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Installment 8 of a series on case analysis

© Will Taylor, MD 2001 (bio)

On our Knowledge of the Materia Medica:
Part 1; Quantitative knowledge of remedies

Section 1

Sections: 1 | 2

One of the most fascinating aspects of homeopathy, among all the healing arts, is the mirrored reflection of pathology in our remedial substances. This of course flows directly from the observation of cure by similars - as that which needs to be cured is directly mirrored by that which cures.

This differs distinctly from the situation in allopathy ā€“ where in the effort to explain the action of remedial substances we need to interpose layers of action, such as the action of a pharmaceutical on a cellular receptor site; and it differs even from other "alternative" medicinal sciences, such as acupuncture, which describes the action of cure on a system of energy flow in the body. In both of these latter cases, pathology takes the role of a descriptive science held somewhat apart from therapeutics; in homeopathy, these two are inseparable reflections of one another.

A result of this direct reflection of the nature of disease in the nature of our remedial substances is that we cannot separate our knowledge of disease - our pathology - from our knowledge of our remedies. The genius of the case before us will be directly reflected in the genius of its cure. And so it stands that to understand the totality of the disease of our patient, we need to understand our materia medica.

In this installment, and the installments to immediately follow, Iā€™d like to explore the nature of our understanding of our remedial substances. How much do we know of our remedies? How is this knowledge obtained? How reliable, valuable, and reproducible is this knowledge? How does an appreciation of these issues affect our ability to find the simillimum for a case, and to effect cure?

There are of course simple, stock answers to the questions above, which are often regarded as "homeopathy 101" material. We obtain knowledge of our remedies via the symptoms brought out on the healthy, in intentional and accidental (toxicological) provings. Reliability, reproducibility and value of the symptoms of a remedy are rarely questioned or addressed, and much faith is commonly placed on the validity of the authors of our Materia Medica texts and Repertories. Concern with the quantity of information for a remedy is often reduced to a simple "polychrest" v/s "small remedy" dichotomy. Yet there are richer, more complex considerations for all these questions, which have distinct bearing on our ability to find the curative remedies for our patients.

Quantity of Information

The quantity of information available for our remedies varies widely. We commonly speak of the distinction between "polychrests" (a term Hahnemann used to describe "remedies of many uses,"1 and generally applied to the 20 or so best-known and commonly-used remedies) and "small remedies;" but in truth there is more of a continuum in the quantity of our knowledge between our "large" and "small" remedies.

Below is an analysis of the quantity of information we possess on the remedies that have been introduced to our practice. This graph was generated from the database for the Synthesis Repertory, using all remedies with at least 3 appearances in the repertory. The vertical axis represents the number of rubrics in Synthesis (full vers.8.0 in which a remedy is listed; the horizontal axis represents the rank-order of a remedy, from #1 (Sulphur, represented in 12,326 rubrics) to #1633 (any of 103 remedies listed in only 3 rubrics).

Remedies and Rubrics

There are several interesting pieces of information that one can walk away with from this analysis. One question often raised in discussion, is "How many remedies do we have?" - to which I would now have to reply, "How do you want to count?"

We have 1633 remedies listed in at least 3 rubrics; yet even brief reflection shows that this is not a reasonable number to quote for remedies that are useful to our art. For example, among these, we have remedies such as Jatropha urens (Cnidoscolus urens, "Brazilian Stinging Nut"), represented only in the three symptoms in the repertory:


CHEST - PARALYSIS ā€“ Heart (1/35)

GENERALS - DROPSY - external dropsy (1/244)

Which falls far short of defining a clear sphere of homeopathic usefulness for this plant.

We really would have to quantitatively break down our answer to the above question. We have 204 rather well-known remedies represented in at least 1000 rubrics; 328 in at least 400 rubrics; 457 in at least 200 rubrics; 621 in at least 100 rubrics; 803 in at least 50; etc. More than half of the 1633 remedies in the repertory appear in 50 rubrics or fewer. (Of course there are qualitative issues here as well - how reliable, and from what source, are these symptoms; these issues will be addressed in subsequent installments in this series).

Sections: 1 | 2

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1. Hahnemann, Materia Medica Pura; chapter on Pulsatilla "We can therefore unquestionably reckon it as a remedy of many uses (polychrest.)"