Foundations of Homeopathy

Judith Boice ND, LAc, FABNO (August 2015) – Samuel Hahnemann, MD (1755 – 1843) is credited with the development of homeopathy (Greek homoion + pathos, meaning “[the cure] is like the disease”), yet this medical system draws on much more ancient roots, the Law of Similars.

Hahnemann trained and practiced medicine during a time of chaos, when doctors were abandoning the humoral system (regarding the body as a balance of black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood) and adopting “heroic medicine,” a system that relied on bloodletting, purging, chemicals and toxic botanicals. Homeopathy developed from Hahnemann’s passionate quest to discover a system of medicine that was based on rational thought and eliminated harm to the patient.

Intellectual training

Recognized for his intellectual abilities as a boy, Hahnemann was given a scholarship to attend the Prince’s School, a prestigious private school in Meissen, Germany. Already used to directing his own education, Hahnemann was not required to attend classes and even helped tutor other students in Greek. His intellectual independence accompanied him throughout his medical education. He studied for a year at the University in Leipsig. The university, however, offered no hospital experience and no courses in clinical medicine.

Disappointed, Hahnemann moved to Vienna to study at the University. Dr. von Quarin, director of the medical school there, took Hahnemann under his wing, allowing the young student to accompany him on rounds with private patients. Hahnemann ran out of funds and was unable to complete his education in Vienna. Dr. von Quarin helped him obtain work as a librarian for Baron von Brukenthal, Governor of Transylvania. There, Hahnemann observed the effects of malaria and contracted the disease himself. He learned firsthand the effects of quinine on malaria.

After completing his medical education, Hahnemann practiced medicine as a government employee in small towns. He had plenty of time to continue his studies in chemistry and botany. He also began to publish articles on his ideas concerning medicine. Hahnemann married and began a family, moving first to Dresden and then Leipsig. His confidence in the medicine of his time deteriorated to the point that he “. . . sank into a state of sorrowful indignation, which had nearly altogether disgusted me with the study of medicine. I was on the point of concluding that the whole art was vain and incapable of improvement. . . . I gave myself up to solitary reflection, and resolved not to terminate my train of thought until I had arrived at a definite conclusion on the subject.”

The Law of Similars

Unwilling to practice conventional medicine, Hahnemann continued to translate books on chemistry and material medicas to support his wife and seven children. In 1790 Hahnemann began a translation of William Cullen’s Materia Medica. In the translation, Hahnemann disagreed with Cullen’s assessment of quinine’s actions in treating malaria, stating that combining herbs with the specific actions Cullen attributed to quinine would not produce the same effect. Hahnemann understood that a remedy had specific curative properties, unique to that plant or substance. He noticed that quinine produced a specific kind of fever similar to malaria. To prove his point, Hahnemann took a high dose of quinine and described his response in the footnote he added to Cullen’s Materia Medica. Hahnemann’s notation, outlining the law of similars and the method of proving drugs – is considered the inception of homeopathy.

Hahnemann developed a system that relied on three primary principles to prescribe the similar remedy. According to the principles, the remedy should be:

  1. Single remedy
  2. Minimum dose (to avoid aggravation)
  3. According to the totality of characteristic symptoms

Developing a Homeopathic Materia Medica

Hahnemann first applied his evolving medical method to the study of acute fever remedies. He applied his formidable knowledge of chemistry and botanicals to his work, focusing initially on both toxic and non-toxic materials. He already had a deep knowledge of pharmacology, and his book The Apothecary’s Lexicon was a standard reference in Germany during the nineteenth century. Over time he focused primarily on toxic substances because they produced symptoms more readily than non-toxic ones, thereby invoking the law of similars.

In addition, the non-toxic substances required some knowledge of internal function. Hahnemann decided that symptoms were the only reliable indications for the study of disease, not “theories” about internal organ function. Over time he focused more on the toxic substances and less on the “organopathic” or “organ specific” remedies.

Combination Homeopathic Remedies

A century later Pastor Erdmann Leopold Emmanuel Felke worked with many of these organ specific remedies to develop complex homeopathic medicines. Felke’s fascination with homeopathy and botanical medicine was born from a childhood of growing up with a father who treated his eight children’s ailments primarily with botanical and homeopathic remedies. At university, Felke attended medical as well as the required theological lectures. After beginning service as a pastor, Felke recommended the homeopathic remedy Mercurius cyanatus for infected children during a flu epidemic. As a result, none of the children in his congregation died during the 1894 flu epidemic. Church members began to visit Felke as frequently for their health complaints as for their spiritual care. In truth, Felke did not differentiate between the two. He offered nature cure therapies for his congregation and patients began to visit Felke in ever increasing numbers. His success spawned the development of three successful nature cure sanitoriums in Germany (in Repelen, Sobernheim and Diez).

Pastor Felke, like the eclectic physicians in the United States, offered a variety of therapies coordinated for the benefit of individual patients. Felke, though, considered homeopathy the “backbone” of his practice. He carefully studied Hahnemann’s work and initially prescribed only single remedies. Disappointed with the results, he began to work with carefully combined homeopathic remedies. “He concluded that a complex disease, which had developed over years with layers of symptoms, had to be treated in a complex way.”

Felke’s combination homeopathic remedies relied on his knowledge of medicinal plants and disease processes as well as Hahnemann’s homeopathic principles. Felke is recognized as the inventor of combination homeopathic remedies, and his work laid the foundation for the ongoing development and research of combination homeopathic remedies.


Hahnemann discovered that the correct homeopathic remedy often produced an aggravation of symptoms. In order to avoid an aggravation, he used the lowest possible dose. “It was only natural that he should begin to dilute the dose,” says Matthew Wood in his book Vitalism: The History of Herbalism, Homeopathy and Flower Essences, “especially as many medicines were poisonous. He quickly realized that the organism was especially susceptible to the remedy similar to the disease, and that it would react to a small dose more strongly than to a substance unrelated to the disease process.”

His thinking on dilutions, based on his experience with patients, evolved over time. Because of challenges in revising his masterwork, The Organon of Medicine, his final thoughts on dilutions and miasms (theory related to chronic illnesses) were not published until 1922.

Factions in the Homeopathic Community

Even during Hahnemann’s lifetime, the homeopathic community began to develop factions, in part fueled by Hahnemann’s own edicts about correct practice. Hahnemann railed against “half homeopaths” who combined allopathic and homeopathic principles. He believed in strictly relying on symptoms to guide prescriptions, yet in certain instances he himself incorporated his knowledge of internal organ function in making homeopathic prescriptions. Other groups divided over disagreements about prescribing high or low potency remedies.

Evolution of Homeopathy

Homeopathy continued to evolve after Hahnemann’s death in 1843. Hering developed his Laws of Cure (healing progresses in reverse chronological order; from vital to less vital organs; from top to bottom of the body) as well as an understanding of temperaments. In England, Dr. James Compton Burnett, MD advanced the understanding of organotherapy, the use of nosodes, and treatment of the side effects of vaccinations.

In the United States, Dr. James Tyler Kent (1849 – 1916), trained as an eclectic physician and later devoted entirely to the practice of homeopathic medicine, had an enormous impact on the late nineteenth and twentieth century practice of homeopathy. Unlike Hahnemann, Kent believed health (or the lack thereof) was rooted in the subjective, interior life of the patient. Kent was strongly influenced by philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, who believed the Divine Being descended by degrees into material substance. Similarly, Kent believed “. . . the organism is maintained in health by the intelligence of simple substance [from which all substance is generated], flowing down from interior to more exterior levels . . .”

Kent also was influenced by his eclectic training, particularly by Dr. John Scudder, who believed the vital force in the physician perceived the disturbance in the vital force of the patient.

Kent’s focus on the internal, energetic aspects of the patient gave rise to the development of keynote symptoms for remedies and identification of constitutional patterns in the patient. This approach became known as “classical homeopathy,” one of the dominant schools of homeopathy today.

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