Homeopathy is a system of alternative medicine based on the principle that like cures like. This means that a substance that causes particular symptoms in a healthy person can be used to treat a sick person suffering from those symptoms. Remedies are made by diluting substances (mainly of plant, mineral and animal origin). This process is called ‘potentising’ because practitioners believe the potency of the remedy increases the more it is diluted. This eliminates toxicity – homeopaths say their medicines are the safest in the world. Remedies are prescribed in pill or liquid form.
Homeopathy was one of the earliest forms of alternative western medicine practised in New Zealand. Early homeopathic practitioners were usually qualified doctors. Dr William Purdie, who settled in Dunedin in 1849, was the first known homeopathic doctor to practise in the colony.
The medical practice of homeopathic doctor Carl Fischer received a significant boost in 1854 when he saved the life of an injured woman. Jane Graham, the wife of a prominent Auckland businessman and politician, was severely injured when the upper floor of a shop collapsed on top of her. Fischer revived her after a number of conventional doctors failed to, and she survived her experience. His efforts received a lot of favourable publicity in the newspapers and new patients flocked to his practice.
Homeopathy was popular in the 19th century. Patients preferred its gentle remedies and treatments to the often unpleasant and dangerous options offered by conventional practitioners. Partly because of the challenge it posed for them, homeopathy was condemned as quackery by the conventional medical profession.
Though homeopathy became less popular as conventional medicine became dominant in the early 20th century, its resurgence in the late 20th century (along with other alternative therapies) made it the subject of renewed criticism. Critics argue that homeopathy is not scientifically verifiable and no more effective than a placebo. A 2015 review of 225 research papers led the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council to conclude that 'there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective.'1 Homeopaths respond that remedies have been carefully proved and patient outcomes show they are effective. Some general practitioners use homeopathy in conjunction with conventional medicine.
Homeopathy is unregulated. The New Zealand Council of Homeopaths has represented the profession since 2009 and had 178 members in 2018. There were four manufacturing homeopathic pharmacies and four colleges in New Zealand. The 2006/07 New Zealand Health Survey found that of the 18% of respondents who had used alternative health care in the previous 12 months, one in four saw a homeopath or naturopath.
Naturopathy is an umbrella therapy – practitioners use herbal medicines, vitamins and minerals, homeopathy, aromatherapy, massage, and other natural products and therapies to help the body heal itself. Naturopaths are also concerned with diet and nutrition.
Herbal medicine in particular was an important form of health care in the 19th century. Traditional Māori communities used plants to heal, and Pākehā settlers brought herbal medicines from Europe.
Many native New Zealand plants were and are used medicinally by Māori, and some were adopted by Pākehā. Koromiko is used to treat dysentery and was listed as a remedy for diarrhoea in a British pharmacopoeia (a pharmaceutical encyclopedia) in 1895. Dried koromiko leaves were sent to Māori troops stationed in North Africa during the Second World War.
Catholic nun Suzanne Aubert was one of the best-known 19th-century practitioners. She based her remedies on native plants and used them to treat Māori patients. Aubert’s remedies were sold commercially in the 1890s. Another prominent later practitioner was Dr Ulric Williams, a conventional doctor turned naturopath. He treated patients at his Whanganui clinic for a number of decades from the 1930s. Williams emphasised nutrition and healthy living rather than herbal medicines.
Some practitioners were controversial. Indian-born herbalist Abraham Salaman, who emigrated to New Zealand in 1903, spent time in jail after two patients died, but his treatment was endorsed by many satisfied clients.
Naturopathy is unregulated. Naturopaths are represented by the Naturopaths and Medical Herbalists of New Zealand. There are four colleges of naturopathy in New Zealand.
Rongoā is traditional Māori medicine that was passed on through word of mouth before European contact. Tohunga ahurewa (priests) were often responsible for rongoā, especially its spiritual aspects, and sickness was sometimes seen as an outcome of disharmony with nature. Plants such as kawakawa (pepper tree), harakeke (flax), rata, koromiko, rimu, kōwhai and mānuka were often used for mate tangata – human illnesses rather than spiritual afflictions.
In the early 21st century there was renewed interest in rongoā. Rongoā healers typically use plant-based remedies and include a spiritual element in their practice. Massage and manipulation are also used. Māori are most likely to use rongoā for unusual illnesses or when western medicine has failed.
Ngā Ringa Whakahaere o te Iwi Māori, a national body of Māori healers, was set up in 1993. It represents a range of practitioners. Some rongoā practitioners work in mainstream or alternative health clinics that provide a range of medical interventions. Others operate independently.