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Today, one out of every three Americans uses some form of alternative medicine, either along with their conventional (“standard,” “traditional”) medications or in place of them. One of the most controversial–as well as one of the most popular–alternatives is homeopathy, a wholly Western invention brought to America from Germany in 1827, nearly forty years before the discovery that germs cause disease. Homeopathy is a therapy that uses minute doses of natural substances–minerals, such as mercury or phosphorus; various plants, mushrooms, or bark; and insect, shellfish, and other animal products, such as Oscillococcinum. These remedies mimic the symptoms of the sick person and are said to bring about relief by “entering” the body’s “vital force.” Many homeopaths believe that the greater the dilution, the greater the medical benefit, even though often not a single molecule of the original substance remains in the solution. In Copeland’s Cure, Natalie Robins tells the fascinating story of homeopathy in this country; how it came to be accepted because of the gentleness of its approach–Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow were outspoken advocates, as were Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Daniel Webster. We find out about the unusual war between alternative and conventional medicine that began in 1847, after the AMA banned homeopaths from membership even though their medical training was identical to that of doctors practicing traditional medicine. We learn how homeopaths were increasingly considered not to be “real” doctors, and how “real” doctors risked expulsion from the AMA if they even consulted with a homeopath.
At the center of Copeland's Cure is Royal Samuel Copeland, the now-forgotten maverick senator from New York who served from 1923 to 1938. Copeland was a student of both conventional and homeopathic medicine, an eye surgeon who became president of the American Institute of Homeopathy, dean of the New York Homeopathic Medical College, and health commissioner of New York City from 1918 to 1923 (he instituted unique approaches to the deadly flu pandemic). We see how Copeland straddled the worlds of politics (he befriended Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, among others) and medicine (as senator, he helped get rid of medical “diploma mills”). His crowning achievement was to give homeopathy lasting legitimacy by including all its remedies in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938.
Finally, the author brings the story of clashing medical beliefs into the present, and describes the role of homeopathy today and how some of its practitioners are now adhering to the strictest standards of scientific research–controlled, randomized, double-blind clinical studies.
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Chapter 1 “Like a Pleasant Dream”
The land near Dexter, Michigan, flat in some places, rolling in others, was, in the early 1800s, one of the healthiest-looking regions in America. Bordering the Huron River and Mill Creek, the territory was fertile and green. Crystal-clear lakes, rapids, streams, and marshes were surrounded by cottonwood trees, sugar maples, black walnuts, elms, and ashes. Meadows overflowed with wildflowers. Sunfish, perch, and bulletheads flourished in the waters. Red squirrels, grey foxes, turkeys, and wild pigeons roamed the thick woods.
Frances Holmes Copeland’s ancestors had traveled from the Berkshires in Massachusetts to a region near Dexter in 1825, the very year it was founded by Judge Samuel William Dexter, who said he came to Michigan from New York “to get rid of the blue devil . . . which like a demon pursues those who have nothing to do.” The town, in a county called Washtenaw, was laid out so that every house received sunlight. The early settlers lived in log cabins and grew corn and wheat, and later also barley, oats, clover, and apples. Sawmills soon abounded as lumber became an important business, and before long, the log cabins had sash windows, shingle roofs, and doors. The Potowatami and Mohican Indians lived nearby–first settling near the streams–and the people of Dexter eagerly exchanged liquor, tobacco, flour, or powder and lead for buckskins, beeswax, furs, and venison.
By 1847, when Roscoe Pulaski Copeland arrived in Michigan on a covered wagon with his parents, Joseph and Alice, and ten siblings, from Dexter, Maine (which had been founded by Judge Dexter’s father), the area was thriving. They first rented a log house near Pontiac, in southeast Michigan, and then another log house near what was known as Webster Township, in Washtenaw County. When twelve-year-old Roscoe and his family finally settled in Dexter in the fall of 1850, it was, as he later wrote in a letter, “a busy little village.” The family bought an 80-acre farm with an old white frame house and a small barn on Joy Road. Nearby were flour mills–“with farmers coming 20 to 40 miles with their wheat and other crops to sell”–a foundry, several dry-goods stores, a blacksmith shop, a wagon shop, four hotels (the biggest one was the Eagle, until it burned down) and four saloons. Cows, pigs, and chickens freely roamed the dirt roads. There was a small brick schoolhouse, where the children were taught that the world was flat, and four churches–Methodist, Baptist, Congregational, and Catholic. The Copelands were Methodists, and their church, built in 1841, had the only bell tower in the village. “The church was full every Sunday,” Roscoe wrote, and “after a two-hour sermon, there was a one-hour recess so neighbors could visit and have lunch and then a two-hour service again.”
The village had an apothecary housed in a two-story frame building on Main Street that also sold soaps, brushes, perfumes, paints, and varnishes. There was even a passenger train from Dexter to Detroit. Still, Roscoe wrote, “the first settlers had to go through many hardships . . . dig out the stumps and stones–split rails to build fences and do all work with ox teams.” He and his brothers slept in the unfinished upstairs of their house, and “the snow would blow in it and it was pretty cold for us boys the first winter.”
In 1850, the apothecary carried a multitude of medicines–castor oil, camphor, syrups, digestives, salves, opiates, herbals, roots, and tonics of all kinds. Tonics made of licorice, saffron, berries, lime, iron, copper, mercury, arsenic, cyanide, opium, or cocaine, and bitters, which had an extraordinarily high alcohol content, were dispensed to aid the recovery of the men and women who made it through their bloodlettings. Sweet water and morphine was given to babies. Sometimes doctors made their own pills. When Roscoe Copeland and his siblings developed ague, or fever with chills, they were fortunate to be given mild Dr. John Sappington Anti-fever Pills, a well-known medicine made up of 1⁄2 grain of quinine and several other ingredients–usually bayberry, spearmint, ginger, yarrow, sassafras, garlic, or cayenne.
Ague was a peculiar illness. “Sometimes the whole family would be in bed,” Roscoe explained. “The farm had a lake on the northwest and south. I had to go to school through the woods between two lakes, up a long hill to the school house. . . . I remember one week when school let out at noon I felt a chill coming on and I would start for home and before getting home the chill would be gone and the fever would be on. It would seem as if I would never get home, and Mother would hear me yelling. I would eat a good supper before I went to bed and the next morning feel as well as ever. Then I would go to school again the next day and be all right–but the second day I would have the chills and fever again.” Roscoe Copeland said that two or three Sappington pills would break the chills. It was unusual that even one ingredient–in this case, quinine–was known; most patients didn’t know what was in the pills they were taking. Secret nostrums, later called “patent medicines” (although there were no laws beyond protection from counterfeiters governing them), were becoming increasingly faddish, although many were of a questionable nature, mostly containing liquor or vegetable extracts. Some even contained dirt–plain, old-fashioned dirt from farmland.
Many residents of the area had heard that during the cholera epidemics of 1832 and 1849, a new kind of medical treatment had saved many lives. Even though the country was still close to twenty years away from the realization that germs caused disease, and over half a century away from the discovery of viruses, something new, or rather something old that had been made new, had been happening in various parts of America since 1827. This was a treatment that was kind to its users. It was called homeopathy, and it seemed to make people feel better than ever. It had helped during the cholera epidemic if only because it replaced the chloroform given for spasms and cramps, and the purging and bleeding that made the victims of that miserable sickness even weaker.
Founded in 1796 by Christian Friedrich Samuel Hahnemann, a German doctor, literary scholar, translator, and uncompromising dreamer with a bad temper who was appalled by the harsh approaches to treating illness, homeopathy, a term he coined, expounded the principle of Similia similibus curantur–Like cures like. The doctor, known as Samuel Hahnemann, demonstrated on himself and many others in a series of what he called “provings” that certain substances had a curative effect if used in a special way. First, the substance had to resemble the very illness it was treating, and second, the substance had to be given in the smallest possible dose. These two “rules” were the exact opposite of the ones that other doctors followed. These doctors, or allopaths, as Hahnemann called them (allos: other), were also referred to as the “dominant” practitioners of the time, and they used large doses of substances that were very different from–in fact, the opposite of–the illnesses they were treating. Most doctors treated fever not only with bloodletting, but with great quantities of laxatives, such as jalap root, made into a powder, which also brought on strong bouts of nausea; emetics, such as toxic tartar crystals or powder, which also produced heavy sweating; large doses of lethal mercury (calomel)–sometimes 4 tablespoons or more a day–black pepper in whiskey, chloroform, zinc, iron, or cold baths and cold drinks. Blistering was a common treatment. Lethargy, weakness, or collapse was treated with quarts of whiskey or wine, rhubarb, massive doses of opiates such as opium, or even huge portions of roast beef. Those with toothaches often had their gums bled and blistered. Earaches were treated not only with purging, but with blistering of the ear lobes. Many doctors believed that specific organs had a separate existence from the body as a whole, or that most diseases were caused by impediments in the intestines, or that a poisonous fluid emanated from the hands. Some doctors believed that hair was a direct link to the body’s entire nervous system.
The same year that homeopathy was founded, a smallpox vaccine had been discovered by the Englishman Edward Jenner. This vaccine was akin to homeopathic principles in that it used a small amount of cowpox disease to prevent smallpox. Hahnemann, himself, praised Jenner’s discovery as an excellent example of the law of similars.
Hahnemann and his followers used small quantities of common herbs and minerals, various plants, mushrooms, or barks, and insect, shellfish, or animal products. Wild hops, jasmine, tiger lilies, poison ivy, silver nitrate, lead, carbon, salt, onions, toadstools, sponges, oyster shells, spiders, human tears, extract of lice, gonorrhea discharge, and milk from female dogs. Most everything he and his followers used had been known for centuries–in ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman civilizations, in ancient Far, Mid, and Near East cultures, as well as in Native American tribes.
What was new was its method. Small doses. Like cures like. Because of its very special and distinctive methodology, homeopathy was a wholly Western invention, and it marked the beginning of the first worldwide, systematic option to bloodletting. Because of its painlessness, lack of side effects, and relative simplicity, homeopathy caught on like wildfire across America. It quickly swept aside another favored approach, something called Thomsonianism, a movement founded in New England which held that disease was caused by cold, and treatable by heat through the use of steam baths and certain pungent herbs that could clear the body’s clogged systems. The John Sappington pills given to the Copeland boys were created by a Thomsonian doctor, who was also a savvy businessman. Dr. Sappington, always opposed to bloodletting, was later influenced by another botanical system called eclecticism, a hodgepodge of allopathic, Thomsonian, and homeopathic theories that had come into existence in 1845.
Hahnemann had first discovered his theory of medication by ingesting large amounts of cinchona bark, or quinine, to see what would happen to his healthy body. He reported that “my feet, finger ends, etc., at first became cold. I grew languid and drowsy; then my heart began to palpitate and my pulse grew hard and small, intolerable anxiety; trembling, but without cold rigor. . . .” What happened was that he began to get the symptoms of malaria. He soon decided that if a large quantity of quinine could bring on the symptoms of malaria, then a small dose might be able to cure the disease. (Full-strength quinine had been in use for centuries as an antidote to malaria and fever, but it wasn’t known why it seemed to help only sometimes. However, most allopathic doctors treated malaria not only with large doses of it–sometimes as much as 100 grains–but also with colonics and purgatives that left patients in a state of catastrophic exhaustion.) Hahnemann’s experiments with small doses had successful results, even though Hahnemann still couldn’t explain exactly why the bark was a cure for malaria, as well as for disease symptoms like nervous exhaustion, loss of body fluids, or certain types of headaches. But he saw that it worked. He believed in his provings. He also showed that Belladonna, or deadly nightshade, which brings on hallucinations and flushed skin, two symptoms of scarlet fever, could treat that disease if given in small doses. (The “dominant” doctors had long used large doses of it to treat spasms, and Indian tribes had used it for pain in general.) Pulsatilla, made from the windflower, a plant that can cause burning in the throat, was used by Hahnemann for coughs. (Roman doctors had used it for eye problems.) Nux Vomica, a toxic tree seed, from which strychnine poison is extracted, was given to aid digestion. (The dominant doctors often used it as a nerve stimulant.) Aconite, a poisonous plant once applied by hunters to their arrows, was used for severe pain and fever. Eventually, as homeopathy evolved, minute doses of opium were given to patients who had convulsions and a weak pulse (a symptom of an opium overdose). Bees were used to treat insect stings. Ambrosia, or ragweed, was used to help alleviate hay fever.
Hahnemann reported that he experimented with around one hundred different remedies. In every single case, he used small doses, and he came to believe that no substance was poisonous if taken in the proper quantity. In 1810, he published his discoveries in a book, Organon of Homeopathic Medicine, which had gone through six editions by 1842, the year before his death at the age of eighty-eight. “The highest ideal of cure is rapid, gentle, and permanent restoration of the health,” he wrote in the Introduction. He also believed in prescribing one remedy at a time and concluded that only through a detailed evaluation of the patient would the correct remedy be discovered.
Hahnemann prepared most of his medicines by dissolving them in water or alcohol, which produced what he called the “mother tincture”; some of the materials he used were insoluble, so he first ground them into a powder. He eventually came up with the idea of the infinitesimal dilution after discovering that in many situations the body could best be healed with the highest possible dilution of the mother tincture. Dilutions, or what he called “spiritized medicinal fluids,” of 1 part substance plus 9 parts water or alcohol, for a total of 10 drops, were designated by the Roman numeral X, and those of 1 to 100 (actually 1 part substance plus 99 parts water or alcohol, for a total of 100 drops) were designated by the Roman numeral C. Thus, 1X equaled and became known as 1:10, 2X equaled and became known as 1:100, and 3X equaled and became known as 1:1000, and 1C equaled and became known as 1:100, 2C equaled and became known as 1:10,000, and 3C equaled and became known as 1:1,000,000. He referred to the process of dilution not only as “potentization,” but as “dynamization,” and believed the medications must be shaken, rubbed, and banged upon forcefully because these steps, which he called “succussion,” would make them even more potent. He said that the succussion developed “the latent, hitherto unperceived, as if slumbering hidden dynamic powers” of the raw material. (After succussion, a drop of 1C remedy, which is 1 part mother tincture and 99 parts water or alcohol, could then be mixed with 99 parts water or alcohol to become a 2C dilution.) Hahnemann wrote that “a well-dynamized medicine whose dose is properly small becomes all the more curative and helpful, almost to the point of wonder,” a sentiment that many homeopaths would come to believe meant that the more a substance is diluted, the greater its overall power. Sometimes the end product was so much more water or alcohol than remedy that, in fact, no molecules at all remained of the original substance. The phenomenon defied the principle of what was called Avogadro’s number, which set the point in the process of dilution where a molecule of any given substance could theoretically no longer exist. (It was formulated in 1811, but not used much until 1860.) But even if the dilution was so great that its usefulness seemed to defy logic, it was thought that the solution “remembered” what once had been in it. Homeopaths believed that the very shadow–or memory–of the original substance was enough to effect healing.