Nice to see as early as 1837 Charles Dickens doing his bit to comically debunk the efficacy of infinitesimal doses in medicine. Okay, he’s not quite talking about the bottles of total nothingness you can buy at the chemist and are an insult to reason today, but still interesting that similar ideas were an issue 175 years ago.
This passage from ‘The Mudfrog Pages‘, in the monthly magazine Bentley’s Miscellany, is a fictitious report from the first meeting of the ‘Mudfrog Society for the Advancement of Everything’, a satirical fun-poke at the recently founded British Association for the Advancement of Science :
” Professor Muff related a very extraordinary and convincing proof of the wonderful efficacy of the system of infinitesimal doses, which the section were doubtless aware was based upon the theory that the very minutest amount of any given drug, properly dispersed through the human frame, would be productive of precisely the same result as a very large dose administered in the usual manner. Thus, the fortieth part of a grain of calomel was supposed to be equal to a five-grain calomel pill, and so on in proportion throughout the whole range of medicine. He had tried the experiment in a curious manner upon a publican who had been brought into the hospital with a broken head, and was cured upon the infinitesimal system in the incredibly short space of three months. This man was a hard drinker. He (Professor Muff) had dispersed three drops of rum through a bucket of water, and requested the man to drink the whole. What was the result ? Before he had drunk a quart, he was in a state of beastly intoxication; and five other men were made dead drunk with the remainder. ” The President wished to know whether an infinitesimal dose of soda-water would have recovered them ? Professor Muff replied that the twenty-fifth part of a tea- spoonful, properly administered to each patient, would have sobered him immediately. The President remarked that this was a most important discovery, and he hoped the Lord Mayor and Court of Aldermen would patronize it immediately. ” A Member begged to be informed whether it would be possible to administer — say, the twentieth part of a grain of bread and cheese to all grown-up paupers, and the fortieth part to children, with the same satisfying effect as their present allowance. ” Professor Muff was willing to stake his professional reputation on the perfect adequacy of such a quantity of food to the support of human life — in workhouses; the addition of the fifteenth part of a grain of pudding twice a week would render it a high diet.”