3. Pre-homeopathy period

Duration of the module: 11 minutes
Voice: Malcolm Russell
Music: Philip Glass, “Facades”

What the narrator says

The newly-qualified Hahnemann then moved to Hettstadt, where he practiced medicine for a short period of nine months. Being a mining town, there were numerous cases of toxicity affecting those who worked in the local copper and coal mines. Hettstadt had sufficient academic resources to allow Hahnemann to study the specific toxicology of several different substances. The knowledge he acquired at this time effectively led to his being one of the main forerunners of modern toxicology.

However, he soon realized that Hettstadt offered few possibilities for development and he moved to Dessau where, according to Bradford’s biography, he further broadened his knowledge of chemistry.

In Dessau, Hahnemann regularly visited the Küchler pharmacy. When the pharmacist died, the business was taken over by Häseler, who also married Küchler’s widow and became step-father to his daughter, Johanna Henriette. Hahnemann fell in love with her, initiating an intense and lasting relationship that resulted in their marriage on 1 December 1782.

His deepening knowledge of chemical studies allowed him to organise his first observations: a list of the symptoms of toxicity in copper and coal miners pushed Hahnemann to learn and improve the techniques of extraction for these substances, while at the same time he began to show an increasingly marked impatience with the scientific basis of the chemistry of the time.

The phlogiston theory, introduced by Stahl, dominated chemistry until the end of the eighteenth century: according to this belief, each metal was represented by a mixture formed by particular compounds combined with phlogiston, an imaginary element capable of giving metals colour and sheen and believed to separate from every combustible body in burning. Hahnemann began to dispute this idea.

After their wedding the couple moved to nearby Gommern where Hahnemann had accepted the post of Medical Officer. During their stay there – of almost three years – Hahnemann often showed his impatience with the medicine of the time.

Meanwhile, he used his excellent knowledge of languages to devote himself to numerous translations from English.

In the autumn of 1784 he resigned from his government post and left Gommern for Dresden, where he found a more sympathetic context for developing his studies of chemistry. He also found favour with some important contacts.

Among these John Christofer Adelung, Superintendent of the City Library, allowed him free access to the library holdings and helped him to source the works which he considered necessary for his studies. The Medical Officer of the Department of Health, Samuel Wagner, was even more useful, allowing him to take up a locum position as Medical Officer of Health for a year. This gave Hahnemann an exceptionally valuable opportunity of gaining experience and making observations.

He was also able to continue to devote himself to his beloved translations, focusing above all on the French author, Demachy, an expert in distillation techniques. At the end of this work Hahnemann developed a test to highlight counterfeiting techniques for wine, with a sensitivity greater than any available at the time.

His knowledge of wine adulteration techniques allowed Hahnemann to extrapolate these concepts for all the substances that doctors and pharmacists used for therapeutic purposes; his intolerance of the medicine of the time was manifested ever more strongly, and he publicly despised what he referred to as “therapeutic mixtures”.

His first original publication concerned the ways in which “putrid sores” should be treated, followed by other translated works. Particularly important was one related to arsenic linked to the forensic field, a small medico-legal treatise that allowed easier recognition of cases of arsenic poisoning. This was followed by other short essays published in the journal, “Crell’s Annals of Chemistry“.

In one of these essays he affirmed the greater effectiveness of the element silver nitrate, used to interrupt the processes of putrefaction, when it is used in a highly diluted form. It is this concept, expressed here for the first time by Hahnemann, that paved the way for the process of dilution that is so important in homeopathic remedies. Unusually, he also translated the story of the twelfth century lovers, Abelard and Héloise; this may have been a commission from the Superintendent of the Library, Christopher Adelung.

Hahnemann also encountered Lavoisier’s ideas, which completely undermined Stahl’s theory of phlogiston and further boosted his own knowledge of chemistry. The two men also met physically during a visit by the French chemist to Dresden.

When Wagner died, Hahnemann asked if he could take his place, given the great trust the official had shown in him and the experience he had accumulated in carrying out the tasks entrusted to him. He was only just over thirty and, to his great disappointment, Johann Eckardt, who was older and was therefore considered more experienced, was appointed.

Despite these recent vicissitudes, the new drive towards chemistry and toxicology led him to write further original articles.

In 1789, Hahnemann wrote a lengthy article on how to prepare Mercury, long used for syphilis therapy. He managed to obtain it in a very purified and soluble form, which resulted in greater therapeutic efficacy; this soluble Mercury which Hahnemann had described was the “specific” for syphilis and constituted the first step towards a model of chronic pathology that would represent the basis of homeopathic methodology.

In the wake of these successes, Hahnemann decided to return to Leipzig, which at the time was a publishing centre of undisputed importance and would therefore be a better environment in which to spread his new ideas.