“Allopathy” – what does it mean?

Lesedauer / Reading Time: 4 min


"Allopathie" ist eine Bezeichnung für die Standardmedizin ("heroische Medizin") zu Samuel Hahnemanns Zeiten. Mit der heutigen wissenschaftlichen Medizin hat diese Bezeichnung nichts zu tun.

The term “allopathy” often appears in discussions about homeopathy / pseudo-medicine, frequently to distinguish the supposedly gentle and natural pseudo-method from “evil orthodox medicine” (in the meaning of the German term “Schulmedizin”). Whereas “Schulmedizin” itself is a fighting term of the homoeopaths from the end of the 19th century, which in the 3rd Reich in Germany was then additionally burdened with the addition of “Jewish orthodox medicine” (“jüdische Schulmedizin”). Is “allopathy” also something like that or is there something meaningful behind it? On the pages of alternative practitioners and their associations, “allopathy” is omnipresent. On many pharmacies it also says “allopathy – homeopathy”, sometimes even “allopathy – homeopathy – pharmacy”. Sense or nonsense?

The myth of allopathy

The introduction of the term “allopathy” by Samuel Hahnemann is still a problem today because over time it has become a synonym for modern scientific medicine. The use of the term “allopathy” is so widespread that it is not uncommon for professional, science-based medical practitioners to use it completely uncritically to describe themselves and their work. “I work allopathically” – this is usually meant to distinguish myself from pseudo-medicine, but basically says the opposite. Let’s see.

Hahnemann derived the word from the Greek “allos” (όλα, different, opposite) and “pathos” (πάθος, sick, disease). He wanted to describe a medicine that only treats symptoms with remedies that suppress or counteract them, i.e. the opposite of a “simile”, a remedy that is “similar” to the cause of the disease. Here we find one of the sources of the homeopaths’ constant claim that “orthodox medicine” treats only symptoms, as opposed to homeopathy, which addresses causes (the “cause” in the homeopaths’ thinking being the “disgruntled spiritual life force”, which exposes this claim, as false as it is common, as a narrative within the homeopathic edifice of thought).

The use of the term “allopathy” as a synonym for modern scientific medicine thus includes the old nonsensical accusation that only homeopathy treats “causes”. We see that this term is not suitable to denote modern scientific medicine.

In Hahnemann’s time the term may well have been appropriate, the object of his criticism being his medical contemporaries who consistently worked under the assumption that the “balance of the humours” in the sense of Galen’s humoral pathology had to be “restored” (with the well-known drastic methods of “heroic medicine”). But that is medical history – with Rudolf Virchow’s cellular pathology, the more than thousand-year-old humoral theory had played out and a completely new concept of medicine began to develop, which is essentially aimed at recognising the causes of diseases and finding treatment options for them. The fact that in many respects causal treatment is not (yet) possible today, but symptomatic treatment makes sense (from the common cold to diabetes), does not restrict this paradigm shift and also makes possible gains in life and quality of life that were unimaginable in Hahnemann’s time…

The American public health expert William T. Jarvis described the use of the term “allopathy” for modern medicine and the medical profession representing it as “clever rhetoric”, which implicitly contains the old insinuation that “non-alternative” medicine is still only about treating symptoms. He thinks that those who deliberately use “allopathy” are trying to drag down the fundamental difference between outdated theories such as “vitalism” (the “all-livingness” of all matter as the source of life force) and scientific facts to the level of a dispute between world views. Indeed, we could cite many a statement by homeopaths that attempts to do just that.

Jarvis strongly points to the earlier offensive use of “allopathy” as a “fighting term”: ” … a term of verbal warfare … literally used as a pejorative (derogatory) by 19th century pseudo-medical practitioners and considered highly offensive by its addressees.”

Then, in the early 20th century, the science-oriented medical profession fought back decisively. Jarvis quotes from a 1902 medical textbook for students, “Remember that the term “Allopath” is a false nickname not chosen by regular physicians at all, but cunningly coined, and put in wicked use against us, in his venomous crusade against Regular Medicine by its enemy, Hahnemann, and ever since applied to us by our enemies with all the insinuations and derisive use the term afford. “Allopathy” applied to regular medicine is both untrue and offensive and is no more accepted by us.” The term, he said, is as burnt as many other terms that have disappeared from the vernacular for good reason.

And the US National Council of Health Fraud pointed out in 2000 that “ambiguous use of the term ‘allopathy’ only panders to those who wish to obscure the image of modern medicine, and therefore the term should no longer be used as a reference, either to modern medicine or to the physicians who practice it.”

Therefore, the only answer to the use of the term “allopathy” for modern medicine is to ask, what is “allopathy”, please? Many simply do not know, and it is for them that this article is intended. But we should – for reasons – accept the term “allopathy” only for what it really denotes: the methods of “heroic medicine” in Hahnemann’s time. And dear pharmacists, change your signage. Surely you don’t want to be asked whether you stock blood-letting instruments, hair ropes or particularly powerful emetics? It could happen as long as you advertise “allopathy” …

William T. Jarvis, PhD, Misuse of the term  „Allopathy“, Text see on „Quackwatch“ (englisch), the critical site by INH-supporter Stephen Barrett:

Picture:  mohamed Hassan on Pixabay