Homeopathy Papers

How I Became A Homoeopath

Dr. William Henry Holcombe, homeopathic physician, author and poet, describes with frankness and honesty, his evolution to homeopathy. His observations on critics of homeopathy and human nature, hold true to this day.

I am the son of a doctor.


I was born and bred in a medical atmosphere. My father’s office was the favorite place for my games when a little boy, and for my reading and study when a youth. The imposing shelves of portly volumes, the big jars of hideous specimens preserved in alcohol, the pervading odors of paregoric and lavender, the bloody-looking map of the “ great sympathetic “ on the wall, the long white skeleton grinning in the closet, and the mysterious box, containing the detached bones of a baby’s skull, made a strong impression on my childish imagination. The old brown saddle-bags, with their incredible stores of vials and packages and pill-boxes excited my special admiration. Physicians were, in my opinion, the wisest and greatest and best of mankind. I saw the whole faculty through the venerated form and character of my good father. We differ as much from our own selves at different times, as we do from each other. I have lived to question and scout the old oracles — to abandon the “ intensely respectable “ path of routine — to discover in the old brown saddle-bags a Pandora’s box of evils, and to see how much ignorance and mischief are sometimes concealed and consecrated by a medical diploma!

My father gave me his name, and I coveted his profession. In that happy period of boyhood, when our stick horses are as real as grown men’s hobbies, I played the little doctor, and galloped from tree to tree and from post to post, visiting my imaginary patients. Before I was fifteen I had read Doctor Hush’s half-literary, half-scientific, Introductory Lectures, and was eager to precipitate myself into the vortex of professional study. The child is father of the man. But I was wisely held to a long course of academic preparation. Still my penchant for medicine appeared in everything.   I applied my earliest Latin and Greek to analyzing the medical terms in old Hooper’s Dictionary; I acquired the Natural Sciences, as mere stepping-stones to the Vital. I studied French, not for “ Gil Bias” or                  “ Corinne,” but for Milne Edwards’ Zoology, and in my botanical lessons, although there were ladies in the class, I had an eye rather to the properties of drugs than to the poetry of flowers.

My father was a Virginia gentleman of the old school, conservative in all his principles. The associates of his forty years’ career will testify to the deep-rooted, thorough going honesty of his nature, and to the chastity of his professional honor.   He had been a private pupil of the celebrated Doctor Chapman, and he committed me in due time, with great pride and confidence, to the fostering care of the old University of Pennsylvania. So I followed my father’s footsteps, walked the hospitals, frequented the dissecting room, took notes on the lectures, and graduated at that excellent institution.   I returned home full of Vesprit du corps, devoted to my professors, proud of my diploma, and crammed full of principles which I was ready to put into practice, at the pecuniary and physical expense of my patrons.

I am not writing an autobiography. These personal details would be out of place, did they not furnish a kind of psychological key to something that follows. I am about to portray the struggles of an ardent and inquiring mind, whilst emancipating itself from the bondage of authority, and emerging into the light and liberty of truth. My experience is typical. Every man, physician or layman, who ignores, misrepresents, ridicules and despises Homoeopathy and Homoeopathic physicians, as I did, does so from similar causes or motives. The traditions of the past, the teachings of masters, the example of friends, the power of custom and fashion, the opinions of society, weigh like an incubus upon us all, and take away not only the means but the will to investigate a new truth from an independent stand-point. These vast powers, which retard the progress of mankind, press upon us like the atmosphere, invisibly and unfelt. We are not conscious how blind and feeble, how ignorant and prejudiced and silly we are. There is folly which thinks itself wise, and ignorance which struts in the garb of knowledge.

The rulers, the doctors, the chief priests and Pharisees of human thought and fashion, who hold the high places and the fat offices of the world, never recognize the genius of Galileos, and Harveys, and Jenners, and Fultons and Hahnemanns, until their doctrines have triumphed by their own merits—until they have risen, like the sun, high into the heavens, dispersing the deep mists of error and prejudice which at first concealed them from sight.

I heard of Homoeopathy, at Philadelphia, as all medical students hear of it. One professor, with a show of philosophic bearing, gave it a mock analysis, and dissipated it into thin air, as flippantly as an infidel of nineteen years discards the Christian religion. Another, whose private practice it had probably injured, denounced it bitterly, as an atrocious imposition upon the credulity of mankind. A third took a good natured, jocose view of the whole affair, and laughed (all the students laughing in echo) at infinitesimals, as transcendental medicinal moonshine. They all agreed that Homoeopathy was one of those evanescent forms of medical opinion, like Brunonism and Broussaisism, and Perkinism and Mesmerism, destined to have its day, and to vanish some morning, like an ignis fatuus, from the eyes of its deluded followers. They predicted its speedy death and final extinction. Of course I believed every word they said. I was not expected or taught to seek for truth, but to receive what my masters imposed on me as truth.   They dogmatized—I accepted. I entered in one page of my note book, “Ipecac — emetic;” in another, “Homoeopathy—humbug.”

So I passed out into the great world of action—bigoted, conceited, and ignorant of what was most worth knowing. The new dawn was breaking all around me, but I did not see it. The grand reform was springing up everywhere, but I did not know it. Scores of intelligent physicians were adopting the new practice; thousands of intelligent families were becoming its adherents; books were being printed, journals established, colleges founded; a great school of thought was growing up about me, as every genuine truth always grows, slowly but surely,—and of all this I had no living conception—it was all as unreal to me as the angel presences which are said to throng invisibly our earthly career. I was like some old mariner, who still hugged closely the barren shores of tradition, whilst others, armed with the magnetic needle, explored boldly the ocean of truth. I was like some young Greek disciple, just emerging from the Athenian portico, glorying in the wisdom of the ancient philosophies, and laughing to scorn the rambling Peters and Pauls, who preached in the market places a new doctrine, destined to silence the Pagan oracles and to revolutionize the world.

It was fortunate for me that I entered on my profession in partnership with my father, who was then enjoying a large practice in one of our western cities. It not only gave me fine opportunities for observation, at a period when most young physicians are waiting for business, but it threw me into daily and most instructive contact with a richly stored, sagacious, cautious, and practical mind.   Experience with many physicians is merely a routine repetition of errors; with my father it was a steady advance toward the truth. His skepticism was continually chilling my enthusiasm.   He was coldly empiric—disdaining speculations and distrusting all authorities. I thought we had twenty specifics for every disease; he knew we had seventy diseases without a single specific. I thought that doctors were ministering angels, bestowing health and blessings around them; he knew that they were blind men, striking in the dark at the disease or the patient—lucky if they killed the malady, and not the man. I thought that medicine was one of the fixed sciences, true in theory and certain in practice; he had discovered the wisdom, as well as the wit, of Voltaire’s famous definition—“ the art of amusing the patient whilst nature cures the disease!”

I had passed a year or two in active practice, learning to think under my father’s supervision, (receiving thought from others and thinking for ourselves are very different things) when I came suddenly into contact with what I regarded as the most gigantic humbug of the day—Homoeopathy. It was in this manner: I was called out one cold winter night to a fine, plump little boy, suffering with the worst form of membranous croup. I gave him an emetic; he grew worse. I put him in a hot bath and he became hoarser and hoarser. I repeated the emetic and the bath, with no beneficial result. His difficulty of breathing became frightful. He then sank into a stupid state, with hot head and dilated pupils. I became alarmed. I saw that unless a speedy change could be induced, death was inevitable. I determined to bleed him, to relieve his congested brain, and then trust his fate to broken doses of calomel.

When I announced my sanguinary intention, the poor mother burst into a violent paroxysm of weeping, mingled with exclamations that her child should never be bled. I remonstrated; I explained the case—I entreated, but all to no purpose. She exclaimed wildly, clasping the little fellow to her heart, “ The blood is the life—it shall not be taken away!” The husband took me into another room, and told me that his wife had once been insane, after the death of a child, and was confined for months in a lunatic asylum. He said he dare not thwart her will in so important and delicate a matter—that the child must not be bled. He urged me to do something else—to do anything to save his child; but that I must not, should not bleed it. I explained to him, candidly, and with some display of professional dignity, that my opinion was worth more than his or ‘his wife’s, that there was no hope for his child but in blood-letting and calomel, and that I would not retain the responsibility of a case in which I was not permitted to dictate the treatment. The upshot of it was that I was dismissed, not at all sorry that I had escaped the charge of a death which I deemed inevitable. The angel of Life must have clapped his hands for joy as I receded from the door.

The next day I expected to hear of the death of my little patient, but no such rumor reached my ear. The morning after I looked in the daily papers for a general invitation to his funeral, but no obituary, was to be found. I was puzzled. What doctor, capable of saving life under such circumstances, could have been called in after I left? How I envied him his knowledge or his good luck! Imagine my amazement when I saw the child playing in his father’s yard about the middle of the day! My curiosity was piqued, and became too strong for my professional hauteur.   I determined to know who my skillful successor in the case was. I rang the bell, asked for the lady of the house, and with some little embarrassment made my inquiries. I was informed that a Homoeopathic physician had been summoned; that he put a towel, wrung out of cold water around the child’s neck, and some little sugar pellets on his tongue. The pellets were repeated every fifteen minutes until the breathing became easy, the cough loose, and the patient roused up, from which time the convalescence was rapid.

A sensible mechanic who discovered that another mechanic executed some piece of work more rapidly, perfectly, durably and scientifically than himself, would be anxious to see how the new principles had been put into practice. In this case one would suppose that I said to myself, “ This is very remarkable. I will see this new doctor; I will learn what he gave this child, and why he gave it. We will at least amicably exchange ideas. I may learn something useful to myself and others.” That would have been common sense, but it would not have been Allopathic sense. That is what any sane man, who really enjoyed perfect freedom of thought and action, would have done, but I was bound hand and foot by the invisible but powerful trammels of education, prejudice, interest, fashion and habit. I derided the treatment as the climax of folly, and had the effrontery to claim that the child was cured by my remedies, which began to act after I left. The lady dissented from this opinion, and was evidently a convert to Homoeopathy. My suspicion that the new system was a disgraceful imposture, now became a conviction, and not long after I refused to be introduced to the worthy gentleman who had saved my patient.

This Doctor Bianchini, who incurred my juvenile contempt, was a respectable graduate of the University of Genoa, venerable for his age and his experience. Seventeen years afterwards I met him under more agreeable circumstances. I had learned his secret of curing croup, and had employed it in hundreds of cases without a single failure. Of course we saw each other in a different and better light, and we laughed together at my harmless Allopathic pomposity. Our meeting reminded me of the two Welshmen who were traveling at daybreak on one of the wild mountains of their country. When they first descried each other their figures loomed up so vastly and grotesquely through the sea of vapor, that each exclaimed to himself, “ What a monster approaches!” As they came nearer together each discovered that the other bore the human shape, although strangely distorted by the dim mists of the morning. When they got face to face, behold, they were brothers! Just such mists and vapors are all the creeds, and institutions, and conventionalities that separate man from man!

On reviewing the state of my mind at that period, and asking myself wonderingly why such a striking Homoeopathic cure should have made no impression whatever on my thinking faculties, I remember that I was laboring under two great delusions respecting Homoeopathy, which prevented it from obtaining the least foothold on my faith. I was bitter because I was ignorant, as some animals are said to be fiercest in the dark.

In the first place, I regarded Homoeopathy as a doctrinal monstrosity and its practitioners as uneducated impostors. True, I had never read a single book or journal of the new school.   I had never conversed with one of its physicians. I knew positively nothing about the whole matter, as is the case today with nine-tenths of the Allopathic physicians in the United States. My ignorance was the cause and measure of my intolerance. The “London Lancet,” the mighty Hector of the orthodox hosts, was my oracle. I took everything at second-hand—I saw everything, like the Welshmen, through a rolling sea of vapor.

I needed some judicious, intelligent friend to show me what I now see so clearly—that Homoeopathy is the crowning piece, the capstone of medical science; that it begins only where Allopathy ends. It is a grand philosophic reform in the highest and last studied department of medicine—the application of remedies to the cure of disease. The entire course of scientific instruction necessary to the accomplished physician is the basis from which the true Homoeopath must work upward and onward in his noble mission. Hahnemann stood head and shoulders above the crowd of his detractors. Jean Paul Richter calls him “ that rare double-head of genius and learning,” and so he was. The Germans who planted the new system on this continent—Hering, Wesselhoeft, Gram, Haynel, Pulte, and others—were in every instance gentlemen of extensive and varied erudition. Their first American disciples—the apostles of the school in our different cities—were in most cases men of superior mental endowments, and of thorough classical and scientific culture. In New York city, for example, Gray, Wilson, Channing, Hull, Curtis, Bayard, and others of the early Homoeopaths, were men who would have added lustre to any of the medical or social circles in London or Paris.

In the second place, I was precluded from feeling the least interest in the social or scientific status of Homoeopathy by a foregone conclusion, that infinitesimal doses were nothing at all — attenuated far beyond the possibility of any material power, and that Homoeopathy was therefore a perfect humbug. True, I had never tried them, nor would I credit the evidence of those who had. Unless I could be satisfactorily convinced of the why and the how and the wherefore of the phenomena, I determined to deny the existence of the phenomena themselves. This false and vicious mode of reasoning is almost universal. Nevertheless, all genuine philosophers, from Bacon and John Hunter to Bartlett and Hugh Miller, tell us that no a priori reasonings or considerations can establish either the truth or falsity of alleged facts. Experiment only can fairly verify or confute. John Hunter used to say to his class, “ Don’t think, but try!” yet, in relation to Homoeopathy, people think, think, —instead of trying.

It is very convenient, as everyone knows, to have somebody else to try for us, to think for us, to cook for us. Well, I and all other orthodox physicians had been relieved of the duty of examining Homoeopathy by M. Andral, one of the greatest medical men in France, who experimented with it for a long time in a Parisian hospital. He tried it on fifty-four patients, and published the treatment and the results in a medical journal, which were of course republished in all the other journals in the world. Andral, in the name of Allopathy, gave our poor young Homoeopathy what he called a fair trial, and “pronounced very decidedly against it. I heard of it; every Allopathic doctor heard of it. Andral laid Homoeopathy on the shelf; we all agreed that it should stay on the shelf. As there are some old Rip Van Winkles who still believe in the force and justice of Andral’s experiments, knowing nothing of them but Andral’s name, I will relate a few striking facts about the famous trial, which I gathered from the British Journal of Homoeopathy, where the whole matter is thoroughly sifted.

The trial was made over thirty years ago, when Homoeopathy was in its infancy—before the hypothetical value of many of its remedies had been verified by experience, and when its treasury was not half so rich in great medicines as at present. The result of nineteen of the fifty-four cases experimented on is not reported at all. Was it too favorable to Homoeopathy for publication? Three fourths of the cases treated were of a serious chronic and organic character, such as consumption, gout, hypertrophy of the heart, amenorrhoea, chronic gastritis, bronchitis, etc., diseases requiring a long and varied course of treatment, and very frequently not curable by any medication whatever.

Will it be credited, that but a single dose of a Homoeopathic medicine (all high dilutions) was given to each of these cases, and that when the disease was not cured in a few days, it was handed over to Allopathy, and a report entered unfavorable to the new system ?

In twenty-five out of the thirty-five cases reported the remedies were not at all Homoeopathic to the diseases. What sensible layman, practicing from his little “ Domestic Guide,” would not know better than to give aconite for intermittent fever, arnica for consumption, hyoscyamus for pleurisy, chamomilla for diarrhoea without pain, belladonna for bronchitis, opium for uterine diseases, etc.?   Yet these are the prescriptions made at random by the illustrious Andral, who acknowledged himself unable to read German, the only language in which at that time a book existed which could have taught him how to use the above named drugs Homoeopathically.   Of the ten cases in which a tolerably Homoeopathic remedy was chosen, seven are reported as better the next day.

Andral’s experimentation was simply a farce, disgraceful to himself and his school, and one which looks like a trick of the trade, expressly gotten up to precipitate a verdict against Homoeopathy, and silence in future the questionings of the medical mind on the subject. Of all this, however, I suspected nothing, and I went “on practicing one system and abusing the other with an easy conscience. But I was destined, under Providence, for better things than to play always the part of the blind horse in a tread-mill.

asiatic-cholera-death-demonIn 1849 we were visited by that dreadful scourge, the Asiatic cholera.   It loomed up like a black cloud in the East, and moved westward with frightful rapidity, spreading sorrow and death in its mighty shadow. We prepared for its visitation by earnest thought and study. We mastered the opinions and practice of those who had witnessed the previous epidemics. They were so discordant and unsatisfactory that we faced the great enemy with fearful misgivings of our power to contend with him successfully. In our poor, blind, Allopathic superstition, that diseases are to be cured by their opposites, we exclaimed, “What powerful astringents must be needed for such profuse evacuations !—what sedatives for such vomitings!— what antispasmodics for such cramps! — what opiates for such horrible pains! —what heat-producing remedies for such deathly coldness! —what rapid stimulants for such fearful prostration! — what mighty specifics for such fatal congestions!”   Oh, the bewildering chaos of irrational theories and disgusting polypharmacy!

So we went to work with all the resources at our command.   If there was no bile secreted, it was not for the want of calomel; if the sufferings of the poor patients were not mitigated, it was not for want of opiates ; if they sank into fatal prostration, it was because brandy and capsicum and ether, and a hundred other stimulants, could not rally them; if they became cold as death, it was because mustard plasters and blisters, and frictions and burning liniments, and steam baths and hot bricks, and bottles and boiled corn, and all the appliances for creating artificial heat from with-out, were no substitute for the animal heat, which was no longer generate within. The theories and practices in cholera, as innumerable as they are contradictory, reveal in the strongest light the fallacies, the absurdities, the non sequiturs, the monstrosities of Allopathic philosophy. Very many cases of diarrhoea, which would no doubt have become cholera, were cured by repose, diet, and simple mixtures, of which camphor was generally an ingredient. But when cholera was fully developed — when there was vomiting and rice-water discharges, and cramps and cold, cold tongue and sinking pulse—our success, honestly reported, was poor indeed. Death dogged our foot-steps wherever we went; nor were we more unfortunate than our fellow physicians. Amazing paradox,—I obtained quite a reputation for curing cholera!   Boasted specifics came crowding upon us from the journals and papers, and by rumor and tradition. All were tried, and all failed. Our hearts sank within us, and amid the wailings of bereaved friends, and in the streets, black with funeral processions we deplored in anguish the imbecility of our art. My honest old father exclaimed to me one day in his office, “ My son, we had as well give our patients ice-water as any drug in the Materia Medica. The cases which get well would have recovered without treatment.”


This candid, truthful outburst of an experienced and strong-minded Allopathic physician is as true to-day as it was sixteen years ago, when it was made. The Allopaths have done nothing for the human race in the amelioration of this terrible plague—positively nothing. They are ready to deny it—to boast over again of calomel and laudanum, to declare the cholera to be as curable as toothache or neu-ralgia (which, by the way, they so seldom cure), and to vaunt their “philosophical “theories and “ rational” practice in the very face of death and panic and depopulation. Some few sturdy, honest thinkers amongst them will occasionally tell the truth. Let the young Esculapian who carries a little apothecary’s shop in his saddle-bags, and thinks himself ready to cure every case of cholera, read the following extract from Aitken’s “ Science and Practice of Medicine,” (Allopath) page 2441, and let it sink deep into his soul, for sooner or later he will see and feel its truth :

“ There are few diseases for the cure of which so many different remedies and modes of treatment have been employed as in cholera, and unfortunately, without our discovering any antidote to the poison. In Moscow it is said that twenty different modes of treatment were practiced at different hospitals, and that the proportionate number of deaths was the same in all. In the same city, also, it is supposed that the mortality was not greater among those destitute of medical aid than among those that had every care and attention shown them. It may be fairly inferred, therefore, that in the severer forms of this disease the action of this poison is so potent as to render the constitution insensible to the influence of our most powerful remedial agents.”

This palpable failure of Allopathy (call it “regular, rational, scientific medicine,” if you choose) in a disease in which the symptoms are so striking and the indications of treatment so plain, set me to thinking, and I began to ask myself if we had not over-estimated its real value and importance in all other diseases. I gradually passed into a skeptical phase of mind. I became quite disgusted with the practice of my profession. I began to think with Bichat and Rostan, that the Materia Medica was a strange medley of inexact ideas, puerile observations, and illusory methods. I admired the remark of the dying Dumoulin, that he left the two greatest physicians behind him—diet and water; and I echoed in my private cogitations the exclamation of Frappart: “Medicine, poor science!—doctors, poor philosophers ! —patients, poor victims!”

I was roused from this state of disgust, incredulity and apathy in the fall of 1849, by floating rumors of the successful treatment of cholera, at Cincinnati, by Homoeopathy. First one friend, and then another, echoed these marvelous stories, professing to believe them. A letter from Rev. B. F. Barrett, of Cincinnati, was published in the papers, well calculated to excite attention and inquiry. Mr. Barrett (afterwards a very kind friend) was personally known to me as a gentleman of distinguished worth and intelligence, and of unquestionable integrity.   I knew perfectly well that if human testimony is worth anything at all, Mr. Barrett’s testimony was to be believed.

Mr. Barrett’s statement was in substance this: he had one hundred and four families under his pastoral charge. Of these, eighty-six families, numbering four hundred and seventy-six individuals, used and exclusively relied upon the Homoeopathic treatment; seventeen families, numbering one hundred and four individuals, employed the old system. Amongst the former there were one hundred and sixty cases of cholera and one death; amongst the latter thirty cases and five deaths. This amazing difference between the two methods was supported by the assertion, that twenty cases of cholera occurred in the iron foundry of Mr. James Root, a respectable member of his congregation, all of which were Homoeopathically treated, without a single death.


About the author

William Henry Holcombe

William Henry Holcombe

William Henry Holcolmbe (1825-1893) was a homeopathic physician, born in Lynchurg VA. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in medicine
1847 and went on to practice homeopathy. He was editor of the North American Journal of Homeopathy and President of the American Institute of Homeopathy (1874-76). He wrote a diary and autobiography which covered topics like slavery, abolition and Swedenborgianism. He also wrote two books of poetry.


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