born in 1755 in Meissen, a small town in Saxony, Samuel Hahnemann distinguished himself as early as a child for his aptitude for hard work. He studied medicine in Leipzig and Vienna, and received his medical degree at the University of Erlangen. His early works were focused on chemistry and mineralogy, sciences in which he has become a reference. Still nowadays one may indeed recall his experiments on arsenic poisoning and how his findings are used in judicial cases to legally ascertain such a crime, as well as the method of preparation of Mercury solubilis that has kept his name. He also published translations out of English, French and Italian, together with many articles in German scientific newspapers.

While he was translating the Materia medica from the Englishman Cullen [William] in 1790, Hahnemann was so poorly satisfied with the hypotheses put forward to provide an explanation to the antipyretic power of quinine that he decided to make experiments on himself with this medication. The result from this experiment gave birth to the homeopathic doctrine.

Hahnemann observed that the action of quinine on a healthy person caused an intermittent fever, against which this same remedy provides the most successful results. Driven by analogy he experimented with other medicinal substances and soon announced that the curative properties of all medications designated as specifics resulted from the faculty that they hold to produce on a healthy person ailing symptoms similar to those that the same specific was commonly used to cure.

This fact proclaimed by Hahnemann, which based a complete medical theory on a single proposition, has not been accepted by the majority of doctors. The criticism raised by some with regard to this last point lacked in some cases circumspection and courtesy, but would however appear as thoughtful and moderate compared to the critics that Hahnemann’s homeopathic remedies have received.

Original obituary of Samuel Hahnemann's death, from the French newspaper L'Illustration

Considering that the very first effect of a homeopathic medication was to bring about a short-lived aggravation of the disease, Hahnemann thought that the most careful attention had to be brought as to the quantity of its dosage. First he thought of mixing the medicinal products to a neutral substance, which in increasing its volume made its division easier. However, after identifying that the active force of the remedies was not proportional to the reduction in their quantity (which he attributed to an increase in energy resulting from the trituration of dried substances or the shaking of liquid ones so as to mix the ones or the others), he ended up after successive reductions to the truly infinitesimal doses that homeopathic doctors prescribe nowadays.

The exiguity in and of homeopathic remedies has paved the way for discussions in which one of the parties tend to invoke reasoning and science, whereas the other claim to rely on facts.

As we are certainly not able to express any opinion on this matter, which is well beyond our scope, we can only observe that the number of Hahnemann’s disciples has significantly increased. In Germany the scientist Hufeland, an outspoken adversary of Hahnemann’s small doses, recommended in his latest writing that further research should be carried out in the field of specific medications from similia similibus [like cures like]. In France, a part of the faculty at the University of Medicine of Montpellier has declared themselves unreservedly in favour of the homeopathic doctrine. Finally, all over Europe and in North America many doctors practise it exclusively.

Without blindly accepting the marvellous stories told by the partisans of homeopathy, one can only wonder why so many learned and knowledgeable men have warmed to and grown fond of a system in which everything might only be error and illusion. Time and experience will decide about it.

A long and disease-free life has given Hahnemann the ability to work on his doctrine with perseverance and granted him the advantage to contemplate its progress. In 1835, at 80 years of age, he married his second wife, Mademoiselle d’Hervilly, who was only 28, and decided to move to her country. For the last eight years he has been practising medicine in Paris when death, which he could feel getting closer with the calmness that sound reasoning and high piety provide, brought him to peace.

Translated by Alexandre Winkler RSHom