Homeopathy: still “an outrage to human reason” after 200 years

by Instant Noodle

WE agree with PROFESSOR FARADAY that there is something very startling in the condition of the public mind in regard to scientific reasoning. Here is a  specimen—if correctly reported—of the ratiocination of a British Legislator, and a gentleman of more than average education, moreover, a polemic of considerable celebrity; relative to a simple question of evidence. At a recent meeting of the “English Homoeopathic Association”, according to the Morning Post:—

“Mr. MIALL, M.P., moved the adoption of the report, and stated that he had become a convert to the truth of the principles of Homoeopathy from seeing their eflects as regarded a relative—though, thanks to the goodness of Providence, he had no personal experience of them.”

To any one possessed of common understanding and decent information, who is accustomed to exercise the least caution in drawing inferences, who has the slightest glimmering of an idea of the nature of inductive proof, who does not, in short, jump to his conclusions like a kangaroo, it is truly marvellous that any sane human mind should be capable of such a generalization as the above. MR. MIALL says that he became a convert to the principles of Homoeopathy “—whence ? From carefully sifting an accumulation of evidence, patiently comparing and analysing hosts of facts? No; but “from seeing their effects as regarded a relative.”

This is just the mental process by which an old woman arrives at a faith in HOLLOWAY’S or MOKISON’S Pills. Observe, too, that the thing which MR. MIALL is persuaded of with such facility, is one which is, so far from being in itself likely, anteriorly improbable in the very highest degree, and, indeed, ridiculously absurd on the first face of it.

It is curious how nonsensically men, otherwise intelligent, will argue whenever they meddle with a question relative to medicine. A man is reckoned a fool for talking about any other subject which he does not understand; but it seems to be assumed that there is a specialty in medical matters, which admits of sound opinions being formed respecting them by people who are entirely ignorant of them.

MR. MIALL, however, uses a correct expression when he calls himself a ” convert” to Homoeopathy. Science has no “converts.” Scientific truths are either self-evident or demonstrable. Philosophical systems are not “denominations” or “persuasions.” It is systems of another kind that exercise faith—such faith as MR. MIALL appears to repose in Homoeopathy.

To medical nonconformity, however, let MR. MIALL be welcome, if he will only suffer nonconformity of another kind to constitute him no obstacle to that “secular” education which is so needful a preservative against all manner of humbug.

We say Amen to MR. MIALL’S thanksgiving for never having experienced the effects of Homoeopathy in his own person; that is to say, never having experienced the effects of a serious illness unchecked by the quackery resorted to for its cure.

(January 1853)

The mid 19th century was the true golden age of quackery.  At this period, there were thousands of different ointments, elixirs and balsams available, all stocked in your local apothecary.

Very few of these have survived to the modern day. With the advent of modern medicine, especially of antibiotics, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these outmoded practices went out of fashion. The true death knell was the publication of Secret Remedies, What They Cost And What They Contain by the BMA, which showed most of these to be ineffective and, at worst, harmful.

Except, one slipped through the net. This was homeopathy; the belief that any ailment can be cured by ingesting infinitessimal quantities of some substance. It is, of course, still around today.

Homeopathy has had rather a rocky road since its inception at the end of the 18th century. Unlike many other ointments at the time, and indeed unlike many other mainstream treatments, homeopathic remedies were unlikely to cause you any harm. In fact, much of the time, the mainstream practices were often rather harmful. This lead to homeopathic hospitals having an apparently lower death rate during some epidemic by simply providing a neutral treatment. It reached its nadir in the early 20s, being reduced to a handful of practiotioners worldwide. However, thanks to good PR, beginning in the 70s, homeopathy underwent a resurgance.

How it has survived for so long is remarkable. Much of its early success was built on its relative purity and rather less dangerous nature. It was also helped by having friends in high places; in the US, homeopathic remedies were recognized as medicines thanks to the efforts of a homeopath come senator, and in the UK, many members of the cabinet also embraced homeopathy, as we can see from this extract, relating to the formation of a hospital in honour of Florence Nightingale,

It may, therefore, be feared that the suggestion for the foundation of such a hospital will not be adopted by any Ministry. But there is a description of infirmary whereof the notion might very possibly find favour with a British Cabinet. Many of our enlightened aristocracy, among them, we believe, LORD ROBERT GROSVENOR, support a place of provision for the treatment of disease by doses of medicine imperceptibly larger than the ultimate particles of matter. Of course, these fashionable philosophers and wise ladies have studied anatomy, physiology, and pathology, and have thence been enabled to discern that HUNTER and ABERNATHY were two humbugs, and that HAHNEMANN was not one, for clearly he was one, if they were not two.

A homoeopathic hospital is not, however, what we are now alluding to, although the ruling powers might be likely enough to entertain the proposal of that. We mean a hospital of an entirely novel character, albeit conducted on medical principles which have long been recognised officially. This is to be a hospital without physicians, surgeons, or an apothecary. One medical officer is to serve for all three. That individual shall be the Patent Medicine Vendor. He shall supply the patients with whatever remedies they may choose to demand, they having to prescribe for their own cases. To enable them to manage this not very difficult matter with perfect ease, let them be furnished with plenty of advertisements of various and rival pills, ointments, mixtures, balsams, elixirs, tinctures, &c. &c., including testimonials and directions for use.

As Government not only permits the sale of quack medicines, but encourages it by sealing them with the stamp of its approbation, it of course thinks the self-prescription of specifics a form of medical treatment proper for the public at large, and must therefore approve of a hospital in which the indigent sick may relieve themselves of their maladies by the same practice.

I have no concept of what a homeopathic hospital is like, but I’m guessing it would be something like this,

I digress. Anyway, despite the boom and bust and boom of homeopathy, the position of mainstream science has always been the same. Namely that such a belief is patently absurd and is not supported by any evidence whatsoever. Sir John Forbes, chief physician to Queen Victoria, famously described it as “an outrage to human reason”. Michael Faraday – the Brian Cox of his day in terms of popular science  – was a stern critic, and it is thanks to his vociferousness that much of the literate public also objected to it.

I’ll leave you with this poem written for Prof. Faraday regarding quackery. It’s 145 years since he died; championing science and reason until the last day. I’m going to borrow an over used cliche, and say that I’m sure he’d be “turning in his grave” if he knew that homeopathy would still be on our shelves in 2012.


Much as you ‘ve discovered touching chemic laws and powers,
Strange, that you should, till now, never have discovered how
Many foolish dunces there are in this world of ours!
Nature’s veracity, whilst with perspicacity,
Vigilantly, carefully, you labour to educe,
Little do you suspect how extremely incorrect
Common observation is, and common sense how loose.

Did you of enlightenment consider this an age?
Bless your simplicity, deep in electricity.
But, in social mutters, unsophisticated sage!
Weak superstition dead; knocked safely on the head,
Long since buried deeper than the bed of the Red Sea,
Did you not fondly fancy? Did you think that necromancy
Practised now at the expense of any fool could be?

Persons not uneducated—very highly dressed—
Fine folks as peer and peeress, go and fee a Yankee seeress,
To evoke their dead relations Spirits from their rest.
Also seek cunning men, feigning, by mesmeric ken,
Missing property to trace and indicate the thief,
Cure ailments, give predictions: all of these enormous fictions
Are, among our higher classes, matters of belief.

Past, you probably supposed the days of DR. DEE,
Upturned his Crystal, though, but a little while ago,
Full of magic visions for genteel small boys to soe.
Talk of gentility! see what gullibility
Fashionable dupes of homoeopathy betray,
Who smallest globules cram with the very biggast flam,
Swallowing Both together in the most prodigious way.

Men of learning, who, at least, should better kno, you’d think,
Credit a pack of odd tales of images that nod,
Openly profess belief that certain pictures wink,
That saints have sailed on cloaks, and without the slightest hoax,
In the dark, by miracle, not like stale fish, did shine,
Nor phosphorus, that slowly, might, in personages holy—
As in others, possibly, with oxygen combine.

Guided by the steady light which mighty BACON lit,
You naturally stare, seeing that so many are
Following whither fraudulent Jack-with-the-Lanterns flit.
Of scientific lore, though you have an ample store,
Gotten by experiments, in one respect you lack;
Society’s weak side, whereupon you none have tried,
Being all Philosopher and nothing of a Quack.

(January 1853)