Allopathic medicine is an expression commonly used by homeopaths and proponents of other forms of alternative medicine to refer to mainstream medical use of pharmacologically active agents or physical interventions to treat or suppress symptoms or pathophysiologic processes of diseases or conditions. The expression was coined in 1810 by the creator of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann (1755–1843).
Never accepted as a mainstream scientific term, it was adopted by alternative medicine advocates to refer pejoratively to mainstream medicine. In such circles, the expression “allopathic medicine” is still used to refer to “the broad category of medical practice that is sometimes called Western medicine, biomedicine, evidence-based medicine, or modern medicine”.
Allopathic medicine and allopathy (from the Greek prefix ἄλλος, állos, “other”, “different” + the suffix πάϑος, páthos, “suffering”) are terms coined in the early 19th century by Samuel Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy, as a synonym for mainstream medicine.
The practice of medicine in both Europe and North America during the early 19th century is sometimes referred to as heroic medicine because of the extreme measures (such as bloodletting) sometimes employed in an effort to treat diseases. The term allopath was used by Hahnemann and other early homeopaths to highlight the difference they perceived between homeopathy and the medicine of that time.
With the term allopathy (meaning “other than the disease”), Hahnemann intended to point out how physicians with conventional training employed therapeutic approaches that, in his view, merely treated symptoms and failed to address the disharmony produced by the underlying disease. Homeopaths saw such symptomatic treatments as “opposites treating opposites” and believed these conventional methods were harmful to patients.
Practitioners of alternative medicine have used the term “allopathic medicine” to refer to the practice of conventional medicine in both Europe and the United States since the 19th century. The term allopathic was used throughout the 19th century as a derogatory term for the practitioners of heroic medicine, a precursor to modern medicine that did not rely on evidence.
James Whorton discusses this historical pejorative usage:
One form of verbal warfare used in retaliation by irregulars was the word “allopathy.” …”Allopathy” and “allopathic” were liberally employed as pejoratives by all irregular physicians of the nineteenth century, and the terms were considered highly offensive by those at whom they were directed. The generally uncomplaining acceptance of [the term] “allopathic medicine” by today’s physicians is an indication of both a lack of awareness of the term’s historical use and the recent thawing of relations between irregulars and allopaths.
Hahnemann used allopathy to refer to what he saw as a system of medicine that combats disease by using remedies that produce effects in a healthy subject that are different (hence Greek root allo- “different”) from the effects produced by the disease to be treated. The distinction comes from the use in homeopathy of substances that cause similar effects as the symptoms of a disease to treat patients (homeo – meaning similar).
As used by homeopaths, the term allopathy has always referred to the principle of curing disease by administering substances that produce other symptoms (when given to a healthy human) than the symptoms produced by a disease. For example, part of an allopathic treatment for fever may include the use of a drug which reduces the fever, while also including a drug (such as an antibiotic) that attacks the cause of the fever (such as a bacterial infection). A homeopathic treatment for fever, by contrast, is one that uses a diluted and succussed dosage of a substance that in an undiluted and unsuccussed form would induce fever in a healthy person. Hahnemann used this term to distinguish medicine as practiced in his time from his use of infinitesimally small doses of substances to treat the spiritual causes of illness.
The Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine states that “Hahnemann gave an all-embracing name to regular practice, calling it ‘allopathy’. This term, however imprecise, was employed by his followers or other unorthodox movements to identify the prevailing methods as constituting nothing more than a competing ‘school’ of medicine, however dominant in terms of number of practitioner proponents and patients.” In the nineteenth century, some pharmacies labeled their products with the terms allopathic or homeopathic.
Contrary to the present usage, Hahnemann reserved the term of “allopathic” medicine to the practice of treating diseases by means of drugs inducing symptoms unrelated (i.e. neither similar nor opposite) to those of the disease. He called instead “enantiopathic” or “antipathic” the practice of treating diseases by means of drugs producing symptoms opposite to those of the patient. After Hahnemann’s death the term “enantiopathy” fell in disuse and the two concepts of allopathy and enantiopathy have been more or less unified. Both, however, indicate what Hahnemann thought about contemporary conventional medicine, rather than the current ideas of his colleagues. Conventional physicians had never assumed that the therapeutic effects of drugs were necessarily related to the symptoms they caused in the healthy: e.g. James Lind in 1747 systematically tested several common substances and foods for their effect on scurvy and discovered that lemon juice was specifically active; he clearly did not select lemon juice because it caused symptoms in the healthy man, either similar or opposite to those of scurvy.
Use of the term remains common among homeopaths, and has spread to other alternative medicine practices. The meaning implied by the label has never been accepted by conventional medicine, and is still considered pejorative by some. More recently, some sources have used the term allopathic, particularly American sources wishing to distinguish between Doctors of Medicine (MD) and Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) in the United States. William Jarvis, an expert on alternative medicine and public health, states that “although many modern therapies can be construed to conform to an allopathic rationale (e.g., using a laxative to relieve constipation), standard medicine has never paid allegiance to an allopathic principle” and that the label “allopath” was “considered highly derisive by regular medicine.”
However, many conventional medical treatments do not fit this definition of allopathy, as they seek to prevent illness, or remove the cause of an illness by acting on the etiology of disease.