The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of Homeopathy in the United States

Judith Boice ND, LAc, FABNO – Homeopathy took the United States by storm when Hans Gram, a Dutch immigrant, introduced homeopathic medicine in 1825. Why was this new medical system so widely accepted and eagerly embraced? The medical world of the early nineteenth century was dominated by “heroic” treatments including bloodletting (draining up to 80% of the body’s blood supply) and purging with strongly cathartic botanicals and chemicals, including mercury, lead and arsenic.

The orthodox physicians had very little scientific basis for either diagnostic or treatment methods. Homeopathy threatened the medical establishment because it offered an integrated, coherent, systematic basis for therapeutic treatment.

Paul Starr, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Social Transformation of American Medicine, notes, “Because homeopathy was simultaneously philosophical and experimental, it seemed to many people to be more rather than less scientific than orthodox medicine.” Prominent political figures, including Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, and Senator Daniel Webster chose to be treated by homeopathic practitioners. Other luminaries advocating homeopathy included Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne and William James. In the February 1890 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Mark Twain commented, “The introduction of homeopathy forced the old school doctor to stir around and learn something of a rational nature about his business.”

Homeopathy quickly gained a wide following among educated physicians. Many of the initial practitioners and proponents of homeopathic medicine graduated from the most prestigious medical schools of the day. In 1844, these practitioners created a national organization, The American Institute of Homeopathy, the first medical society formed in the United States.

Partly in response, the orthodox physicians created their own medical society in 1846. One of the first actions of this rival medical group was to purge all members who were homeopathic practitioners, even though they had graduated from conventional medical schools. This new medical society named itself the “American Medical Association” (AMA).

In addition to being threatened by homeopathy’s more integrated systems of medicine, the AMA chafed at homeopathy’s critique of conventional drugs and their suppressive tendencies. Even more to the point, the AMA recognized the homeopathic practitioners’ impact on the AMA physicians’ economic status. At an AMA meeting, one of the orthodox physicians commented, “We must admit that we never fought the homeopath on matters of principles; we fought him (sic) because he came into the community and got the business.”

The AMA placed increasingly restrictive requirements on its membership. In 1855, orthodox physicians would lose their membership for even consulting with a homeopathic practitioner or any other “irregular” practitioner. Losing membership in the AMA at that time also meant losing their license and the ability to practice medicine.

The AMA’s policies also infiltrated the academic institutions of that day. The University of Michigan, as an example, established a professorship of homeopathy in the medical department. The AMA resolved to deny recognition of “regular” graduates if their diploma was signed by a homeopathic physician. At that time all professors signed the graduates' diplomas. Three times the homeopathic practitioners took their case to the Michigan Supreme Court, but each time the court responded that it was uncertain of its jurisdiction to decide the case. Finally the University of Michigan circumvented the issue by having only the president and secretary of the university sign diplomas.

Despite the political maneuvering within the medical communities, homeopathy continued to gain in popularity, particularly among the more educated upper and middle classes. By the end of the 19th century, there were 22 homeopathic medical schools, more than 100 homeopathic hospitals, over 60 orphan asylums and senior living facilities, and over 1,000 homeopathic practitioners in the United States.

Much of homeopathy’s nineteenth century popularity may be attributed to its efficacy in treating epidemic diseases. Statistics indicate the death rates in homeopathic hospitals from epidemic diseases were half to as little as one-eighth of orthodox medical hospitals. During the cholera epidemic in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1849, only 3% of the 1,116 patients treated with homeopathy died. In contrast, 48%-60% of those under conventional medical care died.

In 1901, the AMA lifted its ban on consultations with “irregular doctors,” perhaps because they had other methods they were putting in place to quell homeopathy’s popularity. The publication of the Flexner Report in 1910 profoundly impacted medical education in the United States. The report, ironically funded by the Rockefeller family—staunch supporters of homeopathy—gave poor marks to homeopathic and other “irregular” medical colleges. Only graduates from schools with high ratings were allowed to take medical licensing exams. Of the 22 homeopathic schools in 1900, only two remained in 1923.

Perhaps the history of medical colleges would have unfolded quite differently had John D. Rockefeller’s financial adviser, Frederick Gates, followed Rockefeller’s directive to give grants to homeopathic medical institutions. Instead Gates, an advocate of orthodox medicine, gave away $300-400 million in the early 1900’s primarily to orthodox medical institutions.

In the early twentieth century, homeopathic medicine rapidly declined in the United States for a variety of reasons. Homeopathic practitioners required more time with their patients to thoroughly address cases, while orthodox physicians spent as little as five minutes with patients. In an effort to comply with the Flexner Report guidelines, the remaining homeopathic colleges focused more on basic sciences and medical diagnosis. As a result, their homeopathic education suffered. According to Dana Ullman, MPH, author of Discovering Homeopathy, “. . . the graduates from these homeopathic colleges were less able to practice homeopathy well. Instead of individualizing medicines to a person’s totality of symptoms, many homeopaths began prescribing medicines according to disease categories. The consequences from this type of care were predictably poor results. Many homeopaths gave up homeopathic practice, and many homeopathic patients sought other types of care.”

Homeopathy’s advocates declined as the popularity of penicillin, the new “wonder drug”, blossomed. The first pharmaceutical antibiotic, penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928. By 1944, it was undergoing large-scale pharmaceutical production and was being used to treat patients on a global scale during World War II. Interestingly, homeopathy’s renaissance was launched when antibiotics' efficacy began to falter due to many bacteria developing resistance to this new drug.
The resurgence of homeopathy in the 1970’s was fueled primarily by the lay public. In the 1970’s, fewer than 100 homeopathic practitioners were still practicing in the United States. By the 1980’s, there were over 1,000.

Even with this increase in interest, some advocates of natural medicine were slow to embrace homeopathy. A student at Bastyr University in the mid 1980’s, at the very inception of the college, noted that homeopathy was taught primarily from a historical perspective, and homeopathic medicines languished, unused, at the back of the clinic’s medicinary.

In the late 1980’s, this attitude radically shifted, and by the early 1990’s, homeopathy was a major component of naturopathic medical education. Conventional physicians also began to embrace homeopathic medicine, and several training programs developed around the United States. Today, the National Center for Homeopathy (NCH) publishes Homeopathy Today, and the North American Society for Homeopaths (NASH) publishes The American Homeopath.

The Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia of the United States (HPUS) was first published in 1897 and has been in continuous publication since that time. It exists to ensure that all homeopathic medications are manufactured according to a standard of uniform strength and scientific validity. The HPUS was officially recognized by the United States federal government in 1938 with the inclusion of homeopathy in the 1938 Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA). The Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia Convention of the United States (HPCUS) was then formed in 1980 to help govern and support homeopathic medicine in the US.

The American Association of Homeopathic Pharmacists was founded in 1923 as a trade organization of the American homeopathic industry. The AAHP is a not-for-profit alliance of homeopathic manufacturers, marketers, pharmacists and individuals representing the main body of manufacturing and distribution companies in the U.S. Along with the other organizations and practitioners in the US, the AAHP functions as a working coalition for the homeopathic market and supports industry diversity and a unified association voice on regulatory and market issues for homeopathic medicine in the US.

In tandem with interest in the medical community, awareness in the general public has also soared. Of 20,000 people recently surveyed by NCH, over 90% were extremely satisfied or very satisfied with the results of over-the-counter homeopathic medicines, 95% were likely to purchase homeopathic medicines again in the future, and over 85% would recommend homeopathic medicines to others.

References

  1. Starr, Paul. The Social Transformation of American Medicine, New York: Basic, 1982, p. 97.
  2. Twain, Mark. “A Majestic Literary Fossil,” Harper’s Magazine, February, 1890, 444.
  3. New York Journal of Medicine, V, 1845, 418.
  4. Coulter, Harris. Divided Legacy. Washington, DC: Weehawken, 1977, vol III, 199.
  5. Kaufmann, Martin. History of Homeopathy (4 volumes). New York: Lewis, vol. I, 1905, p. 158.
  6. Coulter, volume III, 208.
  7. Coulter, vol. III, p. 304, 460
  8. Coulter, vol. III, 113.
  9. Bradford, Thomas L. The Life and Letters of Samuel Hahnemann. Philadelphia: Boericke and Tafel, 1895, p. 151.
  10. Brown, Richard E. Rockefeller’s Medicine Men. Berkeley: University of California, 1979, 109-111.
  11. ULlman, Dana. Discovering Homeopathy: Your Introduction to the Science and Art of Homeopathic Medicine, revised second edition. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1993.
  12. Conversations with Reidun Koren, 2015.
  13. National Center for Homeopathy, survey results, July 29, 2015.