Provings are the system through which homeopathy determines the curative properties of its medicines. It is difficult to explain the homeopathic tradition of provings without a reference to the history of medicine from which it emerged.
At the time of Hahnemann there were two great schools of medicine.
The rationalist school of medicine believed that it understood the disease process with its advanced scientific knowledge, deriving from the new fields of physics, chemistry and hydraulics. Thus, the duty of the physician was to determine what disease the person had and, thus, what process within the body was malfunctioning. Knowing this, the physician would administer medicine to oppose the effect of the disease on the body. How instance, if a disease provoked fever, anti-fever drugs were given (antipyretics). This approach has continued essentially to this day. Its descendants are modern day Mds, or allopathic doctors.
The second school, or the empirical school, had a different approach. Rather than focusing on the disease to be cured, the empirical school focused on what each individual medicine could cure. Very detailed manuals were created of cured patients symptoms, and what remedies relieved them. An absolutely exquisite pharmacology was developed, and very intricate indications for the various medicines used were developed.
However, each school had its weaknesses. The rationalist school of therapy was dependant on its theories about the nature of disease in order for therapy to be decided on. If the theory was incorrect ( for instance, as in the theory that syphilis was due to insufficient stimulation of the body) the resulting therapy ( often mercury) would often not help, and at times when medicines were largely toxic, and used in large doses, would often irrevocably harm or kill the patient.
The empirical system, with its emphasis on the actual experience ( ie, remedies that actually had cured things in the past) avoided this problem. However, the process of acquiring this information was painfully slow, due to the need for trial and error in trying out medicines for patients with unusual conditions, or for new diseases. Many times physicians would simply try one remedy after another, with no guide toward what might be useful or not.
This however changed with the experience of Samuel Hahnemann. Hanhnemann was an MD who had removed himself from practice in the late 1780’s due to his disgust at the inability of the allopathic practitioners to aid, or even not harm, their patients.
He made his living at this time as a translator of medical texts. One day he translated a text on the then commonly used cinchona bark. During the translation, he noticed that the symptoms of overdosing of the bark were identical to the symptoms of malaria, which cinchona bark was indicated to treat.
Over a time of pondering this, Hahnemann wondered if these two facts were connected. He began taking doses of cinchona himself, and did indeed experience the symptoms of malaria. Over time, Hahnemann developed the idea that the reason why cinchona was so active against malaria ( which the medical science of his day was unable to explain) was in fact due to this similarity.
Hahnemann suspected that the inherent curative ability of the body (which was a long standing idea within the empirical school of medicine) was aroused by the action of the cinchona bark, and then acted against both the malaria and cinchona bark jointly. The two diseases could be dealt with at once because of their similarity.
This idea of similar diseases became stated as “like cures like” that is, a medicine producing a symptom complex that is similar to the symptom complex the body has will provoke the body into reacting, and purging itself of both diseases, the one induced by the medicine, and the one inherent to the body.
This doesn’t mean, as is often stated, that medicines producing similar symptoms will cure those symptoms. The symptoms complex, or disease as a whole, is the key term here. Hahnemann found that a medicine caused the whole organism to react. Symptoms of any particular part were simply a manifestation of the state of the whole body ( as has recently been confirmed by teh groundbreaking work of Divya Chhabrha, soon to be discussed). As such, the entire picture of the patient, the whole complex of their symptoms, were significant to determining the curative medicine.
Hahnemann began to experiment with more medicines, eventually adopting the term proving for these trials. He indeed began to discover in his restarted clinical practice that these medicines are indeed effective in patients with similar symptom complexes and demonstrated in homeopathic practice, and some of the trials of homeopathy recently published. He named this method Homeopathy, or “similar suffering”, in recognition of the centrality of the law of similars to this practice of medicine.
With this idea and method, suddenly empirical physicians could proactively test medicines, and had reliable methods for doing so, and a consistent theory for applying them. This discovery alone would have been enough to ensure Hahnemann’s place in medical history. However, another discovery of his also ensured his fame, as well and the infamy of his system. That discovery was a technology, the infinitesimal dose. This will be the subject of my next blog.
Most of the ideas written in this blog are the general knowledge of homeopathic medicine and history. The more specific data come from the excellent analysis of medical history, Divided Legacy, by Harris Coulter, listed below.
Take Care of Yourselves!
Coulter, H. Divided Legacy, A history of the schism in medical thought. Volume 3. The Conflict Between Homeopathy and the American Medical Association. 2ed. North Atlantic. 1999.