Consumers in the 19th century purchased homeopathic cure-alls for toothaches and more.

Someone with a toothache in the 19th century might have been tempted to pop a few Number 8 pills from a personal Humphrey’s Homeopathic Specifics (shown) case in their home. Even highly-educated people, including American author Louisa May Alcott, were among the many consumers who purchased one. But popularity of homeopathic treatments for toothaches did not make them effective. Who did 19th century homeopathic cure-alls for toothaches and other ailments help? Homeopathic cure-alls in that era delivered monetary success for their marketers, such as Dr. Frederick Humphreys.

An ad for Humphrey Homeopathic Manual, 1884, Courtesy of U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Humphrey Homeopathic Manual, 1884, Courtesy of U.S. National Library of Medicine

Plenty of people got rich practicing homeopathic medicine in the 19th century.

One of those was Dr. Fredrick Humphreys, the founder of Humphreys Homeopathic Medicine Company in New York City in 1854. Enormous sales of Humphreys “Homeopathic Specifics” made him a very rich man. He marketed his “Specifics”, as he called them, to the average American householder. The various numbered pills were sold in cases of different sizes, with the most expensive containing 35 vials in a solid walnut case. The cases featured a book of instructions for taking the numbered prescriptions. Differently numbered vials were taken for curing different ills. Number 8 was a treatment for a toothache and Number 29 for a sore mouth. Some instructions called for mixing several numbered pills together to cure specific illnesses.

When she went to serve as a nurse at the Union Hotel Hospital in Washington D.C. in 1862, Louisa May Alcott, had herHumphrey’s Homeopathic Specifics in tow.

Dr. Humphreys died in 1900 and the last school in the U.S. exclusively teaching homeopathy closed in 1920. Despite a revival in the 1970s, homeopathic medicine and the practice of homeopathy has been discounted and the therapeutic claims of homeopathy have been shown to lack scientific justification.

Obituary for Dr. Frederick Humphreys courtesy of The New York Times.
Obituary for Dr. Frederick Humphreys courtesy of The New York Times.

Who gave homeopathic medicine its start?

Homeopathy, a disputed alternative medicine, was conceived in 1796 by a German physician named Samuel Hahnemann, according to the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. He “discovered” it while translating a medical treatise. Skeptical of a Scottish doctor’s theory in the treatise that because it was bitter, cinchona cured malaria, Hahnemann ate some of the cinchona bark to see what would happen. He experienced fever, shivering and joint pain, the same symptoms as malaria. He came up with the theory that all effective drugs produce symptoms in healthy people like those of the diseases they treat. This doctrine is known as “like cures like”.

Homeopathy gained popularity in the 19th century.

Homeopathic medicine was introduced to the United States in 1825 by a student of Hahnemann. Because medical practice of that time relied on treatments which were often ineffective and harmful, patients of homeopaths often experienced better outcomes than those being treated by medical practitioners. Homeopathic remedies relied on the “medicine” being heavily diluted, so they were rarely detrimental to patients, even if they were ineffective. Compared to the other medicines and medical practices available during the 19th century, it’s no wonder that homeopathy became so popular that there were many schools devoted to the teaching of its practices into the early part of the 20th century.

What’s one lesson to be learned from 19th century homeopathic treatments for toothaches?

Dental treatment has come a long way since Humphrey’s Homeopathic Specifics Number 8 or Number 29, to say the least.

Today, Humphreys no long sells its “Specifics”, but still offers Humphreys Witch Hazel Oil.

Humphreys Witch Hazel Oil