On Idiosyncracy, Provings and Campbell’s soup.

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On Idiosyncracy, provings and Campbell’s soup.

I was working with a nutritionist a long time ago, and our conversation turned to a recent scandal about food-poisoning from Campbell’s soup. There had been an uproar at the time, and the company countered with a statement that the risk was only one in ten thousand. “That’s all very well,” countered the nutritionist, “but it doesn’t help if you’re the one…”

(This story is an imprecisely remembered anecdote, but a cursory search of “food-poisoning Cambell’s soup” raised enough search results to make it clear that food poisoning remains an issue for the company to this day…)

I found myself thinking of the nutritionist while looking through Hahnemann’s words on carrying out provings.  In Hahnemann’s provings, very often the provers mentioned were proving masters, and the remedies were proved by many others under their supervision, but the exact number of provers is not always clear without further research.  Do provings have to be carried out by large numbers of people to get a picture of what a remedy can do?  And is enough to have symptoms from just one highly sensitive, self-aware and trustworthy individual? The answer appears to be yes…and no.

Aphorism 116:

Some symptoms are produced by the medicines more frequently – that is to say, in many individuals, others more rarely or in few persons, some only in very few healthy bodies.

It is important to note that the healthier a person is, the more he is likely to produce symptoms, as the vital force immediately recognizes the substance being proved as alien and unwanted, and responds more strongly to its influence. This is much like the way in which a person who has never been exposed to loud music will respond much more strongly than one who listens to eardrum shattering decibels through headphones on a daily basis. Or the way in which a healthy non-smoker responds to tobacco smoke, or to that first cigarette.

In Aphorism 117, Hahnemann goes on to talk about the idiosyncracies in provings, whereby a substance may only make an impression on a few of the provers, and many other individuals experience no change. He talks of the two elements involved in producing symptoms – namely “the inherent power of the influencing substance, and the capability of the vital force…to be influenced by it.”

But even if only a few individuals were influenced by the substance, Hahnemann states that the substances themselves have “the power of making the same impressions on all human bodies, yet in such a manner that but a small number of healthy constitutions have a tendency to allow themselves to be brought into such an obvious morbid condition by them. That these agents do actually make this impression on every healthy body is shown by this, that when employed as remedies they render effectual homoeopathic service to all sick persons for morbid symptoms similar to those they seem to be only capable of producing in so-called idiosyncratic individuals.”

So is one prover enough? Can the idiosyncratic symptom reports of one prover constitute a reliable proving materia medica of a medicinal substance?

Clearly not. In Aphorism 134, Hahnemann avers that “all the symptoms peculiar to a medicine do not appear in one person, nor all at once, nor in the same experiment. ” In Aphorism 135 he states further requirements: “numerous observations on suitable persons of both sexes and of various constitutions”. By my count, that means at least two provers are required…

Aphorism 135 sets out the guidelines for how often a proving should be repeated, stating that certainty regarding the information acquired by the proving is only achieved “when subsequent experimenters can notice little of a novel character from its action, and almost always only the same symptoms as had been already observed by others.”

So symptoms gained from one individual are important, as the substance has the potential to cause these substance symptoms in others, and therefore has the potential to heal such symptoms when they show up in a disease picture. However, the range of a proving cannot be known from one very sensitive healthy person only, and therefore provings must include people of different genders and constitutions.

Hahnemann himself sums up the issue in Aphorism 136 which I’ll quote here in full:

“Although, as has been said, a medicine, on being proved on healthy subjects, cannot develop in one person all the alterations of health it is capable of causing, but can only do this when given to many different individuals, varying in their corporeal and mental constitution, yet the tendency to excite all these symptoms in every human being exists in it (Aphorism 117), according to an eternal and immutable law of nature, by virtue of which all its effects, even those that are but rarely developed in the healthy person, are brought into operation in the case of every individual if administered to him when he is in a morbid state presenting similar symptoms; it then, even in the smallest dose, being homoeopathically selected, silently produces in the patient an artificial state closely resembling the natural disease, which rapidly and permanently (homoeopathically) frees and cures him of his original malady.”

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