The Osler Society (Schulich’s History of Medicine Interest group) had our first meeting of the year recently. This is my second year as a member and the meeting was conducted in a very similar manner to last year’s gathering. As was done last year, we discussed the first chapter of Dr. Jacalyn Duffin’s History of Medicine: A Scandalously Short Introduction. However, with a sizeably larger group full of new faces, I found that the discussion took a much different path. One idea in particular stayed with me after I left the meeting, namely whether it is the medical invention or the inventor(s) that is more significant. I think one can find the inventor more interesting than their invention (and vice versa), but both are necessary for medical progress and therefore equally as important in my view.
Dr. Paul Potter and Dr. Shelley McKellar are faculty who we are very fortunate to have join us for Osler Society meetings. They asked if one can we really attribute an invention to one “great mind?” There was a resounding “no” to that question; rightly so in my opinion because no idea is created in a vacuum. There are so many external influences affecting how people think, behave and create. All this talk about innovation also had me thinking about how medical innovations, due to their inherent direct impact on human health, can be so controversial. Whether or not something is an innovation is hugely defined by the acceptance of the general public who will be subjected to a new drug, surgery or treatment modality. As I thought more about this idea, perhaps one of the most polarizing branches of medicine came to my mind, namely homeopathy.
I am no stranger to complementary and alternative medicines primarily through the influence of my father. He depends on insulin to live, yet strangely condemns modern medicine (I was there for his proclamations of the nescessity of iodine, then there was the salt craze and of course the importance of “earthing”).
I know of homeopathy more so through friends and neighbours who are patients of homeopaths, but I also do quite a bit of independent researching on my own. I believe it is important to know about other treatment modalities as physicians because we have to be informed in discussions with our patients. Otherwise, our lack of knowledge as perceived by patients will negatively impact the relationship.
Homeopathy was created by Dr. Samuel Hahnemann (born in Germany in the mid-18th Century). He graduated from medical school and within 3 years of practicing he decided that he had a problem with the way medicine was being conducted. In particular he could not accept the practice of bloodletting because he thought it was too extreme. So, he decided to switch careers and became a translator. While translating Materia Medica, a treatise written by 18th century Scottish physician Dr. William Cullen (1710-1790, Professor of Medicine at Edinburgh), Dr. Hahnemann disagreed with Dr. Cullen’s explanation of how Peruvian bark (the source of quinine use to treat malaria) functioned. Hahnemann decided to experiment on himself by ingesting the bark, after which he experienced malaria-like symptoms (fever, diaphoresis, nausea etc). Hahnemann concluded therefore that a substance that causes a symptom in a healthy person will cure that same symptom in an ill person because the Peruvian bark, used to treat malaria, caused the same symptoms in a healthy person (himself). Hahnemann went on to test this principle by ingesting other substances, and whatever symptoms they caused he proclaimed they were also a cure for and from these tests Hahnemann devised the first rule of homeopathy, which is that “like cures like”.
For the longest time I have wondered how this branch of medicine survived and more importantly has thrived for over 200 years to the present day. I have decided to dedicate my history of medicine project for the year to this end and that is what I am finally going to find out. Am I biased? Of course, but I am definitely open-minded enough and have a genuine curiosity to learn more. That is my history of medicine project this year, what are you curious about?