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Copeland's Cure: Homeopathy and the War Between Conventional and Alternative Medicine

Copeland's Cure: Homeopathy and the War Between Conventional and Alternative Medicine

by Natalie Robins

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Today, one out of every three Americans uses some form of alternative medicine, either along with their conventional (“standard,” “traditional”) medications or in place of them. One of the most controversial–as well as one of the most popular–alternatives is homeopathy, a wholly Western invention brought to America from Germany in


Today, one out of every three Americans uses some form of alternative medicine, either along with their conventional (“standard,” “traditional”) medications or in place of them. One of the most controversial–as well as one of the most popular–alternatives is homeopathy, a wholly Western invention brought to America from Germany in 1827, nearly forty years before the discovery that germs cause disease. Homeopathy is a therapy that uses minute doses of natural substances–minerals, such as mercury or phosphorus; various plants, mushrooms, or bark; and insect, shellfish, and other animal products, such as Oscillococcinum. These remedies mimic the symptoms of the sick person and are said to bring about relief by “entering” the body’s “vital force.” Many homeopaths believe that the greater the dilution, the greater the medical benefit, even though often not a single molecule of the original substance remains in the solution.
In Copeland’s Cure, Natalie Robins tells the fascinating story of homeopathy in this country; how it came to be accepted because of the gentleness of its approach–Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow were outspoken advocates, as were Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Daniel Webster. We find out about the unusual war between alternative and conventional medicine that began in 1847, after the AMA banned homeopaths from membership even though their medical training was identical to that of doctors practicing traditional medicine. We learn how homeopaths were increasingly considered not to be “real” doctors, and how “real” doctors risked expulsion from the AMA if they even consulted with a homeopath.

At the center of Copeland's Cure is Royal Samuel Copeland, the now-forgotten maverick senator from New York who served from 1923 to 1938. Copeland was a student of both conventional and homeopathic medicine, an eye surgeon who became president of the American Institute of Homeopathy, dean of the New York Homeopathic Medical College, and health commissioner of New York City from 1918 to 1923 (he instituted unique approaches to the deadly flu pandemic). We see how Copeland straddled the worlds of politics (he befriended Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, among others) and medicine (as senator, he helped get rid of medical “diploma mills”). His crowning achievement was to give homeopathy lasting legitimacy by including all its remedies in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938.

Finally, the author brings the story of clashing medical beliefs into the present, and describes the role of homeopathy today and how some of its practitioners are now adhering to the strictest standards of scientific research–controlled, randomized, double-blind clinical studies.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Carolyn See
There are so many wonderful treats in this book! For starters, there's the portrait of Copeland, a quintessentially optimistic, Bible-quoting, self-improving, platitude-spouting American boy who grows into a self-serving blowhard who writes medical columns, has his own radio show, endorses dozens of products and becomes something of an embarrassment to his colleagues. But through it all he remains a fine family man and totally committed to a method of medical practice that he believes to be both effective and safe. Copeland is our whole sweet country concentrated in one flawed human being.
— The Washington Post
Liesl Schillinger
Medical certainties, Robins shows, can't be separated from the people who hold them, or the times in which they live. And for all the advances of science, and for all the hopes of ailing humans today, who put their trust in echinacea or pine needles, streptomycin or stem cells, the role of doctors, whether conventional or alternative, will never be entirely separate from the role of faith healer -- at least not until somebody finds a cure for the flu that actually works.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Sen. Royal Copeland of New York is mostly forgotten as a politician, yet he was responsible for the inclusion, and legitimization, of homeopathic remedies in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938. Robins, the Edgar Award-winning coauthor of Savage Grace, resurrects Copeland to tell of his lifelong struggle for the acceptance of homeopathy by the mainstream medical community. Placing the spread of painless homeopathy in the 19th century in the context of such brutal treatments as bloodletting, Robins then gives a detailed recounting of Copeland's early career as a homeopathic eye doctor, with descriptions of treatments that would make a doctor today blanch. Copeland's life story serves as a backdrop for the struggle that began in the 1840s between homeopathy and the fledgling American Medical Association, which mounted a campaign to stamp it out. Robins devotes her last three chapters to a history of homeopathy in the half-century since Copeland's death; it remains a popular alternative treatment, although homeopathists are still on the fringes of accepted medicine. Robins refrains from taking a stance on the legitimacy of the practice, which has yet to be tested in clinical trials. She confines herself to giving a thorough, if dry, account of homeopathy's role in the shaping of American medicine. B&w illus. Agent, Lynn Nesbit. (Feb. 17) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The rivalry between mainstream medicine and homeopathy, focusing on the quixotic endeavors of Royal Copeland, its standard-bearer in the US. If modern homeopathy works as its advocates claim, it's the medical magic bullet. Most of the controversial alternative therapy's remedies are very inexpensive and so dilute that side-effects are negligible and overdose is impossible. But although the discipline has existed for more than two centuries, as Robins (The Girl Who Died Twice, 1995, etc.), states, "Very few of the remedies have gone through extensive clinical studies, and scientific proof is only a distant possibility." There are arguably benefits of homeopathic practice, but some of its core tenets, especially "potentization," are alarmingly dubious. A major portion here details the efforts of the American Medical Association (AMA) to hold the American Institute of Homeopathy (AIH) to clinical standards of efficacy, and covers the AMA's efforts to discourage the practice of homeopathy, often putting homeopathic physicians in the category of "cultists." The AMA was largely successful. By the turn of the 20th century, there were 20 homeopathic medical colleges in the US, but by 1930s they had all closed down or converted to conventional medicine. In many ways, homeopathy's cause is a mythical one and Copeland's story is a noble but futile one. Yet this is not the compelling, colorful narrative that could be expected in a work featuring a turn-of-the-century alternative physician who also served as a US senator from New York. This most often reads like a very long encyclopedia entry. In her bid to provide an even-handed deliberation, the author lays out the bare facts, often resembling along encyclopedia entry, of Copeland's undertaking without editorial comment or even dramatic structure, yet her position is clear: Maybe homeopathy could prove its worth. Or maybe not. Interesting as medical history, not so much as medical literature. Agent: Lynn Nesbit/Janklow & Nesbit

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Chapter 1
“Like a Pleasant Dream”

The land near Dexter, Michigan, flat in some places, rolling in others,
was, in the early 1800s, one of the healthiest-looking regions in
America. Bordering the Huron River and Mill Creek, the territory was
fertile and green. Crystal-clear lakes, rapids, streams, and marshes
were surrounded by cottonwood trees, sugar maples, black walnuts, elms,
and ashes. Meadows overflowed with wildflowers. Sunfish, perch, and
bulletheads flourished in the waters. Red squirrels, grey foxes,
turkeys, and wild pigeons roamed the thick woods.

Frances Holmes Copeland’s ancestors had traveled from the Berkshires in
Massachusetts to a region near Dexter in 1825, the very year it was
founded by Judge Samuel William Dexter, who said he came to Michigan
from New York “to get rid of the blue devil . . . which like a demon
pursues those who have nothing to do.” The town, in a county called
Washtenaw, was laid out so that every house received sunlight. The
early settlers lived in log cabins and grew corn and wheat, and later
also barley, oats, clover, and apples. Sawmills soon abounded as lumber
became an important business, and before long, the log cabins had sash
windows, shingle roofs, and doors. The Potowatami and Mohican Indians
lived nearby–first settling near the streams–and the people of Dexter
eagerly exchanged liquor, tobacco, flour, or powder and lead for
buckskins, beeswax, furs, and venison.

By 1847, when Roscoe Pulaski Copeland arrived in Michigan on a covered
wagon with his parents, Joseph and Alice, and ten siblings, from
Dexter, Maine (which had been founded by Judge Dexter’s father), the
area was thriving. They first rented a log house near Pontiac, in
southeast Michigan, and then another log house near what was known as
Webster Township, in Washtenaw County. When twelve-year-old Roscoe and
his family finally settled in Dexter in the fall of 1850, it was, as he
later wrote in a letter, “a busy little village.” The family bought an
80-acre farm with an old white frame house and a small barn on Joy
Road. Nearby were flour mills–“with farmers coming 20 to 40 miles with
their wheat and other crops to sell”–a foundry, several dry-goods
stores, a blacksmith shop, a wagon shop, four hotels (the biggest one
was the Eagle, until it burned down) and four saloons. Cows, pigs, and
chickens freely roamed the dirt roads. There was a small brick
schoolhouse, where the children were taught that the world was flat,
and four churches–Methodist, Baptist, Congregational, and Catholic. The
Copelands were Methodists, and their church, built in 1841, had the
only bell tower in the village. “The church was full every Sunday,”
Roscoe wrote, and “after a two-hour sermon, there was a one-hour recess
so neighbors could visit and have lunch and then a two-hour service

The village had an apothecary housed in a two-story frame building on
Main Street that also sold soaps, brushes, perfumes, paints, and
varnishes. There was even a passenger train from Dexter to Detroit.
Still, Roscoe wrote, “the first settlers had to go through many
hardships . . . dig out the stumps and stones–split rails to build
fences and do all work with ox teams.” He and his brothers slept in the
unfinished upstairs of their house, and “the snow would blow in it and
it was pretty cold for us boys the first winter.”

In 1850, the apothecary carried a multitude of medicines–castor oil,
camphor, syrups, digestives, salves, opiates, herbals, roots, and
tonics of all kinds. Tonics made of licorice, saffron, berries, lime,
iron, copper, mercury, arsenic, cyanide, opium, or cocaine, and
bitters, which had an extraordinarily high alcohol content, were
dispensed to aid the recovery of the men and women who made it through
their bloodlettings. Sweet water and morphine was given to babies.
Sometimes doctors made their own pills. When Roscoe Copeland and his
siblings developed ague, or fever with chills, they were fortunate to
be given mild Dr. John Sappington Anti-fever Pills, a well-known
medicine made up of 1⁄2 grain of quinine and several other
ingredients–usually bayberry, spearmint, ginger, yarrow, sassafras,
garlic, or cayenne.

Ague was a peculiar illness. “Sometimes the whole family would be in
bed,” Roscoe explained. “The farm had a lake on the northwest and
south. I had to go to school through the woods between two lakes, up a
long hill to the school house. . . . I remember one week when school
let out at noon I felt a chill coming on and I would start for home and
before getting home the chill would be gone and the fever would be on.
It would seem as if I would never get home, and Mother would hear me
yelling. I would eat a good supper before I went to bed and the next
morning feel as well as ever. Then I would go to school again the next
day and be all right–but the second day I would have the chills and
fever again.” Roscoe Copeland said that two or three Sappington pills
would break the chills. It was unusual that even one ingredient–in this
case, quinine–was known; most patients didn’t know what was in the
pills they were taking. Secret nostrums, later called “patent
medicines” (although there were no laws beyond protection from
counterfeiters governing them), were becoming increasingly faddish,
although many were of a questionable nature, mostly containing liquor
or vegetable extracts. Some even contained dirt–plain, old-fashioned
dirt from farmland.

Many residents of the area had heard that during the cholera epidemics
of 1832 and 1849, a new kind of medical treatment had saved many lives.
Even though the country was still close to twenty years away from the
realization that germs caused disease, and over half a century away
from the discovery of viruses, something new, or rather something old
that had been made new, had been happening in various parts of America
since 1827. This was a treatment that was kind to its users. It was
called homeopathy, and it seemed to make people feel better than ever.
It had helped during the cholera epidemic if only because it replaced
the chloroform given for spasms and cramps, and the purging and
bleeding that made the victims of that miserable sickness even weaker.

Founded in 1796 by Christian Friedrich Samuel Hahnemann, a German
doctor, literary scholar, translator, and uncompromising dreamer with a
bad temper who was appalled by the harsh approaches to treating
illness, homeopathy, a term he coined, expounded the principle of
Similia similibus curantur–Like cures like. The doctor, known as Samuel
Hahnemann, demonstrated on himself and many others in a series of what
he called “provings” that certain substances had a curative effect if
used in a special way. First, the substance had to resemble the very
illness it was treating, and second, the substance had to be given in
the smallest possible dose. These two “rules” were the exact opposite
of the ones that other doctors followed. These doctors, or allopaths,
as Hahnemann called them (allos: other), were also referred to as the
“dominant” practitioners of the time, and they used large doses of
substances that were very different from–in fact, the opposite of–the
illnesses they were treating. Most doctors treated fever not only with
bloodletting, but with great quantities of laxatives, such as jalap
root, made into a powder, which also brought on strong bouts of nausea;
emetics, such as toxic tartar crystals or powder, which also produced
heavy sweating; large doses of lethal mercury (calomel)–sometimes 4
tablespoons or more a day–black pepper in whiskey, chloroform, zinc,
iron, or cold baths and cold drinks. Blistering was a common treatment.
Lethargy, weakness, or collapse was treated with quarts of whiskey or
wine, rhubarb, massive doses of opiates such as opium, or even huge
portions of roast beef. Those with toothaches often had their gums bled
and blistered. Earaches were treated not only with purging, but with
blistering of the ear lobes. Many doctors believed that specific organs
had a separate existence from the body as a whole, or that most
diseases were caused by impediments in the intestines, or that a
poisonous fluid emanated from the hands. Some doctors believed that
hair was a direct link to the body’s entire nervous system.

The same year that homeopathy was founded, a smallpox vaccine had been
discovered by the Englishman Edward Jenner. This vaccine was akin to
homeopathic principles in that it used a small amount of cowpox disease
to prevent smallpox. Hahnemann, himself, praised Jenner’s discovery as
an excellent example of the law of similars.

Hahnemann and his followers used small quantities of common herbs and
minerals, various plants, mushrooms, or barks, and insect, shellfish,
or animal products. Wild hops, jasmine, tiger lilies, poison ivy,
silver nitrate, lead, carbon, salt, onions, toadstools, sponges, oyster
shells, spiders, human tears, extract of lice, gonorrhea discharge, and
milk from female dogs. Most everything he and his followers used had
been known for centuries–in ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman
civilizations, in ancient Far, Mid, and Near East cultures, as well as
in Native American tribes.

What was new was its method. Small doses. Like cures like. Because of
its very special and distinctive methodology, homeopathy was a wholly
Western invention, and it marked the beginning of the first worldwide,
systematic option to bloodletting. Because of its painlessness, lack of
side effects, and relative simplicity, homeopathy caught on like
wildfire across America. It quickly swept aside another favored
approach, something called Thomsonianism, a movement founded in New
England which held that disease was caused by cold, and treatable by
heat through the use of steam baths and certain pungent herbs that
could clear the body’s clogged systems. The John Sappington pills given
to the Copeland boys were created by a Thomsonian doctor, who was also
a savvy businessman. Dr. Sappington, always opposed to bloodletting,
was later influenced by another botanical system called eclecticism, a
hodgepodge of allopathic, Thomsonian, and homeopathic theories that had
come into existence in 1845.

Hahnemann had first discovered his theory of medication by ingesting
large amounts of cinchona bark, or quinine, to see what would happen to
his healthy body. He reported that “my feet, finger ends, etc., at
first became cold. I grew languid and drowsy; then my heart began to
palpitate and my pulse grew hard and small, intolerable anxiety;
trembling, but without cold rigor. . . .” What happened was that he
began to get the symptoms of malaria. He soon decided that if a large
quantity of quinine could bring on the symptoms of malaria, then a
small dose might be able to cure the disease. (Full-strength quinine
had been in use for centuries as an antidote to malaria and fever, but
it wasn’t known why it seemed to help only sometimes. However, most
allopathic doctors treated malaria not only with large doses of
it–sometimes as much as 100 grains–but also with colonics and
purgatives that left patients in a state of catastrophic exhaustion.)
Hahnemann’s experiments with small doses had successful results, even
though Hahnemann still couldn’t explain exactly why the bark was a cure
for malaria, as well as for disease symptoms like nervous exhaustion,
loss of body fluids, or certain types of headaches. But he saw that it
worked. He believed in his provings. He also showed that Belladonna, or
deadly nightshade, which brings on hallucinations and flushed skin, two
symptoms of scarlet fever, could treat that disease if given in small
doses. (The “dominant” doctors had long used large doses of it to treat
spasms, and Indian tribes had used it for pain in general.) Pulsatilla,
made from the windflower, a plant that can cause burning in the throat,
was used by Hahnemann for coughs. (Roman doctors had used it for eye
problems.) Nux Vomica, a toxic tree seed, from which strychnine poison
is extracted, was given to aid digestion. (The dominant doctors often
used it as a nerve stimulant.) Aconite, a poisonous plant once applied
by hunters to their arrows, was used for severe pain and fever.
Eventually, as homeopathy evolved, minute doses of opium were given to
patients who had convulsions and a weak pulse (a symptom of an opium
overdose). Bees were used to treat insect stings. Ambrosia, or ragweed,
was used to help alleviate hay fever.

Hahnemann reported that he experimented with around one hundred
different remedies. In every single case, he used small doses, and he
came to believe that no substance was poisonous if taken in the proper
quantity. In 1810, he published his discoveries in a book, Organon of
Homeopathic Medicine, which had gone through six editions by 1842, the
year before his death at the age of eighty-eight. “The highest ideal of
cure is rapid, gentle, and permanent restoration of the health,” he
wrote in the Introduction. He also believed in prescribing one remedy
at a time and concluded that only through a detailed evaluation of the
patient would the correct remedy be discovered.

Hahnemann prepared most of his medicines by dissolving them in water or
alcohol, which produced what he called the “mother tincture”; some of
the materials he used were insoluble, so he first ground them into a
powder. He eventually came up with the idea of the infinitesimal
dilution after discovering that in many situations the body could best
be healed with the highest possible dilution of the mother tincture.
Dilutions, or what he called “spiritized medicinal fluids,” of 1 part
substance plus 9 parts water or alcohol, for a total of 10 drops, were
designated by the Roman numeral X, and those of 1 to 100 (actually 1
part substance plus 99 parts water or alcohol, for a total of 100
drops) were designated by the Roman numeral C. Thus, 1X equaled and
became known as 1:10, 2X equaled and became known as 1:100, and 3X
equaled and became known as 1:1000, and 1C equaled and became known as
1:100, 2C equaled and became known as 1:10,000, and 3C equaled and
became known as 1:1,000,000. He referred to the process of dilution not
only as “potentization,” but as “dynamization,” and believed the
medications must be shaken, rubbed, and banged upon forcefully because
these steps, which he called “succussion,” would make them even more
potent. He said that the succussion developed “the latent, hitherto
unperceived, as if slumbering hidden dynamic powers” of the raw
material. (After succussion, a drop of 1C remedy, which is 1 part
mother tincture and 99 parts water or alcohol, could then be mixed with
99 parts water or alcohol to become a 2C dilution.) Hahnemann wrote
that “a well-dynamized medicine whose dose is properly small becomes
all the more curative and helpful, almost to the point of wonder,” a
sentiment that many homeopaths would come to believe meant that the
more a substance is diluted, the greater its overall power. Sometimes
the end product was so much more water or alcohol than remedy that, in
fact, no molecules at all remained of the original substance. The
phenomenon defied the principle of what was called Avogadro’s number,
which set the point in the process of dilution where a molecule of any
given substance could theoretically no longer exist. (It was formulated
in 1811, but not used much until 1860.) But even if the dilution was so
great that its usefulness seemed to defy logic, it was thought that the
solution “remembered” what once had been in it. Homeopaths believed
that the very shadow–or memory–of the original substance was enough to
effect healing.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Natalie Robins is the author of eight books, including Savage Grace (cowritten with Steven M. L. Aronson), for which she received the Edgar Allan Poe Award; Alien Ink: The FBI’s War on Freedom of Expression, winner of the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award; and The Girl Who Died Twice: The Libby Zion Case and the Hidden Hazards of Hospitals. She lives in New York City with her husband, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt.

From the Hardcover edition.

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