Christian Friedrich Samuel Hahnemann
Biography of Christian Friedrich Samuel Hahnemann
Christian Friedrich Samuel Hahnemann
Hahnemann was the inventor of homeopathy, the pseudoscience of curing ills with water. Its "Bible" is a book first published in 1810: Organon der rationellen Heilkunde. Please be not deceived: there is nothing rational about it, although it has buttered the bread of generations of printers.
In 1707 the alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger and the physicist Walter von Tschirnhaus succeeded in producing the first European porcelain. This occasioned, in 1710, the establishment of a porcelain factory in the German state of Saxony. One of the many painter subsequently attached to this factory was Christian Gottfried Hahnemann. The family originally came from the small place Lauchstedt not far from Meissen, where already his grandfather was called a “painter.” Samuels mother was Johanna Christina, née Spiess, daughter of a Saxonian captain in Kötzenbroda.
During the Seven years war (1756-1763) Prussia ravaged the porcelain factory in Meissen, which struck the porcelain painters hard. The Hahnemann family lived under poor conditions.
The porcelain painter’s son, Christian Friedrich Samuel Hahnemann, was born in Meissen on April 10, 1755, the year before the beginning of the Seven Years War. The family’s poor economy was to mark his youth and student time. Several times he had to interrupt his schooling because his father wanted to have him apprenticed. Samuel, however, always returned, and thanks to his linguistic skills he was exempted from paying tuition fees. After attending the city school he later entered the famous princely school St. Afra. After passing his examination there he gave a farewell address in Latin on the topic “On the human hand.” It has been lost.
In a later letter Hahnemann expresses his love for his teacher, Müller, “who loved me like his own child, and gave me the freedom to learn in my own way, for which I still thank him.” Hahnemann here enjoyed a degree of freedom most unusual for a pupil in a Saxony prince school.
Working his way through studies
In 1775, with help from a benefactor named Görner, Hahnemann went to Leipzig to study medicine. In order to survive economically he gave language lessons to foreign fellow students, and translated foreign works on medicine and chemistry. Because the medical faculty in Leipzig had no clinic, the students had no opportunity to educate themselves in the practical side of medicine. After four terms Hahnemann therefore left Leipzig in 1777. “Love of the practical art of medicine, for which there was no opportunity to train in Leipzig, made me move to Vienna on my own expenses,” he wrote.
In Vienna Hahnemann studied under Baron Joseph von Quarin (1733-1814), life physician to empress Maria Theresia (1717-1780) and head of the hospital Barmherzige Brüder. Quarin soon recognized Hahnemann's abilities and let him, as the only one of his students, accompany him on his visits to his private patients. In a letter from 1791 Hahnemann wrote: “ It is Die barmherzige Brüder, or, perhaps even more, the great practical genius, life physician Quarin, I have to thank for calling myself a doctor.”
Once more, however, economy forces him to stop. Hahnemann is unable to complete his studies. Already after three quarters of year he finds employment as house physician and librarian to the governor of Siebenbürgen, baron von Brukenthal in Hermannstadt. In the marshy landscape of Siebenbürgen malaria was a common disease, and Hahnemann made his first studies. At this time, in the fashion of his time, Hahnemann joined a Masonic lodge.
After two years in Siebenbürgen, then in the Kingdom of Hungary, now a part of Romania, Hahnemann in 1879 moved to Erlangen to complete his medical education. There he received his medical doctorate on August 10, 1779, with a thesis that, among other things, concerned the treatment of tooth pain according to the method of Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815). In his time Mesmer became known for his use of hypnosis, and maintained the existence of what he called “animal magnetism.”
Itinerant doctor of medicine
The young doctor now commenced an itinerant professional life. In 1780 he moved to Hettstedt near Eisleben and in the same year also practised as Stadtphysikus in Gommern near Magdeburg. From the spring of 1781 he worked in Dessau, where he married Henriette Küchler, stepdaughter of the apothecary Küchler. Their marriage produced eleven children. In Dessau he unsuccessfully applied for a position as Amtsarzt.
In 1783 he moved to Dresden where he decided to devote himself to forensic medicine as an exact field of work. One more, however, he failed in obtaining a public position. This disappointment kept the father of several children stuck in theoretical research in Lockwitz. The result was a work on arsene poison.
In 1787 Hahnemann invented a method of examining lead-sugar falsification of wines. His test became so popular that it was applied as a public wine test, being sold in large quantities in drugstores all over Europe.
“ . . . then my heart started to beat”
In 1789 the Heinemann's removal load once more headed for Leipzig where, in that same year, he produced a soluble mercury preparation for the treatment of venereal diseases. At this time he was a chemist of some repute. It was in Leipzig, in 1790, he probably had his first ideas about what he termed homeopathy in 1807. During his work on the translation of William Cullen’s book Lectures on the Materia medica he worked on a passage about the effect of quinine.
Quinine is an alkaloid derived from cinchona bark, and until World War I was the only effective means for the treatment of malaria. The positive effect of quinine on fever was well known in Hahnemann’s time. He tried the effect of cinchona on himself, and described what happened when he twice a day consumed two points of a knife of “good cinchona”: “First the, feet, then the tips of my fingers etc. became cold, then my heart started beating, the pulse heavy and fast; then I was possessed by an infinite anxiety, a trembling (but without shiverings of cold), a weakening of all limbs, then beating in the head, reddening cheeks, thirst – in short, all the symptoms of relapsing fever presented themselves successively . . .”
During this trial on himself Hahnemann drew the conclusion that quinine is able to cure malaria, because it could cause the same symptoms as malaria on healthy people. This is the basic principle of homeopathy. Hahnemann’s principle, Simila similibus («with the help of the same»), both formally and in its content it is a declaration of war on traditional medicine, which from Antiquity had been based on the principle contraria contrariis («with the help of the opposite»).
Dr. Hahnemann – the alienist
One of the things for which Hahnemann is rightfully credited, is his attitude to lunatics. In the newspaper Becker’s Anzeiger for March 8, 1792, he propagated a more humane treatment of the mentally ill, with the erection of a “Hülfs-Anstalt für Wahnsinninge Standespersonen.” Duke Ernst II made a castle in Georgenthal near Gotha available to him. This undertaking seems not to have flourished, and was too expensive to run. Among his few patients treated was a manic depressive Hanoverian Lotterieeinnehmer (lottery collector) named Klockenbring (successfully) and a peasant’s son from Schnakenberg. Unable to maintain himself, Hahnemann gave up his career as an alienist already the following year.
A critic on the move
The death of emperor Leopold II on March 1, 1792, occasioned Hahnemann to enter a sharp polemic against the uncritical use of bloodletting, which had been practiced by the emperor’s life physician Johann Georg Hasenöhrl (1729-1796). In this struggle, Hahnemann was supported by a friend of Goethe, the anatomist, surgeon and obstetrician Justus Christian von Loder (1753-1832) in Halle.
This period of Hahnemann life again was changeable. From 1792 to 1805 he moved more than ten times with his ever growing family. From Molschleben he went to Pyrmont in 1794, and that same year appeared in Göttingen. The physician Christian Heinrich Pfaff (1773-1852) described him as verkappten Herrnhuter und Mystiker, der die Fensterläden seines Vorderzimmers immer geschlossen habe. Via Braunschweig and Wolfenbüttel he went on to Königslutter. His plans for a position at the Mitau university failed. Finally, in 1800 (or 1799?) he appeared in Hamburg-Altona. Here he treated the comedy playwright Wesel, who had been a lunatic since 1786.
There followed stays in Machern near Leipzig (1801), shortly afterwards in Eilenburg, Wittenberg, and eventually the small town of Torgau, where he lived from 1805 to 1811.
1796 - Hahnemann presents his new doctrine
Hahnemann’s new medical doctrine was first published in Hufeland’s Journal der practischen Arzneykunde und Wundarzneykunst in 1796. Its title was Investigations of a new principle for finding the healing powers of pharmacological substances, besides some new views on those hitherto used. Here he carried on his thoughts from the quinine experiment, writing that medical drugs are more potent, the stronger disease it causes in a healthy body.
Hahnemann, however, was far from the first to arrive at the (unfortunately false) idea that likes are cured by likes. Philosophers and physicians had advanced the idea from time to time for thousands of years; Hahnemann acknowledged his debt to Hippocrates. The philosophical basis of this idea has been ascribed to the Greek Empedocles (ca. 490-430 B.C.), and Hippocrates (c. 460 B.C. to c. 377 B.C.) We also find references to it from the Oracle of Delphi, from Indian medical text as much as 4,000 years old, and from ancient Chinese medical texts.
After closely observing nature, Hippocrates announced that there are two possible ways of curing: by the contraries and the similars. Aulus Cornelius Celsus (fl. 1st century AD, Rome), one of the greatest Roman medical writers, by some writers is ascribed to have received renown for relying on this approach. The way of contraries would be followed a century later by Galen of Pergamum (born AD 129, died c. 199). The system of similars would be sketched by philosophers such as Saint Thomas Aquinas and by doctors who defined the so-called vitalism in medicine. One of the earliest proponents of the vitalist school who deserves special mention is the great Renaissance physician Paracelsus (1493-1541), who undoubtedly came closest to the therapeutical ideals of Hahnemann. After him the Vienna physician Anton Freiherr von Störck (1731-1803) and the Englishman John Brown (1780) had formulated similar ideas. The well-read Hahnemann was probably familiar with this.
Thinner is stronger
It was in 1801 that Hahnemann developed his doctrine about the dilution of drugs. In it he assumed that drugs do not work “anatomically”, but “dynamically”, and that “drugs are not dead substances in the common meaning meaning of the word; on the contrary, their true nature is solely dynamic and spiritual.”
In a book published in Latin in 1805 Hahnemann describes his experiences with a total of 27 drugs. In accordance with his own doctrine that drugs can only be tested on a healthy body, he conducted all the experiments on himself. In 1807 he termed his medical system homeopathy.
Shall I be my brother’s destroyer and murderer?
In a letter to the famous physician Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland (1762-1836) in 1808 Hahnemann wrote:
“For 18 years I have deviated from the common ways of the art of medicine. For me it was a proprietary sacrifice to grope in the dark with my books by the patients, and, based on some imaginary opinion of the disease, prescribe things that only found its way into materia medica by discretion. I suffered pangs of conscience by treating unknown, diseased conditions in my suffering brethren with these strong and unknown remedies. How could the physician adopt these remedies to the patients, when its effects have not been elucidated? If not perfectly adapted, these strong substances could change life and death, or cause new trouble and chronic sufferings, maybe worse than the disease it was supposed to dispel. It was my worst thought, that maybe I would become my brother’s murderer or destroyer, a thought so horrifying, that in the first years of my marriage I gave up my practice entirely.”
Organon – a theoretical system of no scientific merit
The first complete summary of homeopathic teaching was published in Hahnemann’s book Organon der rationellen Heilkunde (“Organon of the rational art of healing”) which appeared in Dresden in 1810. This is the homeopath’s Bible. You can still buy in it almost any well-stocked bookshop.
If you are looking for a scientific basis for homeopathy, however, reading Organon is a waste of time. Based on his theory that "likes are cured by likes, Hahnemann formulates a comprehensive theoretical system in 291 paragraphs.
But Hahnemann was a physician and, although reputed as a chemist, never was a scientist. But then he never tried to present a scientific founding for his system. None of his paragraphs are based on clinical trials that may be tested. His teaching is based on a logic best described by the Norwegian-born Danish playwright Ludvig Holberg 1684-1752 in his play Erasmus Montanus: “Little mother cannot fly. A stone cannot fly, thus Little Mother is a stone.” His system therefore represents a free-for-all interpretation of a more or less metaphysical character, which explains while the controversy over homeopathy is still raging.
Lack of scientific merit, however, does not mean that Organon is without qualities. Hahnemann’s extremely diluted medicines in one way represented a major advance in their time: Whether they helped the patient or not, they probably harmed nobody. This is in strong contrast to many other drugs and healing methods in his time. Common methods were bloodletting, the use of strong purgatives and laxities and large doses of toxic substances. Surviving medical treatment two hundred years ago took a strong health.
Hahnemann above all deserves credit for emphasising the human as a whole, as well as his understanding of the importance of the mind. And the mind, of course, is the basis of it all. Blind-tests of homeopathic remedies in the 1990s never demonstrated any effect beyond that of a placebo, which may be substantial. It's a mind game.
Hahnemann’s investigation of his patients was characterized by individualization – the uniqueness of every disease case. This approach forces the physician to meticulously record all the disease symptoms, and thus Hahnemann as early as in 1799 began to establish patient’s journals.
The doctrine of pure pharmacology
Hahnemann’s second main oeuvre on homeopathy was published in six volumes between 1811 and 1821. Entitled The doctrine of Pure Pharmacology it was catalogue of homeopathic remedies. In it he describes in detail the effect of every drug after it has been administered to a healthy person, recommending that it be administered in dilutions of 1: 99, the diluting being repeated 30 times.
During the years 1811-1812 Hahnemann had a busy practice in Leipzig, where in 1812 he was given the venia legendi as a teacher at the university, and thus was able to disperse his doctrine to a small group of students. With his polemic presentations and scurrilous and bellicose manner he was no success as a teacher.
In 1813, after the battle of nations near Leipzig, an epidemic of ship fever broke out. While 1/3 of patients commonly died, Hahnemann had 183 patients and only one old woman died.
Napoleon’s superior in the waiting room
In 1820 Hahnemann received a famous patient, field marshal Karl Philipp Fürst von Schwarzenberg (1771-1820). As Austria had forbidden the practice of homeopathy, the field marshal was forced to undertake the journey to Leipzig, accompanied by his two life physicians. Von Schwarzenberg was no less than one of the four commanders of the allied forces that had vanquished Napoleon in the so-called Battle of the Nations at Leipzig in October 1813, Napoleon's first defeat.
The field marshal was suffering the consequences of a stroke in 1817. Before showing up at Hahnemann for homeopathic treatment he had tried a water cure, but in vain. Already after a short period of treatment, however, Hahnemann refused to continue treatment, because he discovered that the field marshal’s life physicians, in all secrecy, conducted bloodletting. Von Schwarzenberg died one month later. Hahnemann attended the funeral and was present at the post-mortem investigation. The presence of numerous arteriosclerotic nodules was demonstrated, from which he would have died in any way.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who compared Hahnemann to Paracelsus, and Ludwig van Beethoven, too, are said to have been among his patients.
The conflict with the apothecaries
His advocacy of small doses aroused the enmity of orthodox medical circles, especially the apothecaries. Hahnemann emphasised that the physician had to prepare medicines himself. Druggists in Leipzig hated him for this and in 1919 began judicial contention against him. Then the king forbade him to prepare medicine and Hahnemann decided to leave Leipzig. He accepted an invitation from the duke of Anhalt-Köthen and in 1821, aged 66 years, settled in the small city of Köthen, where Duke Ferdinand gave him permission to dispense drugs for as long as he lived. Here he received a position with the title of Hofrat at the duke’s court, a position that secured for him a comfortable old age.
In 1828 Hahnemann published the three first volumes of a planned four-volume work, The chronic diseases, their peculiar nature and homeopathic treatment. In it he presents his theory that 85 percent of all chronic diseases – both somatic and mental – may be ascribed to three basic causes: sykosis, syphilis, and psora. His list of diseases assumed to have these causes, ranging from hysteria to madness to haemorrhoids, deafness, cataract, asthma, and impotence, leaves the reader with a good understanding why even most of his most ardent followers rejected this silly theory.
In 1829 Samuel Hahnemann celebrated the 50th anniversary of his doctoral degree. 400 physicians signed the Latin program for the celebration. In the same year was founded Union of German Homeopathic Doctors.
In the time of the cholera
In his lifetime, Hahnemann experienced one great triumph as a doctor. During the great cholera epidemics ravaging large part of Europe in 1831/1832, traditional medicine, with its bloodletting and purgatives, was helpless. Against this stood Hahnemann’s recommendation of preventive work and camphor spiritus. Judging from the statistics and the many reports of curing, his measures and treatment helped in many cases. He published several papers on the “Cure of the Asian cholera”.
Growth of homeopathy
During the 1820s the new doctrine of medicine enjoyed a growing flock of followers. The first homeopathic journals were established, homeopathic physicians joined in societies, and the first books on homeopathy were published. This was important for the establishment of the doctrine, but it also involved a danger, as not everything published was in accordance with Hahnemann’s “pure” doctrine.
The establishment of the first homeopathic hospital in Leipzig in 1832 caused an open conflict in which Hahnemann publicly denounced “half- and bastard homeopathy.” The break between Hahnemann and some of his followers was a fact. Single-minded and uncompromising he pursued his own ideas, which to a large degree were what in German is called "Spinnereien" - silly phantasies. In 1831 he published a book entitled Die Allöpathie – ein Buch der Warnung an Kranke jeder Art (Allopahty – a book of warning to sick people of every kind).
As early as in 1832 the first lay society of homeopathy was established. Homeopathy became in vogue, and it was common for princes and counts to have homeopaths as their life physicians.
Medicine and love
On October 8, 1834, the then 79-year-old Hahnemann was consulted by the 33-year-old Parisienne Melanie d’Hervilly-Gohier. She had done the journey to Köthen in men’s clothes to consult the famous physician for face pains, or so-called tic doloreux. At that time Hahnemann had been a widower for five years, his first wife, Henriette, died in 1827 (1830?). Already on January 18, 1835, aged 80 years, Hahnemann married his young patient and moved with her to Paris, No. 1. Rue de Milan. In the journal Allgemeine Homöopatische Zeitung for July 13, 1835 one could read the short notice that «Herr Hofrath Dr. S. Hahnemann left for Paris on June 14.»
Before moving from Köthen to Paris, Hahnemann gave 32000 Talers of his fortune to his children, and bought a house for each of his two daughters who were still living with him at this time.
Fiddling with health
In Paris Hahnemann was well received by the Homeopathic Society and he received assistance in establishing his own practice, which soon flourished. Among his patients in Paris were many of the great names of the time. One of them was the world famous violin player Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840), who in 1837 had to postpone an opening concert due to “sickness in the trachea”. For many years Paganini had received the most diverse diagnoses and treatments. Now, at last, he found his way to Dr. Hahnemann, who had a formidable reputation in the high society of Paris.
Paganini had a rather pitiful disease history to tell. He was very ill when young, suffering from coughs and, after a mercury cure (probably for syphilis), had frequent problems with letting the water. Despite of, if not rather due to his special looks, women were very attracted to Paganini. He had suffered from chronic erection for several years, and could ejaculate by the mere sight of a woman.
Hahnemann gave his patient the medicine with which he usually started – a highly diluted sulphur solution. It was probably a rather surprised Paganini who was told that one drop of the solution, already diluted, should be mixed with 30 spoons of water. Hahnemann also described his diet: no coffee, no tea, and only strongly diluted wine. Anybody familiar with homeopathic treatment of today knows that this has changed very little.
Unfortunately for music lover, Hahnemann was unable to help Paganini, and there was a break between doctor and patient. Following the death of Paganini only three years later, it was discovered that the break between the maestro and the society doctor had causes quite other than health. Among Paganini’s property left was found a love letter to Mélanie Hahnemann.
In Paris Hahnemann became a chairman of French Homeopathic Society. On his 86th birthday he was created citizen of honour of his native city of Meissen.
On March 24, 1843, Hahnemann fell ill with bronchitis, gradually loosing his strength. Samuel Hahnemann died in Paris on July 2, 1843, aged 88 years. His embalmed body was buried in almost secrecy on the Montmartre. In 1898 the body was moved to the cemetery Père La Chaise, among “The immortals of France”, where a monument was raised on his grave in 1900. A similar memorial had been erected in his honour in Leipzig in 1851.
“Nichts ohne Gottes Fügung”
Homeopathy enjoyed a high degree of popularity in the early 1900th century, not the least so in America, where homeopathy practitioners may still be found - as in Europe. At a time when drugs were normally used in large doses and sometimes indiscriminately, the infinitesimal doses of the homeopath did less harm than many conventional measures, as bloodletting, purging, induced vomiting, and the administration of massive doses of toxic drugs.
Homeopathy, however speculative and unscientific, is still never without its flock. Astrologists, too, never risk unemployment.
The journal Antihomöopathisches Archiv was published in Hamburg 1834-1848.
We thank Niels Grønbæk, Denmark, for correcting an error.