Patients in the History of Homeopathy (review) Academic Article uri icon


  • Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 58.2 (2003) 231-233 Much time has passed since Roy Porter called for writing “history from below.” Despite the fact that much research from the patient’s perspective has been published since then, the difficulty of finding appropriate historical sources and of employing the correct methodology for analyzing the documents has limited its scope. In light of this, this volume edited by Martin Dinges constitutes a landmark in the strenuous endeavor to write history from below. The history of homeopathy makes an interesting case study. Despite the wish of Samuel Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy, to establish an alternative to conventional medicine, which he derisively called “allopathy,” throughout history the homeopaths have found themselves different in considering the question of their position with regard to conventional medicine on the one hand, and other unconventional medicine on the other. Lay homeopathic supporters have played an important role in this deliberation. Yet while these lay healers took an interest in the principles of homeopathy and many of them formed a network of families treated by homeopaths, a recurrent theme in this volume is that many patients treated by homeopathy did not understand its principles fully and sometimes did not even know they were receiving homeopathic therapy. Many of them were “shoppers” in the medical marketplace, attempting to find a cure for their illness. Another myth discredited by the book is that although there is no doubt that in various places homeopathy drew patients from high socio-economic strata, who assisted in the promotion of the idea both financially and politically, many other patients treated by homeopathy hailed from the lower socio-economic strata. They were treated via dispensaries where the treatment was given free of charge or sometime through the army and railway companies, as described by Alexander Kotok in his article on homeopathy in Russia before the First World War. These various patients and their unique point of view enable a more complex analysis to be made of the social history of homeopathy: Who were the patients treated by homeopathy? What led them to accept homeopathic treatment? What socio-economic strata did they come from? How did the issue of gender influence making decisions and receiving treatment? How did they perceive their bodies, their illness and the possibility of cure? Interestingly, the patient’s oriented analysis can also inform us about the different homeopathic therapists, from the elite practitioners to lay healers. The articles in the book open the way to fascinating questions from the patient’s point of view, while leaving much work for those interested to pursue them further. The volume, based on the second conference of the International Network for the History of Homoeopathy, held in 1999, is divided into four parts. Dinges opens with an introductory article that lays bare the complexity of the research subject and tries to map the various types of patients who turn to homeopathic treatment. In the first part, 'Patients in Samuel Hahnemann’s Practice,’ among other things, use is made of the treasure of over 5,500 letters kept from Hahnemann’s practice, located in the Institute for the History of Medicine of the Robert Bosh Foundation in Stuttgart. The picture that emerges is that Hahnemann’s radicalism manifests itself not only in his medical theory and practice but also in his doctor-patient relationships. For instance, Hahnemann demanded payment in advance and refused, except in extreme cases, to conduct home visits, certainly not customary practices at that time, when doctors were generally patently dependent on their patients. The second part: 'Homeopathy in the Medical Market,’ and the third part: 'Patients’ Choices,’ which have been somewhat artificially separated, deal with patients and healers in various countries (Britain, Russia, Iceland, Denmark, France, Holland, Germany and Brazil) in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Here, the essays are the weakest. In a short article at the end of the third part Gunnar Stollberg surveys the sociological literature dealing with homeopathy. The fourth part deals with another important...

publication date

  • January 1, 2003