Homeopathy was developed in the late 18th and early 19th century, and was widely practiced in the United States until the mid-20th century. It remains in widespread use in Europe, Latin America and India, and is again attracting attention in this country, in part because its effectiveness has at length been demonstrated by scientific studies and possibly explained in scientific terms, and in part because its safety and cost compare very favorably with the now-standard model of specialized disease diagnosis and hospital-oriented surgical and drug treatment of illness. The World Health Organization has cited homeopathy as one of the alternative methods that should be integrated worldwide with conventional medicine for optimal health care in the 21st century.

The homeopathic method, named from Greek words meaning “similar illness”, was developed by Samuel Hahnemann, a noted German medical school professor who became disillusioned with the often drastic and generally ineffective drug and surgical treatments of the day, and who in fact abandoned the practice of medicine and worked as a chemist and translator of medical and scientific books. This experience caused him to read much of the world’s medical literature and to develop great understanding of medicinal chemistry. The Peruvian tree bark cinchona was known to cure malaria, but Hahnemann disagreed with the prevailing theories as to why it worked. He decided that the best way to understand the effects of medicines was to take them, and when he ingested cinchona bark twice a day, he developed all the symptoms of malaria, which subsided when he stopped taking the cinchona. This led him to suggest that a substance that caused symptoms in large doses might combat them if taken in smaller doses, and later to propose that all recovery from disease was due to the actions of a vital force or energy that is present in all living things and attempts to heal illness and injury, and that such small doses of medicine could stimulate that force or energy to curative action. He further suggested that medicines are safer in small doses and that the best dose can be determined by experiment, and that illnesses are in many ways unique to an individual because of family history, physical constitution and life circumstances; these ideas have become the foundation of modern pharmacology and holistic medicine. Hahnemann and his disciples proceeded to study several thousand naturally-occurring remedies, vegetable, animal and mineral, and to establish a “repertory” of illnesses, circumstances and types of patients in which specific medicines might be effective at very low and therefore very safe doses.

Orthodox medicine grew increasingly skeptical of homeopathic claims as the “disease model”, development of different medical specialties and the modern pharmaceutical industry and surgical techniques developed; for example, the American Medical Association pressured The Ohio State University in 1924 to close its homeopathic medical school in favor of the allopathic (standard medicine) institution. Homeopathy continued in widespread use in Europe and parts of Asia, and is now rebounding in this country, with a reported 20-30 per cent increase each year in the sales of homeopathic medicines in the United States during the past 25 years. This is in part because homeopathic medicines are relatively inexpensive, being derived from plants, animals and minerals; they are also recognized by the Food and Drug Administration as safe, and are regulated in their manufacture, labeling and sale. Because they are all generic and controlled clinical studies are very expensive, there have not until recently been many controlled trials of the effectiveness of these medicines, as has been the case with prescription drugs. In the past 30 years, however, it has been possible to demontstrate that a number of homeopathic remedies are more effective than placebos (sugar pills) for a variety of illnesses.