Dr. James Compton-Burnett 1840-1901 was a pioneer in his work as a homeopathic physician. He wrote a factual account of his conversion to Homeopathy in his book Fifty Reasons for Being a Homeopath . Nothing Else Will Do is a retelling of Burnett’s story. It has been very loosely ‘translated’ for the modern reader. However, I have tried to keep the Victorian flavour of the story as well as many of Burnett’s words.
I was having supper with a friend and colleague from the Royal Infirmary. It had been an especially trying day and I was discouraged. We met at a little restaurant, convenient to both, that served a delectable pigeon pie. But tonight I was off my food. I had been lamenting the fact that despite all my best efforts I could not save many of my young patients from the latest fever that was sweeping through London with the cold wind. I had spent the best part of the afternoon writing out death certificates for children that I was convinced should have been saved. In particular, a favourite patient, little Georgie had passed. I couldn’t shake the idea that, had I been able to stop the original simple fever the outcome would have been different. Still there was nothing more that I could have tried.
My dear friend sat quietly while I spoke. Then he put down his cutlery, leaned toward me and asked, “Have you looked into Homeopathy?” “The pigeon pie is not up to the usual standard,” I snapped unreasonably. Then, irritated beyond belief, “This isn’t a joke! Children are dying! By God, I tell you that I’m thinking of giving it all up and buying a farm in America. At least it would be a healthy and vigorous life. I’m tired! I’m sick of death and my utter powerlessness against it! It has weighed me nearly to the ground. What good am I doing?”
I had been taught by fine, learned men at the University of Cambridge Medical School that Homeopathy was a farce; even more than that; a disgrace. Orthodox medical professional organizations forbade its members even to socialize with homeopaths. Orthodox pharmacies were banned from supplying homeopathic medicines or even selling homeopathic books. I was completely incredulous of my friend’s question!
But he was in earnest for he calmly and reasonably stated his case.“My dear fellow, pick up a copy of Dr. Hughes’ Pharmacodynamics and read it. If it strikes you that the man is a charlatan, why then relegate his work to the trash or throw it in the fire. But if you find real substance in the man and his views, I beg of you, try it. Only try it. You are in such a state that you are considering giving up your practice altogether. What is there to lose?”
The pie did not sit well and neither did the idea. That I stopped on my way back to my rooms and purchased Dr. Hughes’ book, plus another, shows how desperate I had become. I felt as though I were about to commit a crime. But what indeed did I have to lose? And the thought of poor Georgie lying lifeless in his little cot spurred me on.
* * *
I finished the Pharmacodynamics in a few days, followed by Therapeutics, also recommended by my friend. Within a week, I had mastered the basic principles. Either, Dr. H was a fool or there was real merit in what he proposed. I could not believe that a fool could write so eloquently. It would not be possible. I came to the conclusion that he must be a man of lofty principle. His words cheered me and even lifted me from my despondency – for awhile. Then came the reaction. Skepticism took hold again. If such things were true we would have already implemented them. It made me angry that Hughes and others of his ilke should make puffed up claims, offering hope where there was none to be offered. It was unconscionable! My whole being was on fire with outrage. “I will try it at the bedside,” I said to myself and prove once and for all that Homeopathy is a sham!” I would report it in the ‘Lancet’ to the admiration of my peers.
Toward this aim, I applied myself to more study and determined that the remedy to stop a simple fever following a chill was ‘Aconite’. If that were really true it could have saved little Georgie’s life. I decided to try it in the children’s fever ward the following day. To a large bottle of water I added a few drops of Fleming’s Tincture of Aconite, gave it to the nurse, instructing her to give it to half the children only. The other half would receive the usual orthodox treatment. Then, I left with my plan in place.
I felt certain that the remedy would make no difference. However, what I found on arriving the next morning completely non-plussed me. I believe I stood for some moment with my mouth gaping. All the children on the Aconite side were feverless; every one! Most were playing in their beds. They were ready to be discharged! One had developed the Measles and had been moved to the appropriate ward. (I have since found that Aconite does not stop the Measles). Those children on the non-Aconite side were about the same or worse. I was absolutely dumbfounded! I instructed the nurse to keep up the trial with the next group of patients.
Day after day after day the results were the same. Those on the Aconite side were generally convalescent in twenty-four to forty-eight hours unless their seemingly simple fever were actually the early stage of Measles or Scarlet Fever.
I had not told the nurse what was in the bottle. She soon christened it Dr. Burnett’s Fever Bottle. Meanwhile, I feverishly burnt the midnight oil eagerly devouring all I could find on my new study. One day, I arrived at the hospital after an absence of two days. Other matters had kept me away. I expected to find similar results on this occasion too, but was greeted at the door by a rather sheepish nurse. I say this because she seemed to be standing in my path whenever I tried to enter, as if she had something she wanted to tell me before I entered the ward. “What is it? What is the matter? There is obviously something.”
“All the children are ready to be dismissed.” she said.
“How can that be?” I was certainly puzzled.
“Well I’m sorry, but you doctors are so heartless with your experiments! I could not see why I shouldn’t give the fever drops to all the children. It seemed cruel not to do so.” She avoided my gaze as she said this, then seemed to take the courage of her conviction and looked up. “And now they are all doing well!”
“Very well,” I said, ”We’ll continue as you suggest”, and so we have to the benefit of many lives.
I am a practical man and learn well from experience. If we come to the end of our knowledge we must sometimes look farther afield until we find what it needed. If this is uncomfortable and inconvenient it matters not. Nothing else will do.
Dr. Burnett went on to build one of the busiest medical practices in London.