Hahnemann’s Understanding of Antiseptic Measures

I wanted to write further about Dr. Samuel Hahnemann, and his thinking and writings of the late 18th century. In a writing in 1795, he writes a letter to the leaders of the town of Leipzig regarding how to control epidemics. In it, he displays an excellent understanding of the role of cleanliness in the spread of disease. Because of my concerns about Wikipedia’s web pages about Hahnemann and homeopathy (the system of medicine that he developed), I thought I would write a post about this. In the standard history, Ignaz Semmelweis is an important figure in the development of antiseptic measures. It is informative to read the description of Semmelweis’ work on Wikipedia, and then also to consider Hahnemann’s letter of 52 years prior. It establishes (in my mind) that Hahnemann was far ahead of his time in his understanding of the role of germs in the spread of disease.

According to the Wikipedia page on Ignaz Semmelweis:

Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis[Note 1] (July 1, 1818 – August 13, 1865) (born Ignác Fülöp Semmelweis) was a Hungarian physician of German extraction[1][2] now known as an early pioneer of antiseptic procedures.

Born in 1818, his findings were published in 1847. Here is little more about him:

Semmelweis proposed the practice of washing with chlorinated lime solutions in 1847 while working in Vienna General Hospital‘s First Obstetrical Clinic, where doctors’ wards had three times the mortality of midwives’ wards.[3] He published a book of his findings in Etiology, Concept and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever. Despite various publications of results where hand-washing reduced mortality to below 1%, Semmelweis’s observations conflicted with the established scientific and medical opinions of the time and his ideas were rejected by the medical community. Some doctors were offended at the suggestion that they should wash their hands and Semmelweis could offer no acceptable scientific explanation for his findings. Semmelweis’s practice earned widespread acceptance only years after his death, when Louis Pasteur confirmed the germ theory and Joseph Lister, acting on the French microbiologist‘s research, practiced and operated, using hygienic methods, with great success.


Fifty two years prior to this, in 1795, Dr. Hahnemann published a booklet called “The Friend of Health.” In it, there was a letter to the minister of the police in Leipzig entitled, “Plans for Eradicating a Malignant Fever”. In it, he discusses the how to reduce the spread of disease by taking a number of measures. These include separating patients, washing hands in a vinegar and water solution between seeing each patient, maintaining distance between caregivers and patients when possible, using heat to destroy “pestiferious miasmata” (conceptually identical to germs) on clothing and linens. He even recommends using a particular house to treat all of the patients during an outbreak of an illness, then whitewashing the walls and taking other measures afterwards to contain the spread of illness.

More specifically, in speaking of the doctor, “If he require to feel their pulse, he must do this with averted head, and immediately afterwards wash his hand in a basin containing water and vinegar.” Plans for Eradicating a Malignant Fever (p. 207, Lesser Writings) He implores that the physician remains at a distance of three paces from the patient (if possible), for “at a less distance it is scarcely possible to avoid the danger of inhaling the patient’s breath, whence the contagious principle spreads farthest and most powerfully.” (p. 207 LW) “After every visit the medical officers should wash their hands and faces in vinegar and water.” This is done for the purposes of ablution (washing).

He notes also the use of heat to cleanse. “The pestiferous miasmata which have become attached to clothes, linen, beds, etc., can according to my observations be expelled from such things and destroyed by no means more certainly than by a heat upwards of 100 degrees Reaum, the higher the temperature the better, even should the articles suffer a little from its effects.” (p. 211 LW)

Dr. Hahnemann is not known for his contributions to the development of antiseptic measures. Yet here he is, far ahead of his time. He understood the importance of cleaning the hands, heating linens and clothing (or destroy them), and taking a variety of other measures.

More than this, Hahnemann also understood the effects of both positive and negative emotions on the development of illness. Here is a further statement from the article being discussed, “It is inconceivable the power to prevent infection possessed by the beneficent emotions, hope, content, comfort, as also by the strengthening qualities of good living…” (p. 210)

Hahnemann could see these things clearly because he was an intelligent observer. He believed by making careful observations, a great deal could be learned about how to understand and treat illness.

Yet again, though these examples prove Hahnemann’s mettle as a true physician, all of this work is ignored. Hahnemann is not mentioned in medical textbooks, except as the founder of homeopathy (which is then derided). Why? Well, using logic and reasoning, he posited that all humans have a vital force. This was (and still is) unacceptable to many people and scientists. For scientists and historians to not agree with the concept of vitalism is their right. However, to ignore and shun someone’s work because they are a vitalist is unscientific and intellectually pathetic, in my opinion.



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