The history of homeopathy in the Russian Empire
until World War I, as compared with other European countries and the USA: similarities and discrepancies

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.


In the present study I would like to focus on researching the history of Russian homeopathy, as compared with the history of homeopathy in Germany, Great Britain, France and the United States, from the emergence of homeopathy in these countries till the First World War.

Homeopathy entered the West European countries and the US in the 1820s, or at the very beginning of the 1830s, spread there quickly and gradually became the most influential "heresy" against the regular practice of the 19th century, although only in the United States it represented a real threat for the regular medical profession. However, toward the end of the 19th century homeopathy, losing its positions in its competition with rapidly developing regular medicine, fell into decay in the West European countries. In the 1900—1910s, homeopathy had gradually surrendered in the USA as well. Nevertheless, its decline was not final.

New trends emerged in the second part of the 1970s, connected with widespread criticism of modern medicine, postmaterialistic orientation of the public mind and, probably, with the publication of the famous book of Ivan Illich "Nemesis of the modern medicine" in 1975. These tendencies became evident in the 1980s and especially in the 1990s. It seems that today the crisis of the public health system based on asserted "scientific and technological achievements" has become persistent both financially and psychologically in the developed countries. Hence, more and more people turn to alternative methods of treatment. Currently we are witnessing two interesting occurrences: on the one hand homeopathy, which had been almost completely forgotten by the middle of the 20th century, has appeared on the medical scene again in the 1980s, and has spread more and more world-wide. The number of homeopathic colleges and homeopathic periodicals is growing steadily. In fact, it is not only homeopathy but also other holistic medical movements, mostly originated from the Far East and Asia, which have been called into existence on the modern market of medical services during the last 20-25 years. Nevertheless, only for homeopathy can it be argued that after having fallen into near oblivion in the not so remote past, it has come back to the fore and is again flourishing in the present. On the other side, it is notable that the history of homeopathy has become lately a subject-matter for the attention of investigators, especially in Germany, in the field of the history of medicine. Homeopathy and its development during the 19th century has been found to be of great importance for the study of changes both in medical practice and in society in the 19th and 20th centuries. The 19th century, particularly its last quarter, was a decisive period for the transformation of modern medicine, due to bacteriological discoveries and therapeutic achievements as well as to the improvement of educational standards. Yet it seems that the fight against all "deviations" within the medical profession itself and even outside it, that is laypractice, played a very important role in the consolidation and reinforcement of school medicine. As a matter of fact, this was a century-long fight for the monopoly on the medical market. This struggle has partly continued also in the 20th century, though being significantly less bitter, as the battle had been won by regular medicine in the previous century, both on theoretical grounds and in public opinion. Homeopathy and other non-regular practices like osteopathy, hydrotherapy etc. could only hope to survive that period. The "second youth" of homeopathy today is very demonstrative. Researching the history of homeopathy we try to understand what factors may explain its survival, as well as to understand whether Empiricism has indeed a promising future in its struggle against Rationalism.

The main issue of my investigation is the history of Russian homeopathy. I would like to stress that I am not going to pay special attention to the history of homeopathy in the countries selected for comparison, but only in so far as is really required for the main aim mentioned above. I shall moreover only briefly delineate the history of the Russian Empire in the 19th century and of the pre-war period in the 20th century, as well as the history of Russian medicine at the same period, although these aspects cannot be simply overlooked.

Russia takes a very specific place in the list of countries where homeopathy gained support both from medical professionals and laymen, and had numerous homeopathic societies, homeopathic periodicals and a rich homeopathic literature - both translated and original. From very early, in fact from its beginning, the Russian health system has had exclusive state character with obvious conjunction with the Western-European countries, especially Germany. Hence, the introduction of any new theoretical or practical new medical approach should have been previously approved by the majority of Western medical theorists and practitioners to be accepted by the Russian health system. Furthermore, homeopathy had been discussed and rejected by pro-allopathic Russian officials on the highest level of Russian government already after 9-10 years of homeopathy's presence in the Russian Empire. All these facts made it practically impossible for homeopathy to take its own niche in the state medical system. Therefore, Russian homeopathy, like it had been in other European countries, was forced to search other ways for the sake of its further development and spreading. It is very important to add that, as the political situation in Russia had been swiftly changing in the last 25-30 years of the existence of the Russian Empire, the conflict between the two medical trends had become more and more politically colored.

I would like to stress that the history of Russian homeopathy has not been researched since 1882, when the book of C. Bojanus "Gomeopatiia v Rossii" ("Homeopathy in Russia") was published. Furthermore, this book, being written by a practicing homeopath, mainly presented "dry" letters, documents, etc., with neither critical analysis nor comparison with similar trends in other European countries as well as in America. Dr. Bojanus' book, although being, in my opinion, rather reliable and usually trustworthy source, was pretty often the only single source available dealing with these or those events and personalities. Accordingly, as soon as Russian homeopathic and allopathic periodicals, pamphlets, brochures etc. started growing swiftly at the end of the 19th century on, I was able to find incomparably more sources needed. The most attractive period of Russian homeopathy, coinciding with swift changes in Russian society as well as with the beginning and development of the bacteriological era (the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th), has never been investigated. Even in a recently published book "Weltgeschichte der Homöopathie" (Munich, 1996) there is no chapter on Russian homeopathy at all, although the history of the poorly developed Polish, Romanian or Danish homeopathy is being presented. Even modern scientific as well as popular literature on the history of Russian medicine (throughout the Soviet period and afterwards) do not include data on Russian homeopathy. Neither have Russian homeopathic societes, whose charitable character was especially distinctive, been included into the related studies, even the most detailed and focused ones, like "Poverty is not a Vice" by Adele Lindenmayer (Princeton, 1996). Hence, it appears that this topic is omitted not only in the general history of world homeopathy and in the history of Russian medicine, but also in social history of pre-revolutionary Russia. I am inclined to think that my research may be useful for a better understanding of main trends in the general history of homeopathy and will be filling an empty place in the history of Russian medicine, as well as of the social history and cultural aspects in imperial Russia.

Another factor which increased my interest in the subject was that the properly Russian "homeopathic way" was significantly different from the one current in the European countries and the US. The striving period of Russian homeopathy coincided with a period of doubtless decline of professional homeopathy in France, Great Britain and Germany, and with the beginning of the crisis of homeopathy in the US. No doubt, the roots of this discrepancy are in the Russian Empire's belated social and political development in the second half of the 19th century. Last but not least in the reasons which led me to research this subject was the obvious breakdown of homeopathy in Russia as a consequence of the First World War, the Bolshevik revolution and the Civil War. Although homeopathy, which had lost at that time its most outstanding professional representatives, its supporters in the society, its access to publicity and influence, emerged again in Soviet Russia in the second half of the 1920s, there is no possible comparison with its pre-war state. The miserable existence of homeopathy in the former Soviet Union, steadily exposed to the danger of closure, ban, and persecutions, is a matter of another, maybe not less interesting, future investigation.

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Copyright © Alexander Kotok 2001
Mise en page, illustrations Copyright © Sylvain Cazalet 2001