Samuel Hahnemann – a short biography

Doctor Samuel Hahnemann – founder of homeopathy

Dr Samuel Hahnemann was a genius. He was one of the greatest chemists, physicians and pharmacists in Europe of his time. Not only did he discover homeopathy, but his medical pharmacopoeia was the standard text for all apothecaries and doctors, and he was the first doctor to advocate and use humane treatment for mental health patients.


Samuel was born in Meissen, Germany on 10 April 1755 to a very poor family. His father, Christian Gottfried, was opposed to Samuel studying because their income was so low, and regularly withdrew Sam from school to work.

When Sam was not working, Christian would sit Samuel in a room on his own and give him a topic to think about, and leave him there for several hours.

Samuel’s teachers recognised his gift, and eventually insisted that he attend school, granting him eight years of free education. Butat home,  Sam was deprived of his lamp because he would use too much oil studying in the dark. To get round it, he made his own out of clay and persuaded his mother, Johanna Christian, to give him oil from her stores.

Samuel learned Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, Italian and English; and at Grammar school would give lessons in Hebrew to fellow pupils.

Sam studies medicine

In 1775, Sam left home to study medicine at Leipzig University with 20 crowns in his pocket – the most money  his parents could give him, and most of that was stolen. So he had to earn his keep by giving lessons and doing translations. He stayed up every other night to do so.

At the time, medical teaching was mainly theoretical, with little or no clinical work involved. Samuel soon also learned that theoretical was the word – very little of the practice he learned was based on solid scientific observation.

In order to gain clinical experience, Samuel moved to Vienna in 1777  to work under the eminent physician, Dr Quarin, in Viennese hospitals. Vienna is over the Alps, in lower Hungary: a swampy region, where intermittent fever – malaria – was rife.

Sam starts to practice medicine

Sam became the private physician (and also the librarian and curator of a coin collection) of Baron von Bruckenthal, Governor of Transylvannia. Together they moved to Hermanstadt in October.

In 1779, Samuel went to the University of Erlangen, where he qualified as Doctor of Medicine. He then moved to take a clinical post in Hedstadt, a town in the mountains, but didn’t stay long because of the “too circumscribed a sphere of action”.

So the following year, Sam moved to Dessau to take governmental appointment of District Physician at Gommern. Here, he met Henrietta, the daughter of an apothecary, and they married in 1782.


Family life

The first of Samuel’s ten children, Henrietta, was born in 1783, and the family moved to Dresden the following year. Samuel maintained the family by writing: he wrote 18 treatises, including one on a new salt of mercury which he called mercurius solubilis, which has become a major homeopathic remedy.

Samuel’s first son, Frederick, was born in 1786, and then Wilhelmina was born in 1788.

In 1789, the Hahmenanns moved to Leipzig, where Samuel studied medicine, chemistry, mineralogy and did lots of translating. He became well-known, amd moved up the social ladder, almost to the top medical post in the region.

Sam chooses poverty over medicine

But while he was locuming for the surgeon general, he became totally dissatisfied with the state of medical science, which he believed was the result of guesswork rather than positive knowledge. He gave up medicine, and the comfortable life he and his family were leading. He took his Hippocratic oath seriously – “First do no harm” – and realised the treatment he, and other doctors, was giving to patients was indeed harming them greatly, had little or no therapeutic value. He would rather not treat patients at all than subject them to the ills of medicine at the time, and resolved to find a way to heal – to really make people better.

The Hahnemanns retreated into poverty, and Samuel undertook translation work to pay for bread and other meagre sustenance.

Sturm und drang

imagesThe next few years, between 1789 and 1804, were a time of struggle and unrest for Samuel and his wife and children. But in 1790, Samuel took the substance that doctors were using to treat malaria – chincona, Peruvian bark (quinine) – and he experimented with it. First he diluted it to make it non-toxic, and then he decided to agitate the dilution. On taking the new substance himself, he noted that he got all the symptoms of Malaria. He discovered that what can cause the disease can cure the disease.

In 1791 his daughter Caroline was born.

On top of his public refusal to treat people with medicine, Samuel became increasingly outspoken against the physicians of his time. In 1792 he publicly criticised the treatment of Emporer Leopold II of Austria, because he died after blood-letting – or venesection. Samuel called for the scientific justification of venesection,for  evidence that it was effective.

Between 1793 and 1794 the Hahnemanns moved three times, to Georgenthal, then to Walschleben, then to Pyrmont.

imagesSam publishes his first cured homeopathic case

Samuel published his first cured homeopathic case in 1795 (Hufelands Journal) – a case of  unspecified gastric pain which he treated with a homeopathic preparation of  Veratrum album (white hellebore) because of the similarity of symptoms.  The article can be regarded as the starting point of “the greatest revolution in medicine the world has ever witnessed”. In it, he undermined the whole fabric of medicine, and outlined the Law of Similars based on the effects of drugs on healthy people.

Samuel Hahnemann was the first doctor ever to conduct experiments on healthy people, and to note in incredible scientific detail the results. He was the first to conduct scientific medical experimentation.

And he had another little girl – Fredericka was born that year.

Samuel’s 1796 Essay on a New Principle consolidated his work with Cinchona, extending it into a general principle applicable for all drugs, and this laid the foundation for a complete system of medicine based on the Law of Similars. By 1796 he was also practising medicine again, but he only practised homeopathic medicine, and did not charge his patients for their remedies, all of  which he made by hand. This was a great boon, for apothecaries charged a great deal for medicines, and developed concoctions of multiple medicines because they could charge more for them.

The first doctor to advocate humane treatment for the insane

Now Samuel was 41 years old, and he was invited to take charge of an “asylum for the insane” at Georgenthal. His eminent patient was a minister of police and security, Friedrich Klockenbring.

At the time, it was common practice to basically torture and abuse patients, and give them vomit-inducing drugs. The first doctor to do this, Samuel treated Klockenbring humanely with homeopathy, and he was cured.

In the second edition of Hufelands Journal, Samuel published Klockenbring’s case and called for the rational treatment of mental health patients.

From 1795 to 1796, the Hahnemanns moved to Brunswick, then Wolfenbuttel, then to Königslutter. Here, Samuel began to prescribes one remedy at a time. This infuriated the apothecaries, who were making fine profits on multiple prescriptions, and who could not accept the implied criticism.


Hahnemann uses Belladonna in scarlet fever epidemic

Another son, Ernst, was  born a year before Samuel made one of the greatest discoveries of the curative potential of homeopathy in 1799. There was an outbreak of scarlet fever in Königslutter amongst the town’s children. Samuel cured one case with the remedy Belladonna (deadly nightshade). He then administered Belladonna as a prophylactic to to 3747 people exposed to infection, of whom only 19 got the disease. “If Belladonna be fairly tried, it may perhaps prove as successful against scarlet fever as vaccination was against small pox.” (Edward Jenner produced the small pox vaccine two years earlier.)

Samuel’s success incensed the apothecaries, and they drove him and his family out of town by denying him right to administer his own remedies. On the terrible journey to their new house in Hamburg the coach overturned, and his baby son, Ernst, was crushed to death in the accident.

Samuel’s heart was broken. He became a militant homeopath, standing up publicy against the absurdities and cruelty of conventional medical practice.

The first doctor to test remedies on healthy subjects

In 1800, Samuel started testing all his new remedies on himself “in the cause of humanity”. He tested over 106 poisons and remedies over his remaining lifetime. From 1800  to 1803  the family moved from  Hamburg to Altona to Mollen, then to Eulenberg. He was persecuted here by his medical brethren and once again driven out.

They came to live in Dessau where, in 1803, Eleonore was born. In 1804 they settled in Torgau.

In 1805 Samuel published Medicine of Experience which showed the positive effects of medicine from evidence of clinical practice; and Aesculapius in the Balance, which weighed up conventional medical practice and found it wanting.

Charlotte was born in 1805, and Luise in 1806 – the last of Samuel’s children.

imagesThe Organon

1806 saw the beginning of a new phase for Samuel. He stopped translating other people’s works and became his own man, formulating and defending his own views. Samuel laid out a systematic and point-by-point demolition of every element in ancient and medieval medicine, which left the practice of prescribing single drugs and similars  as the only way to cure. This work was the fore-runner of his major treatise on homeopathy which all students and practitioners of homeopathy refer to today: the Organon of Medicine, which was first published in 1810.

In 1811, the Hahnemanns moved to Leipzig, where he published his Materia Medica Pura, the homeopathic equivalent of the medical pharmacopoeia he published many years before. But “…accusations are mere blinds to cover the real causes of animosity against him, which were that while at Leipzig he had performed some remarkable cures on persons of eminence…” and he would only give remedies he had made himself, “exciting the jealousy of the medical profession, and the latter touching the pockets of the apothecaries. Among them they discovered an obsolete law, forbidding physicians to dispense medicines…”

By 1821 Samuel had a large practice, and had made converts to new system. But doctors incited the apothecaries and obtained an injunction against him for prescribing his own medicines, and he was subsequently forbidden to do so. He had to leave Leipzig. At this time Samuel was the most celebrated physician in Germany, and people came from all over to see him.

The townsfolk sadly followed him and his family as they left town, as a mark of respect.

Sam moves to Köthen

imagesIn the same year, Sam was granted asylum by the Duke of Anhalt-Köthen, and the family moved to Köthen. The Duke was an ardent admirer, who allowed Sam to practice as he pleased. He lived there 15 years under Duke’s, and then his nephew’s patronage, constantly perfecting his methods by self-experimentation and on friends and family. He enjoyed a high reputation amongst patients, who flocked to his door in their thousands. Word of him spread throughout Europe.

But in 1830, Samuel’s beloved wife, Henrietta, died.

By then, homeopathy had been taken up by a number of physicians, and it was being used with huge effectiveness in the cholera epidemics which were sweeping through in Europe. In one outbreak in Russia, two thirds of the patients of a Dr Fleischman survived and got better, compared with two thirds of patients treated conventionally dying.

The biggest upheaval of Samuel’s life was yet to come. When he was 79, a patient from France turned up at his door.

Melanie arrives

In 1834, Countess Marie Melanie D’Hervilly-Gohier arrived with a hitherto incurable complaint . She had been treated by many of the best doctors in Europe with no success. Samuel cured the disease in an incredibly short space of time, and also fell in love: within three days of meeting each other, he had proposed, and she accepted.

Melanie was a natural healer with a vast knowledge of medicine.

They married: he was 80, she was 35.

In 1835, Sam and Mel left Köthen for Paris, travelling incognito. When they arrived in Paris  they were soon inundated with patients, who they treated together. Melanie took part in Samuel’s experiments, and inspired him to develop the Organon to the edition we use today.

A year later, Samuel and Melanie moved to mansion in Versailles, where he eventually died, aged 88, in 1843. Melanie was heart-broken – and that is another story…