by Dana Ullman, MPH
Excerpted from The Homeopathic Revolution: Why Famous People and Cultural Heroes. Berkeley: North Atlantic, 2007.
An often quoted dialogue between Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, two nineteenth-century American literary greats, took place on the subject of education. Thoreau was thoroughly disgusted at the state of education in American universities and condemned them in toto. Emerson expressed surprise at Thoreau’s harsh words, saying, “I would not be so sweeping in my condemnation of the colleges. After all, they instruct in most of the branches of knowledge.” Thoreau replied, “That’s just the trouble; they teach all of the branches and none of the roots.”
A similar critique could be made of medical schools of the nineteenth century as well as those of our present day. And in response to this state of medical education, there grew to be twenty-two homeopathic medical schools in the late 1800s (including Boston University, University of Michigan, Hahnemann Medical College, and New York Homeopathic Medicine College). These homeopathic medical schools not only taught the basic medical sciences with detailed instruction on diagnosis and pathology; they also taught how to treat the whole patient and his or her overall syndrome (not just the disease).
Although conventional medical societies were successful in forcing the closing of the homeopathic medical schools in the twentieth century,[i] homeopathy has always attracted the most educated people in society, and many of the world’s literary elite have been some of homeopathy’s strongest proponents.
The esteemed medical historian William Rothstein acknowledged that “early American homeopaths were all well educated and cultured physicians … and manifested an erudition rarely found in regular medical journals of the period” (Rothstein, 1972, 160). He continued, quoting the editor of a leading conventional medical journal who begrudgingly admitted that many homeopaths were “persons of the highest respectability and moral worth.”
It is not surprising to learn that many of America’s leading literary figures in the nineteenth century were also advocates of this “new medicine,” including Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne,[ii] Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louisa May Alcott, Henry James, and William James. Likewise, several renowned European literary greats were also homeopathic supporters, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Charles Dickens, W. B. Yeats, William Makepeace Thackeray, and George Bernard Shaw.
In the mid-1800s American transcendentalism became quite popular, initially as a means toward religious reform but then also as a philosophical and literary movement.[iii] One of the earliest centers for the New England transcendentalists was a library and bookstore called The Foreign Library, founded in 1839 by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804–1894). Her entire family was intimately connected to leaders in the homeopathic and transcendental movements.[iv]
One part of the store was allocated to her father, Nathaniel Peabody, for the sale of homeopathic medicines (Perrin-Wilson, 1999).[v] Elizabeth’s brother, Nathaniel, was an expert on homeopathy too and was known to make some of his own medicines. Sophia, Elizabeth’s youngest sister, married Nathaniel Hawthorne (author of The Scarlet Letter), while Mary, her other sister, married Horace Mann (considered the father of American education and the first president of Antioch College). Many decades later Henry James (1843–1916) portrayed Sophia Peabody in his book The Bostonians (1886), with the character Miss Birdseye, the grand dame of the women’s rights movement who also had a deep appreciation for homeopathy (she was played by the famed actress Jessica Tandy in the 1984 movie of this classic novel).
At one point in the book (and the movie), Miss Birdseye is talking with Basil Ransome (played by the late Christopher Reeve) with the following dialogue:
Ransome: You must tell me how much you take. One spoonful?
Birdseye: I guess this time, I’ll take two. It’s homeopathic.
Ransome: Oh, I have no doubt of that. I presume you wouldn’t have anything else.
Birdseye: Well, it’s generally admitted now to be the true system.
Transcendentalism and homeopathy had much in common. Both embodied a deep respect for nature and acknowledged a special wisdom that derived from it. Transcendentalism, like other romantic movements, proposed that the essential nature of human beings is good, while homeopathy recognized that symptoms of illness, despite their discomfort, actually represented positive efforts of a person’s entire body to defend itself and to heal, even if it wasn’t always successful in effecting a cure.
Transcendentalism and homeopathy also were both influenced by a highly respected Swedish scientist, inventor, and mystic named Emanuel Swedenborg.[vi] The first and primary translator of Swedenborg’s works into English was a British-born physician who lived in Boston, John James Garth Wilkinson, MD. Wilkinson had trained at the famed homeopathic school, the Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia, and he was a very close friend of Henry James, Sr. (1811–1882), whose sons were Henry James and William James. Henry James, Sr. credited Wilkinson with introducing him to the ideas of Swedenborg (see Chapter 13, Clergy and Spiritual Leaders, for more detailed information about Swedenborg), while Wilkinson credited James with introducing him to homeopathy (Treuherz, 1984).
Wilkinson and other homeopaths were particularly intrigued by Swedenborg’s law of correspondences, which embodies the Hermetic axiom “as above, so below.” The concept of the microcosm being a part of the macrocosm and vice versa and that physical symptoms and mental symptoms are interconnected helped link homeopathic and Swedenborgian religious and medical philosophies.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) was also an appreciator of both homeopathic medicine and Swedenborgian philosophy, and he held great admiration for Wilkinson (Treuherz, 1984). He characterized Wilkinson’s style of speaking and writing as being “like the armory of the invincible knights of old.” He asserted that Wilkinson “has brought to metaphysics and to physiology a native vigor” and that Wilkinson is an important “champion of Hahnemann” (Emerson, 1856).
Emerson went an eloquent step further in the following statement about the Greek mythological god, Tantalus. According to Greek mythology, Tantalus, a son of Zeus and the nymph Plouto (who was the personification of wealth), was known for having been welcomed to Zeus’s table in Olympus, from which he stole nectar and ambrosia to take back to his people, and revealed to them the secrets of the gods. Emerson’s reference to ‘T is a reference to Tantalus:
“One of the illusions is that the present hour is not the critical, decisive hour. Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year. No man has learned anything rightly until he knows that every day is Doomsday. ‘T is the old secret of the gods that they come in low disguises. ‘T is the vulgar great who come dizened with gold and jewels. Real kings hide away their crowns in their wardrobes, and affect a plain and poor exterior. … So, in our history, Jesus is born in a barn, and his twelve peers are fishermen. ‘T is the very principle of science that Nature shows herself best in leasts; it was the maxim of Aristotle and Lucretius; and, in modern times, of Swedenborg and of Hahnemann. The order of changes in the egg determines the age of fossil strata. So it was the rule of our poets, in the legends of fairy lore, that the fairies largest in power were the least in size.” (Emerson, 1870)
William James (1842–1910), who attended Harvard Medical School and became an eminent psychologist and philosopher, was another advocate for homeopathy. Although trained as a medical doctor, he never practiced medicine and had a serious disdain for it (Richardson, 2006, 401). In speaking to the Massachusetts legislature in response to a bill that would outlaw anyone except medical doctors from diagnosing or treating for any physical or mental ailment, he asserted, “An enormous mass of experience, both of homeopathic doctors and their patients, is invoked in favor of the efficacy of these remedies and doses” (James, 1898). James wrote to a friend that his work against this bill required the greatest moral effort of his life (Coulter, 1973, III, 467a).
And in a letter to a friend who had complained about persistent abdominal distress, James wrote: “I always believe that homeopathy should get a fair trial in obstinate chronic cases. I know that homeopathic remedies are not inert, as orthodox medicine insists they necessarily must be” (James, 1903).
Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888), author of Little Women, was another longtime homeopathic patient and appreciator of this new medicine. Besides being a leading author, she was also a nurse. At one dramatic point in Little Women, one of the daughters, Beth (played by Claire Danes in the movie), is ill with scarlet fever, and the second oldest daughter, Jo (played by Winona Ryder), prescribes homeopathic Belladonna to treat her. Later, Jo finds Beth looking through their mother’s medicine cabinet where she finds a bottle of camphor and takes it into bed with her. This action provides some sophisticated foreshadowing because camphor is known as an antidote to homeopathic medicines, and thus, it is sad but not surprising when Beth succumbs to the disease.
There are two other references to homeopathy in Little Women. The first incident occurs early in the book when Meg hurts her ankle so she chooses to “Bound up her foot with arnica” (in Chapter 3). Arnica is a well-known homeopathic remedy for sprains and strains. The second incident occurs shortly after Beth’s scarlet fever episode when Jo gets a severe head cold and then takes Arsenicum (homeopathic dose of arsenic).
During her childhood, Alcott’s family physician was Conrad Wesselhoeft, MD, a Harvard Medical School graduate and a famous Boston homeopath, and she dedicated her last novel, Jo’s Boys, to him. In this book, its lead character, Nan, is portrayed as a bright, scientifically minded, young girl who is able to keep calm in a crisis. Nan becomes a homeopathic physician who is also dedicated to women’s equality. In Chapter 1, some of the early dialogue includes:
“You knew it. How is your throat?” asked Nan in her professional tone, which was always a quencher to undue raptures.
“Throat? Oh, ah! yes, I remember. It is well. The effect of that prescription was wonderful. I’ll never call homoeopathy a humbug again.”
Alcott and many other dedicated homeopathic patients maintained their conviction for homeopathy, not only because they found it effective but because it was an integral part of new scientific thinking and medical reform.
Louisa May Alcott’s father, Amos Bronson Alcott (1799–1888), was also an advocate for homeopathy. Active in the American transcendental movement, he was a teacher and writer who pioneered “democratic schooling,” which encouraged students to get involved in their own education. He was also known for founding a utopian community known as Fruitlands.
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844–1911) was a less known but still popular and respected author of numerous books, including a novel, Dr. Zay, which tells the story of a homeopath who attended the New York Medical College and Hospital for Women (for more details about this college, see Chapter 10, Women’s Rights Leaders and Suffragists). Phelps described Dr. Zay as a strong and capable woman who is equally committed to homeopathic medicine and social reform.
Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) is considered, with Walt Whitman, as one of the two great American poets of the nineteenth century. Between 1846 and 1852, Emily Dickinson experienced serious problems with her health, specifically a chronic cough, fatigue, and significant weight loss. Extracting clinical clues from her correspondence, some historians have suggested that she was suffering from tuberculosis (Hirschhorn, 1999).
Tuberculosis was and is a very serious disease, and epidemics of it have erupted at various times in human history. In 1851 it was the cause of one-third of all deaths in Boston, and Emily had many relatives who had died from it. That year, Emily sought treatment with a highly respected homeopath, Dr. William Wesselhoeft[vii] in Boston (St. John, n.d.; Hirschhorn, 1999). Emily wrote that he prescribed two homeopathic medicines for her. She didn’t think that the medicines were effective, but her older and more practical sister, Lavina, thought otherwise. Lavina (who originally referred Emily and their brother Austin to Dr. Wesselhoeft because he was her homeopath) asserted just two weeks after homeopathic treatment: “I think Emily may be very much improved. She has really grown fat.” Because Emily was always extremely thin, this statement of her gaining weight suggests some health improvements. Her brother Austin wrote Emily’s closest friend, Susan Gilbert: “He [their father] says Emily is better than for years since she returned from Boston” (Thomas, 1988, 219). And lending further support to the real benefits from the homeopathic treatment, within several months, she no longer complained about the chronic cough that she had experienced for five years.
Other biographers of Emily Dickinson said that Wesselhoeft’s treatment “brought not only a noticeable improvement in her health but a certain buoyancy of spirit as well” (Bingham, 1955, 175).
Despite the serious health problems that Emily Dickinson experienced in the 1840s and early 1850s, she lived considerably beyond these decades. She died in 1886.
William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878) was another American literary figure who was an ardent advocate for homeopathy. Although trained as a lawyer, he became a poet and then editor of the New York Evening Post (today, the New York Post). Bryant was president of the New York Homeopathic Society, and he was the founder of the New York Homeopathic Medical College, today called the New York Medical College. Like many advocates of homeopathy, he was also a major advocate for the abolition of slavery, and in fact, he was one of the leaders of this movement. Bryant was even influential in getting Lincoln to issue his famed Emancipation Proclamation.
Washington Irving (1783–1859) was best known for writing The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip van Winkle as well as several major biographies, including a four-volume set on America’s first President, George Washington. Irving is said to have mentored authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Edgar Allan Poe, and because Hawthorne and Longfellow were known advocates for homeopathic medicine, it is not surprising to learn that Washington Irving was too.
On February 21, 1854, Irving wrote to a friend: “I have found, in my own case, great relief from Homeopathy, to which I had recourse almost accidentally; for I am rather slow at adopting new theories” (Hendrick, 1987, 170). He went on to say that after homeopathic treatment he was more able to continue his literary efforts. Later that same year, he wrote: “You ask me whether the homeopathics still keep me quite well. I really begin to have a great faith in them. The complaint of the head especially, which troubled me last year, and obliged me to throw by my pen, has been completely vanquished by them.”
It is not surprising that Irving chose Dr. John C. Peters of New York as his homeopath since he was both a respected clinician and the editor of a leading homeopathic journal of that time, The North American Journal of Homeopathy. Irving began consulting with Dr. Peters in 1852 due to recurrent symptoms of dizziness (Wershub, 1965). Dr. Peters prescribed Cocculus indicus, made from an herb called Indian cockle (Peters, 1860).[viii] Irving continually called on care from Dr. Peters for himself and members of his family. Dr. Peters became a regular visitor at Irving’s Sunnyside estate, and they developed a strong friendship.
Dr. Peters determined that one of Irving’s problems resulted from his own self-treatment with a conventional patent medicine. Irving treated himself with a remedy for catarrh (mucus) by snuffing it into his nostrils. Although this medicine dried up his nasal discharge temporarily, it soon led to a violent asthma attack.
Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. had written a book extremely critical of homeopathy, though embarrassingly ill-informed on the subject.[ix] Because Dr. Holmes had such respect for Washington Irving, the doctor chose to visit him and suggest treatment for Irving’s asthma and cough. He prescribed medicated cigarettes and “Jonas Whitcomb’s Cough Remedy” (a nineteenth-century patent medicine), without having examined his patient.[x] Dr. Peters wrote an admirably restrained reply to Holmes, suggesting that his treatment was not based on adequate understanding of this patient.
Dr. Peters gave Irving the patent medicine to show good faith toward Dr. Holmes, despite Holmes’s bad-faith actions toward homeopathy. Irving experienced noticeable improvement that first night from this remedy. However, two days later he suffered a severe nervous attack, and Dr. Peters then chose to use only homeopathic medicines for Irving (Hendrick 1987, 174). Temporary improvement followed by the development of different and more serious symptoms are typical results from conventional drugs of the nineteenth century as well as today, and while conventional physicians pride themselves on their ability to reduce or suppress symptoms, homeopaths have sharply criticized such treatments that provide short-term benefits but long-term problems.
At Irving’s funeral the famed writer-editor William Cullen Bryant gave the eulogy that was published in the New York Times (April 4, 1860). Irving’s personal homeopathic medicine kit is on display at his Sunnyside home in Tarrytown, New York, which was bought by fellow homeopathic appreciator, J. D. Rockefeller in 1945 and opened to the public in 1947. Today, Irving’s home is a national historical landmark.
Perhaps America’s most known and most quoted author is Mark Twain (1835–1910) (a pseudonym for Samuel Clemens). Conventional medicine of his day was a relatively frequent target of his barbed wit. In Harper’s Magazine, he wrote:
“When you reflect that your own father had to take such medicines as the above, and that you would be taking them to-day yourself but for the introduction of homoeopathy, which forced the old-school doctor to stir around and learn something of a rational nature about his business, you may honestly feel grateful that homoeopathy survived the attempts of the allopathists [conventional physicians] to destroy it, even though you may never employ any physician but an allopathist while you live.” (Twain, 1890)
Mark Twain also makes reference to homeopathy in his highly acclaimed novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). This masterpiece tells the story of Hank Morgan, a nineteenth-century firearms and mechanical expert who is transported to sixth-century Britain. Morgan introduces many modern technologies to Arthurian Britain, including the telephone, and eventually, he begins running the country. However, during a family vacation, the Church takes over the government and destroys the many new technologies Morgan has introduced and changes many of the social reforms he enacted. Part of Morgan’s new life is that he marries and has a child who eventually is taken ill. Various conventional treatments are ineffective. Morgan then says: “‘Quick!’ I shouted to Clarence; ‘telephone the King’s homeopath to come!’”[xi] Morgan’s arch-enemy is the magician Merlin, who places a spell on him, causing him to sleep for thirteen centuries. He wakes during the nineteenth century and tells his story.
Mark Twain was particularly critical of doctors who didn’t further their medical education after graduation. He considered the New York Postgraduate Medical School to be “one of the two greatest institutions in the country” because of its commitment to continuing education. In a 1909 speech at this school, which awarded him an honorary medical degree, he said: “I am glad to be among my own kind tonight. I was once a sharpshooter, but now I practice a much higher and equally as deadly a profession” (Ober, 1997).
Ultimately, Mark Twain was appreciative of various schools of thoughts in healing. He was a supporter of osteopathic medicine because this form of manipulation alleviated his own daughter’s epilepsy and his own chronic bronchitis. And one of his doctors, Cincinnatus Taft, MD, was a homeopathic physician whose obituary said “he exercised a certain eclectic independence, which looked rather to cure than to creed, and was not entirely within the limitations of any one school” (Ober, 1997).
Upton Sinclair (1878–1968) was one of the greatest investigative journalists of his era. He actually wrote more than ninety books in various genres, though he was most famous for his novel The Jungle (1906), which dealt with the unhealthy conditions in the U.S. meat packing industry. The book had a powerful impact on American culture and resulted in the passing of one of the most important consumer rights bills of the twentieth century, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.
Sinclair was a vocal advocate of the work of Albert Abrams, MD, a controversial physician who invented the first radionics device. Although conventional physicians contended that Abrams’s invention and his use of homeopathic medicines represented the epitomy of nonconventionality, Abrams was not your ordinary “quack.”
Abrams initially graduated from medical school in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1882, and then graduated from Cooper Medical College (the medical school that later became Stanford Medical School), where he later served as a professor of pathology and Director of Clinical Medicine.[xii] In 1894, he was the vice president of the California Medical Association (Scholten, 1999), and even leading skeptics of his work acknowledge that he wrote a dozen reputable textbooks (Gardner, 1957); one of them, on the value of x-ray in cardiac diagnosis, is considered an outstanding contribution to the medical literature of its time (Flaxman, 1953). Although Abrams was initially a bitter opponent and skeptic of homeopathy, his own research on the subject led him to change his opinions (Dean, 2004, 160).
In addition to support from Upton Sinclair, two other advocates of Abrams were Sir James Barr (a past president of the British Medical Association) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (author of the Sherlock Holmes detective novels). Sir James Barr duplicated some of Abrams’s experiments and described him as one of the greatest medical geniuses of his time (Russell, 1973, 17).[xiii]
Sinclair was Abrams’s strongest advocate in part because Sinclair had interviewed hundreds of health professionals and patients who used or were treated by radionics diagnosis and treatment. Sinclair asserted: “[Abrams] has made the most revolutionary discovery of this or any other age. I venture to stake whatever reputation I ever hope to have that he has discovered the great secret of the diagnosis and cure of all major diseases.” Further, Sinclair claimed that Abrams had treated “over fifteen thousand people, and my investigation convinces me he has cured over ninety-five percent.”
European Literary Greats
The primary principle of homeopathy, called the law or principle of similars (“treating like with like”), is actually an ancient understanding that great thinkers and healers have acknowledged and utilized since early written history. Chapter 13, Clergy and Spiritual Leaders, highlights the use of the homeopathic principle by Moses. Even the Greeks’ Oracle at Delphi was known to have said, “That which makes sick shall heal,” and one of the famous stories from Greek mythology is the tale of Telephus, a Trojan hero who was speared and then healed when pieces of the spear were scraped off and placed on the wound. Hippocrates, the father of medicine and an early medical historian, once asserted, “Through the like, disease is produced, and through the application of the like it is cured.”
Even Shakespeare wrote about treating “like with like” in his famed play Romeo and Juliet (Act I, scene ii), when Benvolio gives comfort and advice to lovesick Romeo, saying:
Tut, man, one fire burns out another’s burning;
One pain is lessened by another’s anguish,
Turn giddy and be holp by backward turning;
One desperate grief cures with another’s languish.
Take thou some new infection to the eye,
And the rank poison of the old will die.
The eminent British poet, John Milton (1608–1674), made direct reference to the concept of the treatment of “similars” in the preface to Samson Agonistes (1671): “Things of melancholic hue and quality are used against melancholy, sour against sour, salt to remove salt humors.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) is considered one of the greatest Western literary figures of all time. A German poet, novelist, playwright, courtier, and natural philosopher, Goethe was a contemporary of homeopathy’s founder, Samuel Hahnemann, MD (1755–1843), and they both were Freemasons. When Goethe was given an amulet containing a very small gold ornament (September 2, 1820), he wrote: “The jewelers of Frankfort must have heard of the Leipsig Dr. Hahnemann’s theory—now, certainly a world-famous physician— … and taken the best of it from their own purposes … now I believe more than ever in this wonderful doctor’s theory as I have experienced … and continue to experience so clearly the efficacy of a very small administration.” And in another letter he strongly proclaimed himself a “Hahnemannian disciple” (Haehl, 1922, I, 113).
Goethe not only espoused the virtues of homeopathy in his letters to friends and colleagues, but even in his most famous play, Faust, in which his lead character, Mephistopheles, asserts the homeopathic credo, making specific reference to the homeopathic principle of similars: “To like things like, whatever one may ail; there’s certain help.”
Goethe was also a close friend with Karl Wesselhoeft, the owner of a large German publishing company of literary works, and Goethe was a frequent visitor in the Wesselhoeft home. Wesselhoeft’s son, William, became Goethe’s protégé. As a result of Goethe’s influence and due to later correspondence with German doctors who had become homeopaths, the younger Wesselhoeft became a serious student and then practitioner and teacher of homeopathy in America.
One of the other truly great Western literary figures was Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1888). Dostoevsky suffered from epilepsy which seemed to begin around 1850 while he was imprisoned for his political beliefs. After this time, his father, a conventional physician, treated Dostoevsky for a severe throat affliction, but his conventional treatment didn’t provide benefit and even led to a permanent impairment of his voice (Rice, 1983). Dr. Dostoevsky then resorted to prescribing homeopathic medicines for his son, though there isn’t evidence that his father was trained in homeopathy and the results were unclear. Later in life, Dostoevsky included in his classic novel, The Brothers Karamazov (1880), a dialogue in which one of the brothers tells the other: “Homeopathic doses perhaps are the strongest” (Chapter 9).
Another of the truly great Russian authors was Anton Chekhov (1860–1904), playwright and short story writer. Few people know that Chekhov was also a physician. We must be thankful that he wasn’t a homeopath because the joys and the benefits from homeopathic practice might have led him to forego his magnificent contributions to literature.
Three of Chekhov’s stories make reference to homeopathy. In “Ariadne” (1895), he spoke of a neighbor, a former landowner who was a homeopathic doctor and interested in spiritualism. Chekhov describes him as “a man of great delicacy and mildness, and by no means a fool.” In “The Betrothed” (1903), he wrote of a woman betrothed to the son of a priest. Chekhov described the mother of the woman: “She went in for homeopathy and spiritualism, read a great deal, and was fond of talking about her religious doubts.”
Chekhov’s short story “The Malingerers” (1885) has as its lead character a homeopathic doctor—the widow of a Russian general who has practiced as a homeopathic physician for ten years.[xiv] She has an extremely busy practice and is especially popular among the poor peasants. The story focuses on one landowner who has sunk into poverty. He expresses extreme gratitude for her prescribing three doses of a homeopathic medicine to him. He falls to his knees to thank her, telling her that his eight years of suffering from rheumatism are over thanks to her medicines. He tells her that he was initially skeptical of these tiny doses, but his skepticism is over. He also tells her how greedy the regular doctors are and how they never really cure people. He asserts: “The doctors did me nothing but harm. They drove the disease inwards. Drive in, that they did, but to drive out was beyond their science.” He refers to doctors as “assassins.” He cries because he cannot even provide wood to keep his family warm. The doctor shows sympathy for him and gives him wood. The patient then tells her he needs a cow, and the doctor provides that too. As the patient leaves the doctor, three pieces of paper fall out of his pockets, and she discovers that these are the homeopathic medicines she had previously given him, left untouched.
Chekhov closes the story with the homeopathic doctor experiencing doubt for the first time in ten years of practice. The story ends with the words “The deceitfulness of man!”
George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) was one of England’s most respected playwrights. Shaw is the only person ever to have won both a Nobel Prize (Literature in 1925) and an Academy Award (Best Screenplay for Pygmalion in 1938). In his play The Doctor’s Dilemma (1906), Shaw showed the dilemma that doctors inevitably face between their need to care for their patients and their need to practice, often using dangerous drugs and performing unnecessary operations in order to earn a livelihood.
In the play’s preface, Shaw wrote:
“The test to which all methods of treatment are finally brought is whether they are lucrative to doctors or not. It would be difficult to cite any proposition less obnoxious to science than that advanced by Hahnemann, to wit, that drugs which in large doses produced certain symptoms, counteract them in very small doses, just as in modern practice it is found that a sufficiently small inoculation with typhoid rallies our powers to resist the disease instead of prostrating us with it. But Hahnemann and his followers were frantically persecuted for a century by generations of apothecary-doctors whose incomes depended on the quantity of drugs they could induce their patients to swallow. These two cases of ordinary vaccination and homeopathy are typical of all the rest.”
He continued: “Here we have the explanation of the savage rancor that so amazes people who imagine that the controversy concerning vaccination is a scientific one. It has really nothing to do with science. Under such circumstances vaccination would be defended desperately were it twice as dirty, dangerous and unscientific in method as it really is.”
Thankfully, Shaw goes on to assert that times and things are changing, “Nowadays, however, the more cultivated folk are beginning to be so suspicious of drugs, and the incorrigibly superstitious people so profusely supplied with patent medicines that homeopathy has become a way of rehabilitating the trade of prescription compounding, and is consequently coming into professional credit.”
In 1932 Shaw wrote an essay, Doctors’ Delusions, Crude Criminology and Sham Education, which included a story about the homeopathic treatment he received for a hydrocele. This accumulation of fluid around the testicle normally requires surgery, but Shaw experienced a rapid cure without recurrence.
Shaw once challenged Sir Almroth Wright, a noted conventional physician, to look into homeopathy’s ability to cure many “incurable” diseases. Wright expressed complete incredulity, while Shaw retorted that Wright had no scientific attitude or simple curiosity. This short conversation was a classic:
Almroth said, “This thing is absurd and impossible; let me put it this way. Would you, Shaw, trouble to get out of your chair if I called from the next room. ‘Do come in here and see what I have done—I have turned a pint of tea leaves into pure gold.’”
Shaw responded back simply saying, “Certainly I would.” (Coulter, 1994, 409).
A writer that one might predict to have had an interest in homeopathy would be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930), author of the Sherlock Holmes detective stories. The Scottish Doyle popularized the field of crime fiction and put Scotland Yard on the map. He was a prolific writer who also wrote science fiction, historical novels, plays, romances, poetry, and nonfiction.
In many ways, being a good homeopath is a lot like being Sherlock Holmes. A good homeopath obtains an enormous amount of detail about the totality of a sick person’s symptoms. A good homeopath probes and probes and probes, asking open-ended questions that lead patients to describe what they are experiencing in their own words. A good homeopath is open to hearing things he or she does not expect, and makes the best use of unusual symptoms that the sick person describes. Sherlock Holmes was also known to assert: “That which is out of the common is usually a guide rather than a hindrance.” And again: “That which seemingly confuses the case is the very thing that furnishes the clue to its solution.” Both of these statements are an integral part of homeopathic casetaking and case analysis. Homeopaths usually conduct a conventional diagnosis, but they then always seek to find the symptoms that are unusual for the diagnosis, and these unique symptoms are vital in selecting the medicine for the patient.
There is an intriguing reference in Doyle’s Lost World (1912). Many people are familiar with this novel because several movies were made of it (including a pioneering 1925 silent film with stop-motion special effects of the dinosaurs done by the same wizard who later created the special effects for the original King Kong). It is one of Doyle’s Professor Challenger stories. Challenger was a zoological “Indiana Jones-type” with a reputation for beating up reporters whose interviews were anathema to him. In Lost World, the narrator is a reporter who bravely decides to interview the violent professor, and a physician friend of this reporter advises him to take along a new remedy that is reported to be “better than arnica” for dealing with the injuries he is sure to suffer from the encounter (Chapter 3). But then, the narrator of the story asserts, “Some people have such extraordinary notions of humor” (as though there could ever be something better than arnica).
Arnica is one of homeopathy’s most well-known remedies for shock of injury, for sprains and strains, and for certain pre- and post-surgical problems.[xv]
Of additional interest is the fact that Doyle originally trained as a medical doctor, but his frustration, bitterness, and even cynicism is well expressed in his great Holmes adventure, “The Adventure of the Resident Patient,” a story in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1894). Ultimately, we must all feel quite blessed that Doyle was not so appreciative of homeopathic medicine that he practiced it rather than writing his stories.
Doyle was also strongly interested in and supportive of the work of Emanuel Swedenborg (who is discussed in Chapter 13, Clergy and Spiritual Leaders. Doyle was also a supporter of the controversial work of Albert Abrams, MD, discussed earlier in this chapter.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892) was poet laureate of the United Kingdom and is one of the most popular English poets of all time. Tennyson was one of many highly respected individuals to frequent the spa of Dr. James Gully, who was known to provide cold water treatments and homeopathic medicines. When Tennyson was in his late thirties, he suffered from petit mal seizures and a nervous breakdown supposedly due to thwarted romantic hopes, the death of a close friend, and financial anxieties. He first sought care at a spa under the direction of Dr. Edward Johnson, and there is record of him going to two other spas. He was so despondent and ill that friends despaired for his life (Martin, 1980, 278). However, shortly after he went to the spa and homeopathic clinic operated by Dr. Gully, he experienced noticeable benefits. In fact, although Tennyson was not yet fully cured, after Gully’s treatment, he no longer wrote to friends that he was suffering from “hypochondria” as he had done so many times previously. Even Tennyson’s mother saw the difference and referred to Dr. Gully as “a very clever man” (Martin, 1980, 315). Five years later Tennyson brought his new wife for care from Dr. Gully (Oppenheim, 1991, 136). Tennyson lived a long and fruitful life.
Other patients of Dr. Gully included: George Eliot (the pseudonym for British novelist Mary Ann Evans, 1819–1880, who not surprisingly was a friend of another major homeopathic advocate, Henry James), Edward Bulwer-Lytton (British novelist, playwright, and politician, 1803–1873), Florence Nightingale (leader in the worldwide nursing movement, 1820–1910), Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (highly respected clergyman, 1805–1873), Charles Dickens (author, 1817–1870), Thomas Carlyle (essayist and historian, 1795–1881), and Charles Darwin (British naturalist, 1809–1882). (For a detailed and truly amazing story of Darwin’s treatment by Dr. Gully, see Chapter 5, Physicians and Scientists.)
Dr. Frederick Hervey Foster Quin, the first British physician to practice homeopathy in England and the first homeopath to British royalty, was also the homeopath to many of the British elite, including literary greats Charles Dickens (author of Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, and many others) and William Makepeace Thackeray (author of Vanity Fair, among many others, 1811–1863).
One of Charles Dickens’s short novels, published posthumously, that mentioned homeopathy was The Mudfog Papers (1880). The story takes place in the mythic town of Mudfog, and like other Dickens works is full of odd and interesting characters. In this book, Dickens relates the story of a surgeon named Pipkin who tells about a short and interesting communication from Sir William Courtenay, a self-proclaimed messiah whose real name is Thom and who is an ardent believer in homeopathic medicine. He even believes that homeopathic medicines can raise the dead if prescribed immediately upon passing. This gentleman had a premonition that he would drown, and therefore employed a woman to follow him everywhere he went with a pail of water, with the instructions to place one drop of a homeopathic dose of lead and gunpowder under his tongue after death to restore him. Sadly, however, the peasant woman did not understand his instructions, and Dickens concludes, “the unfortunate gentleman had been sacrificed to the ignorance of the peasantry.”
The Irish poet W. B. Yeats (1865–1939) was a known appreciator of both homeopathic medicine and Swedenborgian thought.
The discussion of European authors with an appreciation for homeopathy would not be complete without mentioning Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett DBE (1884–1969), the English novelist whose writings were published as I. Compton-Burnett. Reviewers of her books assert that she is a direct descendant of Joyce, Kafka, and Woolf, and several of her books are New York Review Classics and still in print. She authored twenty books, including Manservant and Maidservant, More Women than Men, A Family and a Fortune, A House and Its Head, and A God and His Gifts. She received her DBE in 1967 for her contribution to literature.
Daughter of a famous homeopathic physician, James Compton-Burnett (1840–1901), Ivy was the cousin of Dr. Margery Blackie (1898–1981), who succeeded Ivy’s father as the country’s leading homeopathic physician, though distinguished herself even further by becoming the physician to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Before Ivy’s mother, Katherine Rees, married her father, she was diagnosed with Bright’s disease and was expected to never get well. However, she sought the homeopathic care of Dr. Compton-Burnett who cured her in eight months with homeopathic Mercurius vivus (mercury).[xvi] They were married within the year, and ten months later Ivy was born. Her mother lived another twenty-seven years.
An Eastern Advocate
The appreciation for homeopathy is not limited to literary greats in the Western tradition. Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) is widely recognized as the greatest writer in modern Indian literature. He was a Bengali poet, novelist, educator, and an early advocate of independence for India. Tagore won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. Two years later he was awarded knighthood, but he surrendered it in 1919 to protest against the massacre of Amritsar, where British troops killed hundreds of Indian demonstrators. Tagore’s influence over Gandhi and the founders of modern India was known to be significant.
In 1936, he wrote: “I have long been an ardent believer in the science of homeopathy, and I feel happy that it has got now a greater hold in India than even in the land of its origin. It is not merely a collection of a few medicines, but a real science with a rational philosophy as its base” (Bagchi, 2000).
Modern Literary Greats
The list of modern homeopathic advocates among writers does not compare with that of the past. However, Norman Cousins, Barbara Cartland, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, and J. D. Salinger are not lightweights by any measurement.
Norman Cousins (1912–1990) was an internationally respected journalist. He was editor of The Saturday Review (originally called The Saturday Review of Literature, a leading literary magazine for many decades, 1924–1986) and advisor to several American presidents. Despite impressive lifelong work on international peace and disarmament, he achieved his greatest fame from writing an article in the New England Journal of Medicine (1976) and then a book, Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient (1979) that chronicled his personal experience in contracting a deadly illness and curing it. In the mid-1960s, he was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a normally incurable degenerative disease of the connective tissue of the body. What was truly remarkable about his case was that he claimed to cure himself by taking large doses of Vitamin C and by experiencing frequent fits of laughter (he watched numerous TV comedy programs, including Candid Camera and I Love Lucy).
After writing this article and book suggesting that there was a significant healing effect from simple Vitamin C and from the power of the mind (and of humor!) to heal, he received more than 3,000 letters from medical doctors who expressed sincere interest and support for his experience. Cousins then wrote another important article about what he learned from these doctors (Cousins, 1978).
In 1980 he suffered a severe heart attack. He was treated conventionally except for one thing: His wife, who was a serious student of homeopathic medicine, gave him several homeopathic doses of Cactus, a homeopathic medicine known to cause and cure “prickly” and constricting pains around the heart. Despite having had a massive heart attack (and without taking Vitamin C or watching any comedy programs), he was sitting up in bed reading and writing in a couple of hours. He and his doctors insisted that it was Cousins’s will to live that resulted in his healing, though his wife simply disagreed. She even told me personally that she prescribed homeopathic medicines to her husband throughout his earlier disease of ankylosing spondylitis, but because he was so skeptical of homeopathy, she secretly placed his remedies in his morning orange juice. One of their daughters has confirmed these actions.
Many conventional physicians remain skeptical about the curative power of Vitamin C and laughter in treating ankylosing spondylitis, and perhaps their skepticism is justifiable. The fact that Cousins’s wife prescribed homeopathic medicines for him during both illnesses might better explain his remarkable recoveries.
Despite skeptics’ insistence that homeopathic medicines are only placebos and that “belief” is the primary therapy for homeopathic patients, the moral to the Norman Cousins story is that belief is not necessary for homeopathic medicines to have profound effect and that the placebo explanation is at best incomplete and inadequate for explaining the real power of these medicines.
Dame Barbara Cartland (1901–2000) was the most successful writer of romance novels of all time, specializing in historical love themes. Dame Cartland authored more than 700 romance novels, which were translated into thirty-six languages and sold over a billion copies worldwide, making her one of the best-selling authors in history. Besides romance novels, Ms. Cartland also had a special interest in natural medicine. In the 1960s she founded and was president of the National Association of Health. She advocated for organic foods, homeopathy, and acupuncture. She co-owned a health food store in Marylebone, England, and was a patron to a magazine called Mind and Matter, which promoted various natural medicines as well as radionics and the work of George de la Warr. She had a special love and appreciation for homeopathic Arnica. She also supported efforts for better conditions and wages for midwives and nurses, and advocated for equal rights for gypsies, who commonly experienced great discrimination.
Jerome David Salinger, (1919–), known as J. D. Salinger, gained his reputation as a result of his novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951). Salinger wrote a couple of other books after this and several short stories, but ultimately, he has become one of the most private and reclusive modern-day authors. Very little was known about him, until Joyce Maynard, a New York Times columnist who developed a relationship with him and then lived with him for several years, wrote a book about her time with “Jerry” Salinger (Maynard, 1998). Maynard wrote (and Salinger’s daughter Margaret confirmed, in her own book, published in 2000) that Salinger has a special deep love for homeopathy. He spends several hours each day studying homeopathic books, and he regularly prescribes homeopathic medicines to people and animals.
At one point, Maynard describes a visit by her mother, who had an infected toe at the time. After an interview with her, Jerry prescribed a homeopathic medicine, and within minutes, her toe swelled considerably and then burst, after which the pain disappeared instantly (Maynard, 1998, 138). Maynard describes Salinger’s interest in high-potency homeopathic medicines and his appreciation for constitutional homeopathy (one of the important and sophisticated practices of classical homeopathy, in which a single remedy is prescribed based on the totality of a person’s physical, emotional, mental, and genetic characteristics in order to strengthen a person’s entire constitution). Maynard also notes Salinger’s method of giving a person a homeopathic medicine in water, which is an advanced method of dispensing remedies to people (or animals).
Ultimately, Maynard moved out of Salinger’s home, got married, had children, and then got divorced, but throughout this time, she too has sought treatment from professional homeopaths.
Gabriel García Márquez (1927–) is a Colombian novelist and journalist who won the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature. He is considered one of the greatest South American writers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Perhaps the most well-known of his many novels is One Hundred Years of Solitude. Many of his writings are drawn from his own life. Because his father was trained as a medical doctor and a pharmacist who practiced homeopathy, this medical subject has been a part of several of his novels and short stories.
In Love in a Time of Cholera, the godfather of the novel’s protagonist is a homeopathic doctor, and ironically, the protagonist is fighting for the affections of a woman who is married to a conventional physician. Also, in an autobiographical short story called “Serenade: How My Father Won My Mother,” published in the New Yorker (February 19, 2001), Garcia Márquez wrote: “Over the course of the year, Gabriel Eligio gave up his worthy profession of telegraph operator and devoted his talent as an autodidact to a science on the decline: homeopathy.”
In his most recent novel, Living to Tell the Tale (2003), Garcia Márquez chose to incorporate elements of his own life with some fictional twists. His heroine, a much-loved mother, is a “lioness” who fights a long battle with her family to marry a violin-playing telegraph clerk. Then, struggling in poverty when her husband abandons her and her eleven children, she seeks to make a better life for her family by making a living as a homeopathic pharmacist.
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[i] A discussion of the factors that led to the closing of the homeopathic medical schools is provided in Chapter 11, Corporate Leaders and Philanthropists’ Support for Homeopathy.
[ii] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne both graduated from Bowdoin College in the so-called Bowdoin Banner Class of 1825, which also included Franklin Pierce (who would become the fourteenth U.S. president), John S. C. Abbott (a highly respected biographer), Jonathan Cilley (state senator and general), and Richmond Bradford (initially trained as a conventional physician who then became a leading homeopathic doctor in Maine).
[iii] Transcendentalism in America began as a protest against the general state of culture and society at the time and especially against the intellectualism at Harvard. Transcendentalism was rooted in the personal and social utopianism derived from the German idealism of Immanuel Kant, English romanticism, and Vedic thought. Transcendentalists believed that an ideal spiritual state “transcends” the physical and empirical and is only known through the individual’s intuition, rather than through the doctrines of established religions.
[iv] Elizabeth and many of her family members were also appreciators of phrenology, a system of determining a person’s character and personality by evaluating the shape of his or her head. Although this system is harshly ridiculed and ignored today, it was the most widely credited system of the mind in the 1830s. At that time phrenology was taught at Harvard and was accepted as “gospel” by the Boston Medical Society. When Johann Gaspar Spurzheim (1776–1832), phrenology’s leading proponent, died in Boston, his funeral procession included the entire Boston Medical Society and 400 Harvard students (Marshall, 2005).
[v] William Wesselhoeft, MD (1794–1858), discussed later in this chapter as the homeopath who treated Emily Dickinson, was one of the people who helped get Peabody’s pharmacy started.
[vi] Other appreciators of Swedenborg who are not referenced in this chapter include: Walt Whitman, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Carl Jung, William Blake, Immanuel Kant, D. T. Suzuki, and Helen Keller.
[vii] William Wesselhoeft, MD, was an eminent physician and homeopath. It wasn’t unusual for his patients to experience relief from their physical complaints along with improvement in their emotional and mental state. In fact, in his last address before the Homeopathic Society of Boston, he described the goal of a physician to do more than improve physical health: “The art of awakening and increasing the vitality of the human body, that is our highest aim” (Bingham, 1955, 175). Wesselhoeft was not the only member of his family involved in homeopathy. His brother Robert Wesselhoeft was also a leading homeopath, and Robert had two sons, Conrad and Walter, who were professors at the homeopathic medical school at Boston University. Conrad Wesselhoeft, MD, was Louisa May Alcott’s homeopath.
[viii] One randomized, double-blind study published in a major AMA medical journal showed that a homeopathic formula product (called Vertigoheel or Cocculus compositum) was as effective as a leading conventional drug in the treatment of vertigo (dizziness) (Weiser, 1998). Vertigoheel is a prescription drug in the United States marketed for the treatment of vertigo, while Cocculus compositum is considered an over-the-counter drug that does not require a doctor’s prescription because it is marketed for motion sickness, which is, according to the FDA, a less serious medical condition. These products have identical ingredients.
[ix] Holmes wrote Homeopathy and Its Kindred Delusions just six years after he graduated medical school. Even though his book was full of misinformation about homeopathy, Holmes had a certain brilliance and respectability such that this book was taken seriously by people antagonistic to homeopathy. For a more detailed story about Dr. Holmes, see Chapter 2, Why Homeopathy Is Hated and Vilified.
[x] The fact that Dr. Holmes chose to prescribe medicated cigarettes for Irving’s asthma and cough is but one more example of bad medicine, and yet, he and other orthodox physicians had the nerve to attack homeopathy as quackery. . . .
[xi] Various kings and queens of England since the 1830s have sought care from homeopathic physicians. For details, see Chapter 12, The Royal Medicine.
[xii] Critics of Abrams have asserted that he never got a medical degree from the University of Heidelberg, but according to the AMA, he did graduate, and in fact, was the youngest person to graduate from this school in 100 years (Scholten, 1999; Abrams, 1922). Some critics of Abrams have excessive venom for him, asserting that he was one of the greatest quacks of all time (www.wikipedia.org; Wilson, 1998). Various present and past professors from Stanford have led attacks against Abrams in their effort to distance their school’s good reputation from him. However, ironically enough, Leland Stanford (1824–1893) may have gone to a homeopathic doctor himself. One homeopathic journal posted an announcement that Charles W. Breyfogle, MD, a respected San Jose, Calif. homeopathic physician and former mayor of this city (1886–1887) traveled to Washington, D.C. to serve as the physician to Stanford while he was the U.S. Senator representing California (Sayings and Doings, 1893). However, modern-day biographers insist that there is no solid evidence that Stanford sought or received homeopathic treatment, though there is ample evidence that his wife, Jane, had a longtime interest in various paranormal phenomena (Tutorow, 2004, 2006). What is also verified is that this homeopathic physician was one of eight people who served as pallbearers at the funeral of Leland Stanford. Stanford obviously had some type of exceptionally close relationship with Breyfogle for this to occur, though it is possible that Breyfogle’s role as mayor of San Jose and as the founding president of a local bank may have given them business reasons for their relationship rather than medical reasons.
[xiii] Skeptics rarely, if ever, make reference to the support that Albert Abrams, MD, received from the former president of the British Medical Association. Further, they rarely make reference to the formal investigation of Abrams’s work led by Sir Thomas Horder (noted cancer expert and physician to the Prince of Wales). The Horder committee included experts in physics, clinical medicine, electro-therapeutics, and psychology. Morris Fishbein, president of the American Medical Association between 1924 and 1950, who was extremely antagonistic to homeopathy and Albert Abrams, reluctantly admitted: “The whole Committee was satisfied, and drew the conclusion that these experiments establish to a very high degree of probability the fundamental proposition underlying the apparatus designed for eliciting the electronic reactions of Abrams” (Fishbein, 1926, 112–116).
[xiv] It is interesting and significant that Chekhov chose a woman to be the homeopathic doctor in this story. In the 1880s women represented a very small minority of physicians, though the few that existed tended to be homeopathic doctors (see Chapter 10, Women’s Rights Leaders and Suffragists). The fact that Chekhov chose this woman to be a widow of a general makes sense because homeopathy was especially popular among the Russian elite, including the royalty, clergy, and the military.
[xv] Alpine Pharmaceuticals (San Rafael, Calif.) sponsored a double-blind, placebo-controlled study using two potencies of Arnica in the treatment of patients who underwent facial plastic surgery (Seeley, et al., 2006). This study, conducted by the head of the Facial Plastic Surgery Department at the University of California, San Francisco, was published in a respected AMA surgical journal.
[xvi] Although mercury is a well-known toxic substance, the doses used in homeopathic medicine are known to be safe and have a 200-year history of safety and efficacy. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration has regulated the sales of homeopathic medicines since 1938, and has determined the safe dosage levels of the 1,000-plus legally recognized homeopathic medicines.
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