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Last Updated: Sunday, 10 April 2005, 01:09 GMT 02:09 UK
Malaria row inspired homeopathy
By Jane Elliott
BBC News health reporter

Samuel Hahnemann
Samuel Hahnemann - the father of homeopathy
Taking arnica for bruising or apis mel for bee stings has become second nature for many people.

But few of those with homeopathic remedies in their cupboards know that they have a German physician to thank for the remedies.

This weekend, supporters of homeopathy are celebrating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Hahnemann - the man widely accepted as the founder of homeopathy.

Homeopathy today is one of the most popular and widely used complementary therapies with about 100,000 physicians using it globally.

Medical

In the UK today there are five NHS homeopathic hospitals and the global sale of homeopathic medicines represents more than 1bn globally.

However, even 250 years after Hahnemann's birth, there is still debate over the effectiveness of the discipline.

But the very concept might never have been discovered had it not been for Dr Hahnemann, who was born in Meissen, Germany, in 1755.

There's no doubt that the debate about whether homeopathic medicine is more than a placebo is ongoing
Professor Edzard Ernst, Peninsula Medical School

After training in sciences and botany he qualified as a doctor.

But he soon became dissatisfied with the medicine of the day, feeling that the purges and bleeding of the period were excessive and harmful.

He was so disillusioned that at one stage he even quit medicine to work as a translator.

But, ironically it was while translating medical texts that he made his biggest breakthrough - the realisation that taking quinine to treat malaria produced the same symptoms as the illness itself.

Dr Hahnemann found a piece by another doctor, Cullen, who was examining the use of quinine (which he referred to as Peruvian Bark) to treat malaria - or Marsh Fever as it was then known.

Dr Cullen said the bark was successful because of its astringent and purgative properties.

But Dr Hahnemann took issue with this. He argued that other medicines had the same properties - but had no effect on malaria.

To prove his point, he decided to experiment with quinine, taking the drug himself.

The results were to prove hugely significant.

Key idea

According to John Saxton, president of the faculty of homeopathy which promotes the academic and scientific development of the discipline, they effectively laid the foundation stone for the creation of homeopathy.

Hahnemann put the patient as an individual at the centre of healthcare
John Saxton
"He took a dose of Peruvian Bark - four drams - and developed all the symptoms of malaria apart from the fever.

"For as long as he continued to take the bark, he had the symptoms and when he stopped it, they stopped.

"It set him thinking."

Dr Hahnemann came to the conclusion that it was the very fact that quinine produced symptoms so similar to malaria itself that made it a useful medicine - in effect he discovered that like can be used to fight like.

As Dr Hahnemann said himself: "Every effective drug provokes in the human body a sort of disease of its own, and the stronger the drug, the more characteristic, and the more marked and more violent the disease.

"We should imitate nature which sometimes cures a chronic affliction with another supervening disease, and prescribe for the illness we wish to cure, especially if chronic, a drug with the power to provoke another, artificial disease, as similar as possible, and the former disease will be cured: fight like with like."

Inspiration

Dr Hahnemann also became involved in experimenting in diluting substances, including poisonous metallic elements mercury and arsenic.

His aim was to derive their benefits, while avoiding their side-effects.

His ideas spread quickly following the publication of his book The Organon Of The Medical Art in 1810, which attracted both admiration and hostility.

Dr Frederic Quin brought the idea of homeopathy to Britain and the British aristocracy became early admirers.

In 1849 Dr Quin founded the London Homeopathic Hospital (now the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital).

This is due to be reopened next month following an 18m refurbishment.

But even though there is still obviously great interest in homeopathy, there is debate over if, and to what extent, treatments actually work.

Edzard Ernst, professor of complementary medicine at the Peninsula Medical School in Exeter, said: "Hahnemann was advising that homeopathy has to be used as an alternative to conventional medicine.

"That's understandable in the context of his time, when conventional treatments were clearly doing more harm than good.

"But today's homeopathic practitioners use it as a complement to conventional medicines."

Professor Ernst added: "There's no doubt that the debate about whether homeopathic medicine is more than a placebo is ongoing, and during the last few years, the pendulum has swung a little towards the negative side."

He said patients certainly reported benefits from homeopathic treatments, but added that may be due to factors such as longer consultation times compared to the amount of time GPs can spend with patients. To celebrate Dr Hahnemann's anniversary there will be a number of events throughout Germany as well as an exhibition on him and his followers at the British Homeopathic Association and Faculty of Homeopathy's offices.

Mr Saxton said: "Hahnemann put the patient as an individual at the centre of healthcare and believed that factors in a person's life, such as emotional influences, had a fundamental impact on their well-being.

"That was revolutionary thinking then and it still sounds very relevant to us today."


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