Don’t mix homeopathy and politics: a case study

by Instant Noodle

A HOMEOPATHIC SUNDAY.
LORD ROBERT GROSVENOR is, it is well known, a homeopathist. Doubtlessly, it is in this character that he would wish to give the people a homeopathic Sunday? He would administer to them infinitesimal doses of recreation; the smallest globules of pleasure, mixed up with brimming pailsful of abstinence and privation. He would have them limited, if he could, to the billionth part of a ride in an omnibus, with the 500,000th part of a dram of a glass of ale, and the 3/10000th of the crumb of a sandwich, by way of refreshment; not a scruple of anything excepting religious scruples, and as many of those as you like the scruples being against shaving, reading, dining (unless you have a French cook to dress your dinner for you at home), eating, drinking, (except you have a good cellar and larder in your own house, or belong to a club), and against all rational and innocent forms of amusement in general.

We doubt, however, if this Hahnemannising the British Public would have been exactly humanising them, or would have put them into the most fitting humour for going to church. We are afraid that many a poor fellow with a hungry stomach would have wished that homoeopathy had never been applied to politics: and in his anger would have inveighed bitterly against LORD ROBERT for being such an exceedingly homoeopathic legislator.

Robert Grosvenor, 1st Baron Ebury, was a cofounder of the British Homeopathic Association, still one of the most powerful voices in homeopathy.

Lord Robert Grosvenor

He was, however, not alone in UK politics in being partial to homeopathy. Indeed, it is partly thanks to the prediliction of the upper classes to homeopathy during this period that this particular form of quackery survived to the present day. It still persists as perhaps the only pseudoscientific drug to be mass prescribed on the NHS.

Grosvenor used his privileged position to help found a number of homeopathic hospitals, many of which still survive to the modern way. He was not alone in this practise, as we can see from these excerpts,

The supporters of homeopathy are now striving to establish a large metropolitan hospital, which shall be conducted according to the principles inculcated by Samuel Hahnemann, which will be a school for homeopathic students, and which will afford to allopathic physicians the means of inquiring into the merits of the new doctrine and practice.

A public dinner in aid of the building fund of this charity took place on Wednesday, April 21 at Willis’s Rooms, when Henry Charles FitzRoy Somerset 8th Duke of Beaufort, George Ponsonby O’Callaghan 2nd Viscount Lismore, Arthur de Vere Capell Viscount Malden, Henry Robinson Montagu 6th Baron Rokeby, Lord Grey de Wilton, Lord Cosmo Russell, the Hon. Robert Grosvenor, Mr Truman MP, Major Blake, Edmund Gardiner Fishbourne, Mr Pritchard [High Bailiff of Southwark], Mr Sheriff Rutherford, Frederick Hervey Foster Quin, John Rutherford Russell, and about 150 other gentlemen, known as supporters and practitioners of homeopathy in the metropolis and in the provinces.

The usual toasts were given, viz– “The Queen;” “The Prince Consort and the Royal Family;” and “The Army and Navy,” responded to by Henry Robinson Montagu 6th Baron Rokeby and Edmund Gardiner Fishbourne, who alluded to their experience of the benefits personally derived by them from homeopathy during their service in the Niger expedition and in the Crimea. The Chairman then proposed “Success to the London Homeopathic Hospital,” which was enthusiastically received.

The homeopathic hospital in Smyrna, was also supported by: Arthur Algernon Capell 6th Earl of Essex, Lord Lovaine MP (Algernon George Percy 6th Duke of Northumberland), James Gambier 1st Baron Gambier, George Wyndham 1st Baron Leconfield, Colonel Taylor, Edmund Gardiner Fishbourne, Robert Grosvenor 1st Baron Ebury, Richard Whately Archbishop of Dublin, Henry Charles FitzRoy Somerset 8th Duke of Beaufort, Arthur Wellesley 1st Duke of Wellington, James Hamilton 1st Duke of Abercorn, and 18 other members of the House of Lords, 43 Peer’s sons, Baronets and Members of Parliament, 17 Generals, 33 Field Officers, 43 other Officers of the Army, 2 Admirals, 15 Captains of the navy, 65 Clergymen, 45 Justices of the Peace, Barristers and Solicitors, and 314 Bankers, Merchants and others.

[From Sue Young Histories; original source not given]

Although there has been a steady decline in the takeup of homeopathic drugs of late – so much do that this is “homeopathy awareness week” – there are still 3 NHS homeopathic hospitals in the UK. This is a bit of an anachronism, as a throwback to the golden age of homeopathy; the 1860s, from which the quote from Punch is taken. All of these homeopathic hospitals were actually invited to join the NHS at its inception in 1948.

Nonetheless, despite this widespread support from the aristocracy; as I have described before, homeopathy during this period was perceived by the masses to be a bit like the way we view “new age” treatments today. A little bit kooky and an extravagance that only a few could indulge in.

Punch, as well as many mainstream publications, correspondingly did not have very much time for it. In fact, advocates such as Grosvenor’s names are rarely mentioned without a dig at their rather wacky beliefs. The opinion of the media, and indeed much of the public, was often at odds with that of the government’s.

Here we get to the problem, then. Is it a problem that politicians beliefs may be different to those of the electorate? Sure, some politicians have had wacky beliefs. This still happens today; the Rt. Hon. David Tredinnick’s odd beliefs on alternative medicines are well known. In a democracy, we might expect to have some oddballs thrown into the mix. And yes, these beliefs may trickle through to questions in the commons. Often, these are laughed out of parliament, much like how Mr. Tredinnick’s suggestions to avoid operating at certain phases of the moon were. It could perhaps be argued that these are minority beliefs that deserve representation, if only to be voted out by the majority.

Sometimes, however, these odd ideas can find themselves going a long way; particularly when the minority becomes sizable in the government. Such is the case with the government’s response to the Cattle Plague of 1865, in which Grosvenor, or rather, Baron Ebury, played a starring role.

A cattle plague outbreak in South Africa in 1890.

The plague was absolutely devastating to the agricultural economy. By the end of 1865, 73,549 animals had been attacked of which 41,491 had died and a further 13,931 had been killed. Indeed, this is likely to be a gross underestimate. In churches across Britain, this prayer was said,

O Lord God Almighty, whose are the cattle on a thousand hills, and in whose hand is the breath of every living thing, look down, we pray Thee, in compassion upon us, Thy servants, whom Thou hast visited with a grievous murrain among our herds and flocks. We acknowledge our transgresions, which worthily deserve Thy chastisement, and our sin is ever before us; and in humble penitence we come to seek Thy aid. In the midst of judgment, do Thou, 0 Lord, remember mercy-stay, we pray Thee, this plague by Thy word of power, and save that provision which Thou hast in Thy goodness granted for our sustenance. Defend us, also, gracious Lord, from the pestilence with which many foreign lands have been smitten; keep it, we beseech Thee, far away from our borders, and shield our homes from its ravages; so shall we ever offer unto Thee our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, for these Thy acts of providence over us, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Cattle Plague, or Rinderpest, was eventually declared eradicated in 2011. In 1865, however, the disease swept through the country – and indeed through the whole continent – frighteningly easily. During this period, germ theory and antisepsis were in their infancy, and so there was little control on the treatment of diseased animals. This, combined with a boom in the movement of animals due to free trade, created a perfect storm: a disaster waiting to happen.

Illustration of rinderpest in the Netherlands around 1750

Slaughtering was the only “cure” that was known at the time. Naturally, interest grew in finding a less drastic cure and, even better, a preventative, much in the way that vaccination by innoculation of cowpox had kept smallpox in check. The interest turned to a homeopathic cure.

In Hungary, trials were carried out in October 1865 on conventional cures and homeopathic cures. It was concluded that it had no effect. Similarly, the Dutch government also organized trials using homeopathic remedies. These trials were also considered to be failures, and the government roundly turned it’s back on this method. Of a field of 125 cattle, every single one treated with the homeopathic preventative contracted the plague and was slaughtered.

With these unanimously negative results, it might seem futile to do any further trials. So why, in Britain, was trial after trial after trial funded, for over a year afterwards?

One such trial was in Norfolk. Of 45 cattle treated, one didn’t contract the plague. The remaining 44 cattle all contracted it, 4 of which recovered, and the other 40 all died of it.

This can hardly be considered successful. Thomas Baldwin, Superintendant of the Agricultural department of National Education of Ireland noted that homeopathy had not verifiably known to have ever cured the plague,

“It is, to my mind, inexplicable that intelligent men who have had any knowledge or experience of contagious diseases could expect that the infinitesimal doses given in homeopathy would counteract the virulent poison on which the very existence of cattle plague depends”

So, despite major objections from notable and important figures, why was it that homeopathy was trialed again and again; negative outcome after negative outcome?

The answer is that during the peak of the crisis, a committee was formed, comprising some of the most powerful members of the aristocracy. Their task was to find a cure or preventative for cattle plague and to organize mass distribution of this medicine. Except this cure was to be a homeopathic cure, exclusively.

The committee’s name was “Committee of the Association for the Trial of Preventative and Curative Treatment in the Cattle Plague by the Homeopathic Method“. Here is their rather impressive membership list; I expect you may recognize a couple of names here,

Committee of the Association for the Trial of Preventative and Curative Treatment in the Cattle Plague by the Homeopathic Method

Robert Grosvenor, William Pitt Amherst 2nd Earl Amherst, Henry Charles FitzRoy Somerset 8th Duke of Beaufort, Ralph Buchan, William Alleyne Cecil Lord Burghley 3rd Marquess of Exeter, George Thomas Keppel 6th Earl of Albemarle, William Coutts Keppel Viscount Bury 7th Earl of Albemar (the Earl of Albemarle’s son), James Key Caird 1st Baronet (Vice Chairman), Colonel Challoner, George Grimston Craven 3rd Earl of Craven, Henry William Dashwood 5th Baronet, Patrick Dudgeon, Francis Richard Charteris 10th Earl of Wemyss Lord Elcho, Arthur Algernon Capell 6th Earl of Essex, Richard Grosvenor Earl Grosvenor 2nd Marquess of Westminster, Philip Howard Frere, Edward Kerrison, Henry Charles Keith Petty Fitzmaurice 5th Marquess of Lansdowne, Lord Llanover, Colonel Farnaby Lennard, George Loch, Archibald Keppel MacDonald, Arthur de Vere Capell Viscount Malden, John Winston Spencer Churchill 7th Duke of Marlborough (Chairman), Frederick Francis Maude, William Miles, James Moore, Charles Gordon Lennox 5th Duke of Richmond, Charles Marsham 3rd Earl of Romney, Sir Anthony Rothschild, John Villiers Shelley, John Robert Townshend 1st Earl Sydney, Lt. Colonel Charles Towneley, Augustus Henry Vernon, William Warren Vernon, Arthur Wellesley 1st Duke of Wellington, William Wells

[From Sue Young Histories; original source not given]

It was this group of Lords and Gentlemen that funded many of the ill fated trials.

Today, such an committee would seem inexplicable. It is worth remembering, however, that many saw this epidemic much like smallpox, which had successfully treated using vaccination. So, cure after cure, however odd, was tried as a preventative or cure, almost entirely in vain. For all intents and purposes, mainstream medicine had failed. Except in a couple of very bizzrre cases, maybe.

In three hours, by the labour of four men, the cowshed was converted into a vapour bath by removing from the scullery the ordinary copper and cementing it on a furnace, which was extemporized with a few bricks, while three 4-inch stoneware drainpipes made a flue. Day and night the copper was kept boiling. In a few hours the atmosphere of the shed became warm and moist. Two men remained up all night giving phosphorus every two hours alternately with the arsenic. Towards morning the breathing became relieved. From 56 in the minute it fell in 12 hours to 40 (the next day to 32). On Friday we were in great hope, but on Saturday morning the cow calved, and the men thought her dying, if not dead. Then I got them to pour down her throat four bottles of Barclay’s stout in the course of eight hours. This the cow drank with infinite relish. To our surprise the calf was born alive. The poor cow seemed nearly dead, but, determined not to give her up, I ordered the gruel to be made with old ale, the bottled stout being also continued. Little by little she revived, and has gradually recovered.

[The Times, as reported by Dr. Kidd]

Perhaps it was time, then, to try homeopathy. The major impetus for the formation of this association was the observations of Dr Edward Hamilton, who had observed the trials in Holland that were pronounced by the Dutch government as proof of failure.

Hamilton had made some rather different observations. In fact, he was rather impressed, and declared that up to 45% of animals could be cured using homeopathy.

Hamilton started off as a conventional doctor before converting to homeopathy

I must say I found it rather difficult to get down to the truth of what happened in this trial. One source, a History of Cattle Plague, says that the government saw little difference in recovery rates, and so ended the trials. However, the North American Journal of Homeopathy states that by using homeopathic cures, the plague was eventually eradicated from the district using these methods, and they blamed the farmers for not adhering to the instructions well enough initially.

Whatever the truth of the matter, I suspect that the trials may have been poorly carried out in any case. These trials were done with no control as such, and besides, what is truly needed in any rigourous trial is double blindness; where the practitioner himself doesn’t know whether the medicine is a placebo or not. This may seem a little much with animals, but it is worth remembering Clever Hans; the horse who many – even its owner – thought could do maths, by neighing when the correct solution was pointed to on a blackboard. It was simply good at reading it’s owner’s very expectant face. Similarly, with these homeopathy trials, perhaps the TLC received might have done the cows some good, and a neutral treatment certainly wouldn’t have done any harm.

Clever Hans was not so clever; at least not at maths. He could simply read the expectations of his owner and the audience, which is why double blind experiments are crucial, even with animals

So, buoyed by an enthusiastic Dr Hamilton, the committee funded many studies using homeopathic cures around the country, often by means of offering prizes for cures.

Most of the media were outraged. The Times, unusually supportative of homeopathy in this instance, judged the mood well, noting that conventional doctors would rather see all of the cattle die rather than see homeopathy proved to work in any case.

In some ways, they got their wish. In Norfolk, the Lord Lieutenant offered a prize of £100 to the person who could be judged to be most successful in curing the disease. Smith (1848) reports that the scheme was a “complete and total failure”. This is because not a single person managed to cure a cow successfully. A similar story was repeated up and down the country.

In short, the aristocracy, in carrying out these flawed trials, were flogging a dead horse, whilst cattle were dying nationwide. The British Medical Journal were furious,

It is pitiable to turn from these, the plain teaching of scientific sense, to the miserable tale of homeopathic twaddle which is being told out at Norwich, under the direction of noble lords, London infinitesimalists, and a local reverend and “skill homeopathists, the Rector of Lying” who, it appears, instead of tending his own special human flock, is busy administering “arsenicum” to his neighbours’ cows… This homeopathic experiment at Norwich has, of course, turned out a miserable failure.

Here, then, lies the nub of the issue. Doctors up and down the land knew it was flawed. Every medical periodical condemned the use of homeopathy for such a cause. Every newspaper (bar the Times) was critical. Yet the nobility had a different agenda, and were marching to the tune of a different drum.

Perhaps most tragic, though, was that while the committee was messing around with homeopathic cures, the country was losing valuable time, and the plague was sweeping across the countryside, claiming field after field of cattle. All the while, the voices of reason were going unheard.

In particular, John Gamgee, a professor of veterinary medicine at in Edinburgh, had been unrelentingly appealing to the government. His suggestions were going unheard. As early as 1863 Gamgee had argued that, because of lax border controls, a devastating plague was likely, and the only way to deal with this would be rapid isolation and slaughter of the infected animals.

John Gamgee

Eventually, the government begrudgingly moved to Gamgee’s point of view, and carried out a rapid cull. It was almost embarrassingly effective. Here are the number of dead cattle due to the plague during 1866,

Week ending February 23rd 17,875
March 23rd 9,388
April 20th 4,963
June 22nd 679
November 23rd 8

It is safe to say that, during future incipient epidemics, the government knew what to do. There has never been a plague like the 1866 plague ever again because of it.

This is the real reason, then, that having politicians with controversial beliefs in medical treatments is dangerous. In this situation, the voices of those who really understand the issue at hand are drowned out – consciously or subconsciously – in the minds of the politicians. And, in this situation, lives really are at risk.

I found this rather a fun topic to research; if you want some more things to trawl through, I have a couple of citations here.

Hall, Sherwin A. “The Cattle Plague of 1865.” Medical History 6, no. 1 (January 1962): 45–58.
Spinage, Clive A. Cattle Plague: a History. Springer, 2003.
Hawley, Wm A. The North American Journal of Homeopathy. American Medical Union, 1866.