Homeopathy traces its roots all the way back to ancient Greek medicine. In 400 BCE Hippocrates prescribed a small amount of mandrake root as a cure for mania, based in the theory that “like cures like”—if a lot of mandrake can cause mania, the thinking went, then maybe a little bit can cure it? This became known as the Doctrine of Signatures and served as the foundation for an entirely new medical tradition. But how did an ancient practice see a modern revival? Enter Christian Friedrich Samuel Hahnemann.
Born in 1755 in Meissen, near Dresden, Hahnemann was—in the parlance of the time—super-duper-smart. His father, disdainful of formal education, took him out of school for “thinking lessons,” where he would instruct the boy to simply sit there and . . . uh . . . think. Despite this unusual practice (or maybe because of it, who knows?), Hahnemann quickly mastered pharmacy, botany, physics, and at least ten languages. After working as a translator, he studied medicine at Leipzig and Vienna, and at last graduated from the University of Erlangen.
Late-1700s medicine was a strange and wild place. There we no shortage of theories and research, and no shortage of bizarre experiments and treatments. It was the age of Heroic Medicine, when treatments were prescribed in order to balance out the body’s humors, with plenty of sweating, bloodletting, and vomiting—and what with that being the easiest way of balancing the humours, this probably meant a lot of vomiting.