By Dana Ullman, MPH
The most famous anti-homeopathy book written in the nineteenth century was by Oliver Wendell Holmes, MD (1809–1894).[i] Called Homoeopathy and Its Kindred Delusions, this book was written just six years after Dr. Holmes graduated from medical school. Before Holmes went to medical school, he authored a famous poem in 1830 called “Old Ironside” as well as two articles in 1832 and 1833 entitled “Autocrat at the Breakfast Table” (published in The Atlantic Monthly), which gave him a national reputation as a leading American writer and scholar.
Although Holmes had become a professor at Harvard Medical School and although he was a respected poet and author, he actually had very little direct experience practicing medicine before he wrote his attack on homeopathy. Dr. Holmes’s essay on homeopathy gained a lot of attention, and today is commonly referred to as a strong critique of homeopathy. However, Holmes’s book should actually have been a significant embarrassment to its author and others antagonistic toward homeopathy because it is so full of obvious errors, which authors today still quote as though the book was factual.
It is amazing to note, first, that Dr. Holmes wrote that the one physician who typifies the American medical thinking and practice of that time was Benjamin Rush, MD (1745–1813), a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the surgeon general of the Continental Army.[ii] Dr. Rush was one of the leading advocates of “heroic medicine,” that is, the frequent and aggressive use of including bloodletting, intestinal purging (with mercury), vomiting (with the caustic agent tartar emetic), and blistering of the skin.
Dr. Rush recommended bloodletting for virtually every patient, and he considered it quackery if a physician did not bloodlet his patients. He even once boasted that he had drawn enough blood to float a seventy-four-gun man-of-war ship (Transactions, 1882).
Rush was also an advocate of forced psychiatric treatment, which in part explains why his portrait is on the emblem of the American Psychiatric Association. One of Rush’s favorite methods of treatment was to tie a patient to a wooden board and rapidly spin it so blood flowed to the head. He placed his own son in one of his insane asylum hospitals for twenty-seven years, until he died. Rush also believed that being black was a hereditary illness which he referred to as “negroidism.”
In addition to Dr. Holmes’ glorification of Dr. Rush’s heroic medicine, Holmes had the audacity to call homeopathic medicine “barbaric” because it uses various snake venoms (Holmes, 1891, x).[iii] This statement is especially ironic when you consider that one of Dr. Holmes’s most famous quotes (from an 1860 article) was his own critique of conventional medical drugs: “I firmly believe that if the whole materia medica (materials of medicine), as now used, could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be all the better for mankind—and all the worse for the fishes” (Holmes, 1891).
Dr. Holmes’s primary attack was on the extremely small doses that are used in homeopathic medicine. However, Dr. Holmes had seemingly never read a single book on homeopathy or had any meaningful dialogue with a homeopath because he committed a classic error of calculation. When a homeopathic pharmacist makes a medicine, he dilutes one part of the original substance in 9 or 99 parts water (thus, a 1:10 or 1:100 dilution); the glass bottle is then vigorously shaken approximately 40 times, and then the medicinal solution is again diluted 1:10 or 1:100. Ultimately, to make a homeopathic medicine to the 30X or 30C (X being the Roman numeral for 10, and C for 100, the letter referring to the type of dilution), the total amount of water needed is 30 test tubes of water (considerably less than a gallon of water).
However, Dr. Holmes got his calculations confused, and he incorrectly assumed that the homeopathic manufacturer had to have 10 times or 100 times more water than in the previous dilution. Dr. Holmes estimated that the ninth dilution would require ten billion gallons of water and the seventeenth dilution required a quantity equal to 10,000 Adriatic Seas. Dr. Holmes could have easily corrected his error if he had simply gone into one homeopathic pharmacy or had a short conversation with a homeopath. Sadly and strangely, Dr. Holmes and other conventional doctors of that era prided themselves on never talking with a homeopath. What is even more ironic is that Dr. Holmes arranged for the reprinting of this article in various books from 1842 to 1891 without changing a single word, despite this and numerous other errors.
Dr. Holmes explained in his book that the growth of homeopathy was primarily because conventional physicians tended to overmedicate their patients, even though Holmes later wrote that the public itself “insists on being poisoned” (Holmes, 1891, 186).Dr. Holmes also attempted to “prove” that homeopathic medicines do not work by quoting a “scientific study.” To do this, Holmes referenced in an 1842 article a study by a Dr. Gabriel Andral, professor of medicine in the School of Paris. Holmes referred to Andral as “a man of great kindness of character … of unquestioned integrity.” Holmes reported on Andral’s experiment on 130–140 patients using homeopathic medicines, and Holmes quoted Andral saying that on “not one of them did it have the slightest influence” (Holmes, 1891, 80).
Although Dr. Holmes and others have asserted that Andral’s experiment provided strong evidence for disproving homeopathy, it must be noted that later in his life, Andral himself acknowledged the serious problems in his study. Although Andral claimed to have used Hahnemann’s Materia Medica Pura as his guide, he neglected to mention at the time that the book was in German and that he could not read German. One other book by Hahnemann was translated into French at the time of this study, but Andral did not prescribe any of the twenty-two homeopathic medicines in this book for any patients in his study. Even Andral’s assistant for this study acknowledged that Andral did not know how to select homeopathic medicines for patients and that he “excuses his ignorance by saying it was unavoidable” (Dean, 2004, 112).
Additional evidence of Andral’s complete ignorance of homeopathy was revealed in a review of each of his prescriptions and his use of dosages. He never prescribed any homeopathic medicines for any patient’s unique syndrome of symptoms. Instead, he selected a single symptom of his own idiosyncratic choosing and then guessed at the medicine for it. For instance, his prescriptions of Arnica for one woman with painful menstruation and for one man with tuberculosis were guesses that were not based on any homeopathic textbook. Further, 75 percent of the patients were given just one dose of one remedy without any follow-up remedy (Irvine, 1844). If patients were not immediately cured by this one dose, he considered homeopathy a failure and then referred the patient for conventional medical treatment.
Andral later asserted that he had never formally granted anyone permission to publish his report on homeopathy, and further, by 1852 he had changed his mind about homeopathy and asserted that it deserved close examination by every physician (Dean, 2004, 112). Despite these facts, Dr. Holmes never changed a word of his essay on homeopathy.
When you consider that Dr. Holmes’s book was considered the best critique of homeopathy written in the nineteenth century, one must rightfully acknowledge that serious or sophisticated criticism of homeopathy at this time was neither rational nor accurate.
In 1861, Dr. Holmes finally confessed that homeopathy “has taught us a lesson of the healing faculty of Nature which was needed, and for which many of us have made proper acknowledgements” (Holmes, 1891, x, xiii–xiv). However, he still never instructed his publisher to change a word of his previous writings on homeopathy.
Dean, M. E., The Trials of Homeopathy. Essen, Germany: KVC, 2004. (This book is a truly excellent book on the history of scientific studies testing homeopathic medicines. Readers will be impressed to learn that some of the earliest double-blind and placebo-controlled trials were in the testing of homeopathic medicines.)
Holmes, O. W. Medical Essays (1842–1882). Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1891.
Irvine, F. W. M. Andral’s Homoeopathic Experiments at La Pitie, British Journal of Homoeopathy, 1844.
Transactions of the American Institute of Homeopathy, Proceedings of the 35th Session, 1882, 25.
[i] Many Americans know this name, but they confuse it with his son, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who was the famous Supreme Court Chief Justice. The father was not the same gentleman scholar as was his son.
[ii] One great characteristic of Rush was his commitment to individual freedoms for citizens. Besides being anti-slavery, Rush was an advocate of “medical freedom.” He has been reported to have argued: “Unless we put Medical Freedom into the Constitution, the time will come when medicine will organize into an undercover dictatorship … to restrict the art of healing to one class of men, and deny equal privilege to others, will be to constitute the Bastille of Medical Science. All such laws are un-American and despotic and have no place in a Republic. … The Constitution of this Republic should make special privilege for Medical Freedom as well as Religious Freedom.”
[iii] Homeopaths use various snake venoms, though they use them in extremely small and safe doses, based on the specific syndrome that each venom is known to cause.