Dr Muhammed Rafeeque
We are familiar with the ancient doctrine of signature right from the beginning of our homeopathic education. Irrespective of our attitude towards this concept, we compare the signature aspects of certain drugs while dealing with Materia medica.
The doctrine of signature is actually an old concept found in many European civilizations and later on accepted by various schools of medicine. People had altogether different attitudes towards this concept. Initially it was well accepted by the proponents of many schools, but later on discarded by calling it as a kind of coincidence or a fake science. Presently, there are at least a few doctors who accept the ancient doctrine of signature. On the other hand, there is a vast majority including many homeopaths that consider the doctrine of signature as fallacious. Nevertheless, many including the critics of this concept at least mention the signature aspects of certain drug sources while dealing with Materia Medica. Since in the present era it is discussed only in Homoeopathy, many say that now this doctrine is accepted only by homeopaths, and often they exploit this misconception as a weapon to criticize homeopathy.
Before we go in to the pros and cones of this concept, let me shed light on the literal meaning of ‘doctrine of signature’. The word signature is said to be a duplet, which has been derived from two words sign and nature, meaning signs of nature. We know that the doctrine is a belief that is accepted as authoritative by a particular group or school of thought. In simple terms ‘doctrine of signature’ is a belief on various signs of nature.
This doctrine proposed that parts of plants having a resemblance to any part of the human body is having a therapeutic relationship and the same plant or its parts can be used for diseases of the particular organ. They also believed that such relationship also exists between the environment and specific places where plants grew. As per these concepts, God has provided unique healing powers to most of the living and non-living things and left a hint for us to distinguish the sphere of action of each substance. In other words, the unique external feature of a plant or a substance is an indication of the purpose of creation of that particular substance. It often seems funny but this concept has introduced many drugs in to the field of therapeutics of different schools.
Jakob Bohme: The history of doctrine of signature goes back to Jakob Bohme, a master shoemaker in Germany (1575- 1624) who had a profound mystical vision on the relationship between God and his creations. This prophetic vision induced him to write on the signature of things created by God. His philosophical work Signature Rerum (signature of all things) became very popular and later on it was adapted in to the field of medicine. This doctrine states “by observation, one can determine from the color of the flowers or roots, the shapes of leaves, the places of growing, or other signatures what the plant’s purpose was in God plan”. (5)
Paracelsus Von Hohenheim (1493- 1541) a Swiss physician was also a famous proponent of the doctrine of signature and he created an alternative model and generated a mind-body medicine. He introduced treatments of particular illnesses based on his observation and experience. He also advocated the relation between the drug source and drug symptoms. According to him, disease or morbid states should be called by the names of their remedies. The doctrine of signature was given renewed thrust in his writings and continued to be embraced until the 17th century. His law of signature is an application of medicine on the basis of similarity of anatomical structures, colors and smell between the plants and the human body. Paracelsus also proposed the concepts such as similar cures the similar, scorpion cures scorpion, mercury cures mercury, etc. (5)
William Coles:(1626- 1662)
William Coles, a botanist and herbalist found that walnuts were good for treating head ailments because of its head like shape. Similarly, the little holes in the leaves of hypericum resembles the skin, which is a hint for its use in all sorts injuries affecting the skin. (8)
Some old examples of doctrine of signatures: Those plants, which agreed the doctrine of signature, still carry the word root “wort” an Anglo-Saxon word (means plant) along with their modern name.
Some examples are:
- Mandrake plant (similar to a child): Hence useful for sterility.
- Spleen wort (similar to spleen): Hence useful for disorders of spleen
- Louse wort (similar to lice): Hence useful in repelling lice.
- Tooth wort (similar to teeth): Hence useful for tooth complaints.
- Liver wort: (similar to liver): Hence useful for liver disorders.
Influence of doctrine of signature on Homoeopathy:
The influence of the doctrine of signature on Homoeopathy is a debatable topic since some skeptics consider it as a forerunner of the Similia principle. It has been claimed that the library where Hahnmann was employed at Hermannstadt contained historical works, including those of Paracelsus, and few people say that, it was those works of Paracelsus, which planted the seed of Homoeopathy in Hahnemann’s mind. But to support this speculation, so far, no one has given any kind of solid evidences (5). However, this point was utilized maximum by Hahnemanns’ opponents in those days. They went even up to the extent by saying that Hahnemann took the whole Homoeopathy from Paracelsus. (Hahnemanns letter to Boenninhhausen)
Some people still consider Paracelsus and Halle (Swedish physician) as forerunners of Hahnemann as they also did experiments to discover the nature of certain remedies. However, their attempts were not coordinated and could make little impression upon the medical world. Later, it was Hahnemann who discovered the fundamental cause behind the diseases and the most suitable way to eradicate the disease using a dynamic form of medicine selected on the basis of similarity. But the similarity proposed by Hahnemann was totally different from that of Paracelsus. Unlike Paracelsus and others, Hahnemann followed pure experimentation, exact observation, correct interpretation and finally the scientific construction, which resulted in the discovery of Homoeopathy. The cardinal principles of Homoeopathy can be proved even today by proper administration of medicines.
Some examples of doctrine of signatures among Homoeopathic drugs:
- Pulsatilla– Movement of flowers–Changability of pulsatilla patient.
- Lachesis– Snake is restless suspicious & protrude tongue– Patient is also same.
- Chelidinium– Yellow juice– Useful for jaundice.
- Calcarea carb– Hard shell to protect the soft body– Patient is soft and needs protection.
- Sanguinaria– Red color– Useful for bleeding.
- Cockroach– Lives in cracks, crevices, damp places– Useful for asthma of people living in damp basements and cellars.
- Digitalis– Blood colored dots on petals– Given for disorders of blood vessels.
- Euphrasia– Black spot in corolla looks like a pupil– Useful for eye complaints.
- Belladonna– Grows in soil rich in calcium carbonate– Hence calc carb is complimentary to belladonna.
- Tarentula hispania– Spiders comes out when drums are beaten– Given for patients who are sensitive to music.
- Hypericum– Has red juice– Used in hemorrhages.
- Bryonia– Root is fleshy, yellowish white, rough with a bitter taste– Patient is also fleshy with yellow white colored tongue, rough irritating temperament and has bitter taste.
Pioneers on doctrine of signature:
Hahnemann- (1745- 1843)
Hahnemann was strongly against this concept because of his aversion to all sorts of speculations. In the 110th aphorism he denounced the doctrine of signature and mixture prescription. He had an intension that in future people should not liberally speculate on this basis. In the 110th aphorism he says.
“……….and that the only possible way to ascertain their medicinal powers is to observe those changes of health medicines are capable of producing in the healthy organism; for the pure, peculiar powers of medicines available for the cure of disease are to be learned neither by any ingenious a priori speculations, nor by the smell, taste or appearance of the drugs, nor by their chemical analysis, nor yet by the employment of several of them at one time in a mixture (prescription) in diseases;….” (4)
C M Boger:
(1861- 1935) He says in his work Philosophy of healing, “The doctrine of signatures has been derided and said to rest upon pure fancy; but I know of no accidents in nature and everything has an adequate cause, hence we should not be too ready to attribute such things to mere coincidence. Such correspondences are too numerous as well as much too striking to be lightly passed over. It seems rather a case of not knowing just what they mean or what the real connection is”. (2)
H A Robert:
H A Robert says in his work on Homoeopathic philosophy
“Various doctrines of healing sprang up through the years; perhaps the most interesting of these was the doctrine of signatures, founded on the belief that each member of the vegetable kingdom carried within itself the likeness of some organ or part of the human economy, as a sign that this particular plant was applicable to disturbances of that organ. That was probably the most consistent method among all the very ancient systems of applying drugs”. (1)
J C Burnett: (1840-1901)
Dr J C Burnett had a supporting attitude towards this doctrine. He writes in his work on diseases of liver “The interaction of the human organism with its environment has generally been recognized in every age according to the views current at the time, the relations of the microcosm to the macrocosm used to be a big chapter in medical doctrine. The old doctrine of signatures is laughed at by almost all physicians, inclusive of the homoeopaths, and yet it is not without considerable foundation in fact; and, indeed, facts in great numbers may be drawn from homoeopathic literature in support of its real practical value. It has often helped me and I have long since ceased to ridicule it. Of course, it can easily be turned upside down and made to look silly, but still there it is and in the long run will most certainly be justified by science. I am very certain Hahnemann believed in it for it is manifest that he drew very numerous indications from it for his remedies. That Constantine Hering also believed in it seems pretty certain, and Hering knew his Hohenheim, of whose works he made a splendid collection. Von Grauvogl, too, shows that he was not uninfluenced by it.
Rademacher ever made merry over it, and yet many of his remedies came into use through it, Chelidonium to wit. Von Grauvogl years ago recommended Pulmones vulpecularum in asthma and I have followed his recommendation with advantage, he was laughed at a good deal at the time, but now science comes along and puts a stop to the ridicule so long cast upon Paracelsic organ feeding”. (3)
There are number of critical reviews against doctrine of signature. Some note worthy points are mentioned here.
1.The body of oyster is soft and needs protection from the hard shell. As per the doctrine of signature, the same mentality of Calc carb patient is expressed here. In Homoeopathy, the medicine is prepared from the middle layer of hard shell; hence patient should be hard instead of soft. If the medicine was prepared from the soft body then the comparison as per doctrine of signature would be appropriate.
2.“Chelidonium is good for jaundice because of its yellow juice”, what about other plants that are having yellow juice, why they don’t act on liver? (7)
3. “Lachesis snake protrudes tongue frequently which is an indication for its use in protrusion of tongue in a patient”. Drugs for snake like protrusion of tongue are: – absin, crot.h, cupr, cupr.act, elaps, lach, lyc, merc, sanic, vip. Here, we can find a signature relationship only with drugs belonging to Ophidia group. What about other drugs indicated for the same condition?
4.“Pulsatilla flowers yield to wind, hence patient also having yielding disposition”, what about other flowers that yield to wind?
5.Those who support this doctrine highlight only few relations that are suited to their concept, but the features that are not matching are not expressed. (10)
Without any doubt we can conclude that it will be a waste of time to search medicines on the line of signatures, since each and every feature of a plant would not be matching with their medicinal properties. Above all, the scientific way of ascertaining the medicinal properties of any substance is drug proving by which we get the total drug picture and it can be applied to a diseased individual on the basis of similarity. The similarity in homeopathy is totally different from that of the doctrine of signature as the former can be proved and re-proved even today.
Instead of coming to a final conclusion whether there is any scientific backing behind the doctrine of signature or is it just a superstitious belief, better we assess how it was helpful and how it can be helpful in future. Undoubtedly, we can say that this concept helped us to introduce many drug substances in to the field of therapeutics. Apart from that, it helps to study Materia medica in a literal style and to compare and remember some symptoms thereby making the subject more interesting. It is now clear that the doctrine of signature helps us for the study of materia medica and not for the practical application of materia medica. As we know that there is no short cut in medicine, drugs selected on the basis of similarity with the totality of the case is the only way to cure.
Dr Muhammed Rafeeque
Family homoeopathic clinic
N. Paravur Kerala India- 683520
- Principle an art of cure by homeopathy: H A Robert. (B Jain, new Delhi)
- Studies in the philosophy of healing: C M Boger (B Jain, new Delhi)
- Diseases of liver: J C Burnett (B Jain, New Delhi)
- Organon of medicine: Hahnemann (B Jain, New Delhi)
- Homoeo times, chennai.