The method by which any subject may be most successfully studied must depend on the use which is to be made of the knowledge thus gained. It is proper, then, to inquire at the outset in what way the knowledge of Materia Medica is to be made subservient to the treatment of disease.
In accordance with the homoeopathic law, we select for the cure of each individual case of disease that remedy of which the pathogenetic effects are most similar to the symptoms of the case. In the process of making this selection we must pass in mental review the various drugs which compose the Materia Medica, take a comprehensive view of the pure effects of each, and institute a comparison between each in turn, and the case for which we are prescribing. This is the theory of the process.
Now, it is evident that, in order to select from a number of candidates one which most nearly resembles a given standard, we must be familiar, not merely with the general properties of all the candidates or of certain classes into which they may be divided, but also with certain properties more or less peculiar to each one of the candidates, and which shall serve to distinguish each of them from all the others.
In fact our method requires the strictest individualization of both disease and remedy. We are so to study Materia Medica as, above all, to bring into strong relief and fix firmly in memory those peculiarities of each drug which are not met with in any other, and which therefore serve to individualize and give character to the drug that produces them and which are called its "characteristic symptoms." This term having been much and loosely used of late, it may not be unprofitable to devote a few words to the subject of characteristic symptoms.
By some writers the leading and most obvious and most frequently recurring symptoms are called characteristic. Thus Bennett calls fever a characteristic of the Exanthemata. By others the pathognomonic symptoms of a class of diseases are called characteristic, by others the pathologico-anatomical.
Now, the signification of such a word as characteristic is not absolute. It depends on the connection in which you please to use it, and which is determined by the question, "Characteristic of what?" In the instances just adduced, the varieties of symptoms cited may indeed be called characteristics, but-characteristic of what? Of classes (the Exanthemata), of groups (nosological)-but not of individuals. But the only sense in which Homoeopathists can use the term is in its application to individuals.
Hence a characteristic symptom must mean one which is possessed by none other than the individual drug of which it is predicated, and to which therefore it gives character as an individual. In this sense it corresponds precisely to those features of a man by which his friends are enabled to distinguish him from other persons and to recognize him at a glance.
It is obvious that these characteristic symptoms so precious to the Therapeutist may seem to be of little or no pathological value, may even seem accidental to those who forget that there are no accidents in Nature. They would be valueless if we did not need to individualize, but could be content with grouping our diseases and remedies.
To the Naturalist whose object it is to group his specimens, it is sufficient to know that John Doe has a vertebral column, is a mammal, has two hands, and is a Caucasian because this enables him at once to place John Doe in the variety Caucasian of the species man, and his analysis goes no farther. From this his whole physiological status follows.
But these items of general knowledge would hardly enable the sheriff to recognize John Doe in Broadway. It is of no importance to the Naturalist that he has such "accidental" peculiarities as an aquiline nose, black eyes and hair, and a brown mole on the left ala nasi; but these very peculiarities are all important to the sheriff, for they give him the means of detecting the object of his search upon the crowded street.
It must not be forgotten, however, that the points on which the Naturalist laid stress are equally important to the sheriff, for if the latter should bear in mind only the individual peculiarities of the object of his quest and should forget that he is a Caucasian, he might find the former in the person of an Indian, or, if he should forget that he is a bimanous creature, he might arrest a monkey.
To drop the figure, then, it is evident that we must seek to discover among the symptoms of every drug certain ones that are produced by no other drug, and which shall serve to distinguish it from all other drugs similar in other respects; that these symptoms will often be unimportant and trivial in a physiological point of view; furthermore, that we must, for convenience sake, when the number of drugs in our Materia Medica has become considerable, endeavor so to group them, on the basis of certain clearly defined symptoms or collections of symptoms, that for the purpose of preliminary examination and comparison, these groups may be regarded and compared as though they were individual drugs.
Let us suppose a case of uterine hemorrhage. As many as forty drugs probably produce uterine hemorrhage. On the basis of this symptom, they form a group isolated from the three hundred and forty remaining drugs of the Materia Medica. We select this group from the Materia Medica, and now we must select a remedy from the group. It is a tedious task to consider and compare them one by one. But we group them again; ten of them produce dark-colored and ten florid hemorrhage; ten a limpid and ten a clotted discharge. Our case has a dark-colored discharge. Our choice is now restricted to ten drugs. But of the ten which produce a dark discharge, only five produce simultaneously a congestive headache. Thus we are limited to five drugs.
Thus far, the distinctions on which our grouping has been based (or which have been characteristic of the groups) have had a pathological significance and importance. We can find no such basis for any further subdivision into groups. But we observe in the case a peculiar subjective symptom. The patient complains "as though a living body were moving through the abdomen."
This may seem trivial. It is equally, however, a symptom produced by Crocus, which is one of the five remedies to which our choice had been restricted, and it is produced by no other drug in the Materia Medica. It is, then, a characteristic symptom of Crocus, enabling us to individualize Crocus, and to distinguish it from all the other drugs which in many other respects agree with it.
It will be observed that dark-colored uterine hemorrhage, though produced by Crocus, cannot be said to be characteristic of it. It is a characteristic symptom of a group to which Crocus belongs, but not of Crocus, for it is produced by the other members of this group as well as by Crocus.
Characteristic symptoms must of necessity be for the most part subjective and seemingly trivial phenomena. A list of them alone, if presented as the pathogenesis of a drug, would be as meaningless, and at first sight as ridiculous, as a list of the colors and marks and angles and curves by which friends recognize each other would be, if presented alone as the sum total of the properties of certain genera and species of the animate creation.
As a background to the latter, there must be a series of phenomena capable of morphological and organic arrangement, and as the basis of the former we must have a series of objective and organic symptoms capable of physiological and pathological arrangement and of approximate explanation. But it must never be forgotten that without the characteristics, as we have described them, there can be no individualization, and without this there can be no accurate homoeopathic prescription.