Homeopathy is a quasi-science espousing the treatment of maladies using small doses of poisonous or toxic substances. The practice was very popular throughout the United States and the world at large from the late-1700s to the early 1900s. Its popularity in Colorado Territory, and later the state of Colorado, reflected a growing national interest in scientific development and the medical field, and Colorado’s national renown as a destination for those suffering from any number of chronic illnesses thanks to its high-and-dry climate.
Homeopathy in the United States
Homeopathy has a long history in the United States. Founded as a medical science in the 1790s by German physician Samuel Hahnemann, it is based on the “law of similars,” a theory described by the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates and used by an array of cultures around the world. Homeopaths hold—incorrectly—that an ailment can be cured by carefully administering small amounts of a substance that would cause the same or similar symptoms if given in an overdose. In other words, by administering tiny, calculated dosages of poison, they enable patients to strengthen their immunities and thus overcome a related ailment. Homeopaths often refer to “the wisdom of the body” because the practice aims to mimic the body’s own means of healing itself, rather than merely treating or suppressing symptoms with allopathic drugs.
In the nineteenth century the practice gained a following in the United States, where it also met with fierce opposition from practitioners of orthodox medicine. Still, the science offered a welcome change from invasive techniques such as bloodletting, leeching, purging, and the use of questionable drugs, and at its height more than 10 percent of American physicians were homeopaths. In 1844 homeopathic physicians organized, creating the American Institute of Homeopathy. Homeopathic colleges and hospitals opened throughout the country. Homeopathy’s heyday came when it seemed to be effective in treating midcentury epidemics such as cholera in the 1840s and yellow fever in the South in 1878.
Homeopathy in the Centennial State
By 1894 Denver’s homeopaths had opened the Denver Homeopathic College—the state’s fourth medical school—in the top floor of the Pioneer Building at Fifteenth and Larimer Streets. Twenty-six students enrolled in the college that first year. June of that same year was a high point for homeopathy in Colorado, when the American Institute of Homeopathy held its fiftieth-anniversary “Jubilee Meeting” in Denver. In 1898 the physicians built a new structure dedicated to the practice and teaching of homeopathy, choosing a site at Park Avenue and Humboldt Street where Denver’s City Park West and Capitol Hill neighborhoods joined. The Denver Homeopathic Hospital— also home to the medical college—was a two-and-a-half story, red brick edifice with arched windows, brown stonework, and decorative, garland-patterned molding.
The Denver Homeopathic Hospital and Medical College treated patients for fifteen years during a time when Coloradans sought alternatives to the all-too-often rudimentary, painful, and questionable practices of allopathic medicine. Around the country, a rift grew between hardline homeopaths and those who looked to the scientific advances of their allopathic colleagues, who were hard at work elevating their own discipline to modern medicine. The Denver hospital changed with the times, and eventually changed its name as it borrowed more and more from those advances.
By September 1909, a growing number of homeopaths, especially younger ones, were shying away from their colleagues’ categorical rejection of newer allopathic remedies. For example, homeopathy held that appendectomies and most other surgeries were entirely useless. Staunch homeopaths shunned germ theory and the resultant public health initiatives. Medical historian Robert Shikes said, “Such views were becoming embarrassing to the new generation of homeopathic physicians, many of whom began to envy the scientific and clinical successes of their allopathic colleagues.” Thus, by 1905, “most of Denver’s homeopaths had, in de facto fashion at least, accepted most of the principles and practices of regular medicine.”
Orthodox physicians were working homeopathy into their practice, while members of the new generation of homeopaths were welcoming scientific breakthroughs into theirs. The result, many stalwart homeopaths argued, was that this new generation was not practicing homeopathy at all. The hospital’s closing in 1909 came as the distinctions blurred altogether and patients placed their care in Denver’s neighboring big-name hospitals, just as their suspicions grew of the marginal practices, poison medicine, and downright quackery with which homeopathy was increasingly associated.
As rifts appeared within the homeopathic community, the Denver Homeopathic Hospital shut down for good just three months after the homeopathic society met in 1909. The reasons for the school and hospital’s demise went beyond differences of opinion within the field of homeopathy. As medical advances continued, fewer physicians saw the need for hospitals and medical colleges devoted to homeopathy. Its principles lived on in other disciplines that embraced the “law of similars” whenever it was deemed appropriate, but homeopathy itself faded into the ranks of patent medicines, mesmerism, and other “cult” practices.
Ironically, and unintentionally, some of today’s therapeutic agents seem to follow the “law of similar.” Digitalis, so often used to treat heart failure, can sometimes result in heart problems. Methylphenidate, widely sold as “Ritalin,” is used to treat attention deficit disorder even though it is a potent stimulant. Radiation, long used to combat certain forms of cancer, is a well-known cause of the condition. The critical difference from homeopathy in these examples is that the basis for the use of these agents is scientific evidence rather than a logical proof based on the “law of similars.”
In recent years, homeopathy has witnessed a comeback. Beginning around the late 1970s, a renewed interest in heeding “the wisdom of the body” brought attention to homeopathy once again. Along with other forms of holistic health care and alternatives to drugs—and with a growing number of popular magazines and websites—homeopathy has found its way back into the everyday lexicon. Like the Denver Homeopathic Hospital a hundred years ago, facilities that practice and educate people in homeopathy have quietly returned as well.
Adapted from Steve Grinstead, “Alternative Healing at the Crossroads: Denver’s Homeopathic Hospital Succumbs to Modern Medicine,” Colorado Heritage Magazine, 25 no. 3 (2005).