*A Brave Medical Life, The Founder of Homeopathy, BBC Radio 4, Friday 10 December 2010 by Mark Whitaker, reviewed by  Peter Morrell

Although this recent radio programme was informative, it was also misleading and something of a disappointment.

Though it was generally factually accurate, it said Hahnemann spent ten years after graduation looking for a suitable medical practice. In reality, he only practised medicine on a regular basis as his main income from 1780-1 until soon after his marriage in November 1782 and he did not resume regular medical practice for about nine years when he was commissioned to start treating Herr Klockenbring in 1792.

The programme was a disappointment because it did not convey the best possible slant on his life, choosing to emphasise things of little consequence and failing to explore some things of greater consequence.

For example, much time was wasted talking to people of no consequence in Coethen. None of it had anything useful to add to Hahnemann’s life story, especially the nonsense about Indian homeopaths allegedly turning his house and garden into a shrine. This was not only poisonous gossip, but revealed a very biased programme maker far too willing to pander to the current attacks on homeopathy by pro-science fundamentalists. And that unfortunately was the covert subplot of the entire programme. Therefore as a totality, it gave a skewed, misleading and disappointing account of his life.

Although the programme set off well by saying he railed against bloodletting and that Hippocrates had recommended medical similars, with Dinges adding that Hahnemann disliked the multiple prescriptions
in common use at the time, yet it failed to say why he focused on single drugs, small doses and the proving of medicines.

Too much was left implied or only vaguely hinted at which should have been stated boldly and explicitly. Subtle implications and hints are only really clearly grasped by those who already know the facts, while the rest of the audience are left uninformed or misinformed.

No mention was made of his study of poisons, for example, and why they took centre stage in his early thinking or why he commenced to study poisonings in the first place and what these studies suggested to him. No mention was made of the others in his day, such as von Stoerck, who also studied poisonings and who conducted some simple provings before Hahnemann. These crucial aspects of the origin of homeopathy were entirely omitted. By no means can this programme be construed as a serious attempt to explore Hahnemann’s life neutrally and objectively.

Though the programme correctly stated that he gave up medicine and chose instead to endure for many years the demoralising and desperate grind of poverty, yet no explanation was given as to why he gave up
the lucrative practice of medicine in favour of enduring translation work and poverty for so long. Nothing was mentioned about him being a man with a troubled conscience: a man troubled for patients, for humanity and for a medicine that killed far more than it cured.

Though his gift for languages was mentioned, and that he made some translations, yet it did not state the extent of his linguistic gifts, or that he made over 20 translations of large textbooks over an extended time period (1777-1806), or how magnificent and well received those translations were and why they were so highly regarded by the German scientific community as superior to the originals — being enriched and improved by him with numerous annotations, corrections and footnotes. No mention either about his scholarly learning and erudition or the meticulous way in which he engaged with every task before him.

Only a few minor changes to the programme would have easily conveyed these crucially important points. Such amendments would have reduced the length of the broadcast if all the obvious rubbish it did contain had also been removed, and it would have transformed a very second-rate programme into an excellent one.

Little mention was made of the many years he spent wandering through Saxony with his growing family or the reasons for that. Though the programme mentioned his acceptance as a medical tutor at the university of Leipzig in 1812, and of his lectures on homeopathy to what was a dwindling group of students, yet it failed to mention how many of these students went on to become great homeopaths. It preferred to emphasise the mockery of his lecturing style by allopaths of the day rather than point to the fact that at Leipzig university Hahnemann singlehandedly inspired a hardcore of a dozen or so future homeopaths who not only formed the nucleus of loyal homeopathy disciples and his group of provers, but who also comprised the embryonic form of an entire movement that successfully spread throughout the rest of Europe and to Russia, India and the Americas.

Why therefore did this programme always choose to emphasise the negative and too often ignore the positive?

Yes, the numbers of his loyal students dwindled, but largely because of unrelenting allopathic
attacks against him.

Yes, his lecturing style was rhetorical and hectoring against mainstream medicine, but how else could he effectively emphasise the key points and advantages of his new system?

Yes, Hahnemann was an outcast, a deviant, a rebel, a dissident, a radical, a rulebreaker, a freethinker, an heretic, a pariah.

How such a man managed to survive at all totally outnumbered, living and working in such a blatantly hostile place is more remarkable than it might seem. Having lived and survived, working alone “in enemy territory” for ten years actually reveals not his weakness but his strength of character.

Nor did the listener hear about the numerous publications that flowed from his pen throughout the time of his stay in Leipzig. It merely portrayed his time there as a failure, with him finally being driven out by the lawyers and apothecaries.

In truth, it was a hugely productive period. So once again the emphasis of the programme was all wrong.

Emphasis was rightly placed on the terrible state of medicine in his times and well-documented examples were given of medical manslaughter. It also correctly stated Hahnemann’s relentless emphasis on safe,
simple and gentle methods and upon the empiricism which, as Fisher mentioned, drove him on and which he saw as the only reliable gateway to future medicine.

But it failed to reveal the state of his thinking through time and why the events of his life unfolded in the way they did.

It failed to lay bare the roots of homeopathy in his academic study of medical history and in his unrelenting empirical search for safe and effective medical methods.

It failed to say why he came to focus on single drugs and similars, why he was studying dosage in the first place or that it was his investigations and clinical experiences that led him to experiment with ever smaller doses. It was solely clinical practice and not theories that drove him to employ smaller and safer effective doses of drugs.

The programme failed to explore his scientific investigations or his numerous publications on subjects other than homeopathy. These highly pertinent aspects of such a multi-faceted life would have greatly enriched this mediocre programme. A brief mention of them in passing would have given a more rounded picture of the man and his work.

The interviews with Fisher, Dinges, Dean and Nicholls could have been better edited and used more effectively. The point made by Nicholls at the end of the programme that homeopathy might have gained wider acceptance had it not chosen to employ such small doses was quite ludicrous and should have been edited out as it reveals a miserable failure to appreciate how distinctive and different homeopathy was
(and fundamentally had to be) as compared to the brutal allopathic methods of the day.

Even though the brutality of those methods was referred to several times, yet still that disastrous quote by Nicholls seemed to dig the programme into a hole. His point was well made that homeopathy acted like a mirror to allopathy and thus inspired allopathy to navigate away from heroic methods, yet it was ludicrous to suggest that homeopaths should not have used their curative small doses simply in order to gain some acceptance from allopaths.

Were homeopaths in truth under any compunction to grovel to allopaths?

One could equally argue that homeopathy was less in the business of ‘gaining acceptance’ but more in the curing of patients.

Every generation of homeopaths has had to grapple with the question: how can there be any room for negotiation between a medicine that kills and one that cures?

And in any case, regardless of what Hahnemann said in the 5th Organon, Nicholls should have known that most homeopathic prescriptions have always employed doses below 30c, and that in the 19th century most cures were made with doses of 3x and 6x, so in the end the point being made was silly, minor, off-topic and gave a very misleading impression.

What all these problems tend to show is that the programme was not researched thoroughly enough and nor was it drafted out in such a way to best emphasise all the key features of Hahnemann’s life. Though in
some respects it was a good attempt, yet ultimately it was a failure and a disappointment. A wonderful opportunity to state the truth about Hahnemann to a wide audience, was very sorely missed. That chance
might never come around again.

*A Brave Medical Life, The Founder of Homeopathy, BBC Radio 4, Friday 10 December 2010 by Mark Whitaker

This programme marks the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of homeopathy’s founding text ‘Samuel Hahnemann’s Organon of Rational Medicine’.

It recognises that homeopathy remains deeply controversial, and that while some in Britain are convinced of its benefits there are many who argue that it is scientifically invalid and should not continue to be recognised by the NHS. This is not intended as an intervention in that debate. It is a historical programme locating the development of Hahnemann’s thinking within the context of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century medicine.

It’s been said that Hahnemann would be more famous than he is if he had not developed homeopathy; that this has meant he’s come to be seen either as a saint or a charlatan. He was neither. He was first and foremost a critic of what he saw as the cruel, ineffective and unscientific treatments that he was trained to deliver- bleedings, purges, and huge doses of mercury.

He renounced being a doctor for a time because he felt he did more harm than good. What was to become homeopathy developed from his insistence that medicines be tested before they were used, and even its opponents recognise Hahnemann’s significance in the history of pharmacology and therapeutics.

We examine his arguments and those of his opponents. But the programme also questions how useful the distinction between ‘mainstream’ and ‘alternative’ is for understanding the history of western medicine.

We interview leading medical historians in both the UK and Germany; and actors bring to life the medical conflicts of Hahnemann’s own time.

Written and presented by Mark Whitaker