The Largest Mass Overdose In History Harmed No One

By Alan Boyle on Wednesday, September 25, 2013
“I find the medicine worse than the malady.” —Beaumont and Fletcher, Love’s Cure

In A Nutshell

In early February 2011, over 1,500 people from around the globe took part in an organized overdose of homeopathic belladona. Homeopaths recommend belladonna for symptoms ranging from delirium and restless sleep to scarlet fever and epileptic spasms. The overdose campaign was organized by a skeptics’ society from the UK to demonstrate that homeopathy is ineffective and nonsensical. Homeopathic remedies are actually diluted to the point where no active ingredients remain—they are simply sugar pills or plain water—so they cannot have any biological effect. This dramatic demonstration included participants on every continent, including Antarctica.

The Whole Bushel

To understand the bizarre medical practice that is homeopathy, we need to go all the way back to 1796. At that time, medicine was still mostly based on the theory of the four humors, and treatment involved bloodletting and purging. Emptying your bodily fluids everywhere is not a good way to treat an illness—you’d be better off doing nothing. Enter German physician Samuel Hahnemann, who unwittingly concocted a way to do exactly that.

Hahnemann created (yes, as in “made up completely”) two laws. One said that a small amount of a substance can treat symptoms it would normally cause: Like cures like. The other law said the less of the substance you give to someone, the more effect it will have. So if you’re having trouble sleeping then you should take coffee, a substance that would normally wake you up, and dilute it and dilute it and dilute it some more, then repeat that dilution another half-dozen times. If you then drink the water you’ve just diluted all the coffee out of, it’ll make you fall asleep. It’s as ludicrous as it sounds—homeopaths dilute their remedies to the point that literally no single atom of the original ingredient remains.

Since mainstream doctors at the time were all busy sticking sharp objects into their patients, it allowed homeopathy, which involves drinking a bit of water (pretty attractive compared to the competition), to gain a foothold in Europe. By the time things like germ theory turned up, homeopathy was firmly entrenched. Now, centuries later, studies have shown over and over again that homeopathy simply does not work. Yet it has not gone away.

This takes us to the UK in January 2010. The National Health Service was spending millions of taxpayer pounds on homeopathy. Homeopathic remedies were being sold by the country’s largest pharmacy, Boots. And the Merseyside Skeptics Society from the northwest of England decided they wanted to make a dramatic point. They arranged for hundreds of people to gather together to swallow a full bottle each of homeopathic sleeping pills on January 30 of that year. You can see a video of one gathering here. Spoiler: No one fell asleep. If you’re curious, homeopathic pills are created by taking the water with nothing in it, splashing it on some plain sugar pills and . . . well, that’s it.

That event was a success. Later in the year, homeopathy was publicly blasted by a committee of MPs and described as “witchcraft” by the British Medical Association. The skeptics, on a roll, decided to follow up their 2010 overdose with an even bigger event. Over the course of the weekend of February 5–6, anti-homeopathy campaigners around the world gathered in over 70 cities to take a full bottle each of homeopathic pills. Spoiler again: Nothing happened to anyone.

You may think it’s a lot of wasted effort for something that does nothing at all. What’s the harm? Aside from the wasted resources, homeopaths are keen to offer their magical potions in place of genuine medicine or even vaccinations. Homeopathy is what it was when it was invented: a safe way of avoiding medical treatment. Of course, this has gone from being a good idea in the 18th century to a very, very bad one in the 21st.

Show Me The Proof

Homeopathy and Evidence-Based Medicine
The 10:23 Challenge 2011
Boots hit by mass homeopathy ‘overdose’