The history of homeopathy in the Russian Empire
until World War I, as compared with other European countries and the USA: similarities and
by Alexander Kotok, M.D.
On-line version of the Ph.D. thesis improved and enlarged
due to a special grant of the Pierre Schmidt foundation.
1.6 From the First Russian Revolution to the First World War (1905—1914)
This period, the last within the arbitrarily chosen borderlines of my study, may be
characterized as a period of stagnation of Russian homeopathy. Although St. Petersburg homeopaths
conducted their activity effectively enough, other Russian and Ukrainian cities could hardly be
proud of their achievements. It follows from the rare reports provided by Khar'kov, Odessa and
Kiev homeopathic societies that these societies were able in the best case to keep their activities
on a level similar to the pre-Revolutionary one, but it was not rare that sometimes they could not
even reach it (see the chapter "Homeopathic
facilities"). Most of Russian homeopathic societies did not provide during this period any
reports at all. Only two new homeopathic societies were established during this period (in
Kamenets-Podol'sk in 1913 and in Perm' in 1914).
In my opinion, it was not just a coincidence that the Medical Council decided to attack
homeopathy after the First Russian Revolution of 1905. The new democratic freedom, provided by the
Revolution, allowed the Russian regular profession to try destroying homeopathy through the State
Duma, avoiding the Tsar's involvement. In fact, just this prohibitory initiative of allopaths
was turned against homeopathic pharmacies, which I have detailed in the chapter "Homeopathic
facilities". This drew Russian homeopaths from their lethargy. The threat toward homeopathy in
Russia was more than real. In the light of this threat, the Meeting of Russian homeopaths, which
had been planned since the late 1890s and several times postponed, finally took place in the autumn
1.6.1 The First All-Russian Meeting of the Followers of Homeopathy
The background of Russian homeopaths' decision to organize this meeting is described in the
section "Allopathic counterattack" in the chapter "Homeopathic facilities". The
main significance of the Meeting was in the fact that Russian homeopaths became united before a
common threat. The Meeting received many greetings, including the telegram of the Moscow Society of
the Followers of Homeopathy, a text of which had been signed by 2000 persons. In the Meeting
participated Dr. Petri Hoyle (1861—1955) from London160. The main issue of the Meeting
was, naturally, a discussion on the measures supposed to prevent the passing of allopaths'
initiative through the Duma. Nevertheless, lectures on other subjects were also delivered. It was
stressed in several reports and lectures that homeopathy in Russia has to build its own system of
education and postgraduate training for doctors and feldshers (see the chapter "Homeopathy and
Zemstvo medicine"). Moreover, it was stressed that homeopathy in Russia lacked any firm
organizational background; thus, it was proposed to create the Central Union of the Russian
Followers of Homeopathy, similar to the German Zentralverein.
A peaceful future would have showed whether Russian homeopaths and their supporters would be
able to unite and further develop the doctrine they followed. The First World War which began in
June 1914, followed by the Bolshevik Revolution and the Civil War, destroyed homeopathy in
1.7 Conversions: A Russian Example
I consider this subject particularly important as "The history of homeopathy is partly a
history of conversions. This is especially true of homeopathy's early stages, from the 1820s
until the end of the nineteenth centuries [...]"161. The history of professional
homeopathy in Russia in the period under study had been based almost exclusively on conversions, as
no system of homeopathic postgraduate education was ever created by Russian homeopaths and their
lay supporters. The importance of the influx of new manpower was recognized by Russian homeopaths:
"During 80 years nothing was done in order to increase the number of the most needed workers,
i.e., homeopathic doctors; the latter have come [to homeopathy] incidentally"162.
The German homeopaths, who practiced in Russia in 1820—1830s, had usually converted to
homeopathy before they came to Russia. Since the late 1830s onwards, we see also Russian doctors
(again, chiefly of German origin) among those practicing this new method. The reasons for these
conversions were not specifically Russian, but were the same as in other countries.
Some regular medical practitioners were converted to homeopathy for many
individual reasons, but in general they were regular practitioners dissatisfied with regular
practice and for the sake of conscience and personal integrity could not continue as regular
practitioners. [...] However, the costs of conversion were considerable and the various strategies
used to monopolize the medical market place and marginalize the homeopaths as immoral, insane,
unprofessional and unscientific, made conversion socially, cognitively and emotionally costly for
1.7.1 Dr. Vladimir Dal'
The most interesting (as well as the most documented) example of conversion to homeopathy was
represented by a distinguished Russian writer, philologist and ethnographer, a member of the St.
Petersburg Academy of Science (since 1868 a Honorary Academician), the author of the famous
"Dictionary of the Great Living Russian Language", Dr. Vladimir Dal'
(1801—1872). The story of his rather benevolent attitude toward homeopathy as an expectative
method, enabling the body to mobilize all its powers to struggle with disease; later on, his open
hostility toward the homeopathic doctrine and its founder; then, finally, his renewed interest in
it and, finally, the deep conviction he developed in the superiority of this method, is worthy to
be briefly described. After Dr. Dal' had graduated from Dorpat university, he became soon
disappointed with the medicine he practiced. He published the article "A Letter to the Healthy
and the Sick" in the popular newspaper "Severnaia pchela" in 1828. While criticizing
doctors both for their lack of understanding of the development of diseases and for the use of
unreliable medicines, Dal' stressed:
This is the reason why homeopathy does deserve to be adopted and spread. A sick
person, being strongly protected from all harmful influences, quietly expects the delivery from his
illness; he imagines that he receives some real medicines, whilst in reality the effect [of
homeopathic medicines] is worth zero. The truth of this assertion is being proven by the successes
of homeopathy: the organism, when it is not burdened with real medicines, recovers soon. [...]. I
advice sincerely that all lovers of drugs turn to homeopaths, whose treatment is safer that
Nevertheless, a year later Dr. Dal', being instigated to this by "a distinguished
doctor" (in Bojanus' opinion, it was Dr. Seidlitz, whose anti-homeopathic renown by that
time had already been well established (see the chapter "Homeopathic facilities"),
published the paper "Samuel Hahnemann. Pseudomessias Medicus" in "Syn
Otechestva"165. The paper was full of crude and insulting assertions toward the
homeopathic theory and Hahnemann himself; a part of them is cited in the book of Bojanus166. In 1833,
Dal' left St. Petersburg for Orenburg, where he served as physician during 7 years. Several
examples of successful treatment provided by a local homeopathic doctor, Lessing, as well as the
conversations he had with some friends, convinced Dr. Dal' to try testing homeopathic medicines
on himself. He took several doses of Carbo vegetabilis in the thirtieth decimal dilution,
and was astonished to find out that the medicine influenced him as he had been intoxicated by
carbon monoxide. Then he continued to test various homeopathic medicines, and discovered that they
affect the organism. He turned to Seidlitz, requiring the latter to explain these phenomena. The
correspondence with the Russian apologist of allopathy, which was published in the contemporary
did not stop Dal' from testing and applying homeopathic medicines, also on feldshers he had at
his disposal, and animals. Finally, he fully converted to homeopathy. The story of his conversion
to homeopathy was prepared by him as a large article written in the form of a letter to a friend,
and then published in the popular periodical "Sovremennik" (The Contemporary)168 under the title
"On Homeopathy. A Letter to Prince
Odoevsky". Later that same year this paper was issued as a brochure under the same
was republished in 1861 in "Zhurnal gomeopaticheskogo lecheniia". The significance of the
conversion to homeopathy of such a prominent figure as was Dr. Dal', I may compare only with
the support provided to homeopathy by Father Ioann of Cronstadt (see the chapter "Homeopathy and the clergy"). In fact, Dr. Dal'
contributed to homeopathy neither as a theorist, nor as a talented practitioner. Nevertheless,
Russian homeopaths and their supporters, later constantly referred to his example and his work in
defense of homeopathy.
1.7.2 Dr. Osip Lensky
Dr. Osip Lensky (1824—1904) was converted to homeopathy by a homeopath Dr. Alfons Beck.
When recalling the story of his conversion, Dr. Lensky testified that within physician's
circles the condemning and ridiculing of contemporary medicine was common. Thus,
As soon as I began studying and applying the new method of treatment, all my
previous friends-colleagues gave me up and spoke of me either with mockery or with scorn. This is
one of the reasons why only few allopaths decide to convert to homeopathy170.
At the same time,
The strange thing is that any doctor might announce [...] that he does not believe
in his allopathic medicines. He might stop to use them and treat with any special or
'modern' system, with cold water, with gymnastics, with electricity, with concentrated air,
with koumiss [...]. Nobody would accuse him of irrationality or of sinning against science, nobody
would doubt of his erudition and his rights to be respected by their colleagues. Yet not only
allopaths, but all specialists, including surgeons, obstetricians, oculists, etc., treat homeopathy
This was an exact observation. One could practice any system, even the most absurd and baseless,
but within the framework of the regular profession. Belonging to homeopathy represented an escape
from this framework and could not be tolerated.
1.7.3 Dr. Vladimir von Ditman
The story of Dr. Vladimir von Ditman's (1842—1904) conversion to homeopathy, entitled
"Pochemu ia sdelasia
gomeopatom?" (Why I became a homeopath?) was first published as a letter in the journal
"Russkaia rech" (Russian Discourse) in 1882; in the same year it was issued as a brochure
in St. Petersburg. Dr. Ditman also stressed that the conversion to homeopathy in Russia had been
extremely difficult because of widely spread biases against homeopathy and for one's fear of
losing one's position.
[...] For a doctor who decides to convert to homeopathy, the official career is
closed almost completely. Only if he hides his 'heretical' views from the medical
authorities [...] will he be allowed to stay at his workplace. On the contrary, if the doctor
expresses his opinion concerning the superiority of homeopathy over allopathy openly, his verdict
has already been signed: neither job, nor reward, nor promotion [...], nor pension in old age. In
brief, he has to sacrifice so many things that there have been only a few doctors who were prepared
to follow this [homeopathic] method172.
Dr. von Ditman stressed that several important events throughout his life influenced his
decision to convert to homeopathy. First of all, he was, at the age of eighteen, a witness to the
terrible deaths of his two year old brother and five year old sister from diphtheria, whilst one doctor refused to treat these at all
("there is anyway no hope") and the treatment prescribed by another doctor (cantharide
ointment) transformed the torments of the sister into unbearable ones.
During a long time I was under the strong impression of this terrible event.
'Is medical science' — I thought — 'so powerless indeed?' One half of
the future generation has died, whilst medicine knows nothing and has no means to help! Finally, if
there is no escape, why should one harass and torture a sick child so barbarously? Who needs these
cantharides, etc., increasing the sufferings without procuring any relief!173
Secondly, when studying at Dorpat university, Ditman was bitterly dissatisfied with the
situation of contemporary medicine. There was no clear explanation why patients were receiving
this, that or any other drug, but mainly empirical allegations. The confirmation of diagnosis by
section was considered as a "triumph of science", whilst the useful medicines for almost
all diseases were absent. Von Ditman was fortunate to hear three lectures on homeopathy delivered
by the internist Prof. Weirich. The latter had recognized that medicine benefited to an enormous
extent from homeopathy (giving non-mixed medicines in as small as possible doses, the importance of
diet). Nevertheless, homeopathy as a doctrine was ridiculed by the professor. But these refutations
of homeopathy "were purely theoretical and doctrinal. Neither experiment, nor observation! Why
cannot minimal doses [...] be effective? Why is the law of similarity absurd? All these [questions]
remained unanswered"174. Moreover, when studying pharmacology, von Ditman became convinced that
arbitrariness ruled in this most important section of medicine. Thus, when he met his relative, the
homeopath Dr. von. H. (it was Dr. Anton von Hübbenett, see the section "The discussion which never took place"), he was rather
prepared to accept a new teaching. Finally von Ditman converted to homeopathy after the tincture of
Ipecacuanha saved his dying baby, who was suffering from diarrhea.
I have never before seen such a fast, such an impressive success of treatment. In
such a serious disease as acute inflammation of stomach and guts of an eight-month-old baby, the
baby recovered completely within 12 hours!175
1.7.4 Dr. Zubov
Another interesting story of conversion to homeopathy is told by Bojanus when describing the
activity of Dr. Pribyl' (see the chapter "Homeopathic facilities"). The latter had
had an allopathic counterpart in Dr. Zubov, the Chief physician of the Caucasus (Military) Corpus.
All the young physicians appointed to serve in the Caucasus region, were first sent to the Tiflis
military hospital according to the order of General Ermolov, to be instructed about the climate and
diseases being specific for the Caucasus. After arriving at the hospital, the young doctors were
also introduced to homeopathy by Dr. Pribyl'. Observing in a mute rage this propagandizing of
homeopathy, Dr. Zubov could not stop it, for Ermolov's patronage was an insuperable obstacle.
Nevertheless, Zubov told the young physicians that those trying to treat with homeopathy would be
brought to trial. Yet it happened that after Pribyl' successfully treated a patient who had
been rejected by Zubov as a "pure incurable case", Zubov reportedly
[...] Fell to his knees before Pribyl', exclaiming 'Teach me your great
science!'. Since then Zubov became a zealous homeopath. After retiring, he lived for a long
time in Moscow, treating only with homeopathic drugs and propagandizing homeopathy assiduously. A
son of Pribyl', who was studying medicine in Moscow, was frequently told by Zubov that the only
true and saving medicine is homeopathy176.
It was not infrequent that physicians first met homeopathy when seeing it being practiced by
laypeople, especially by the clergymen. Some examples of this kind may be found in the chapter
"Homeopathy and the clergy".
Copyright © Alexander Kotok 2001
Mise en page, illustrations Copyright © Sylvain Cazalet 2001