Over this past summer, I spent about two weeks on a research trip in Washington D.C. I decided to take my teenage son along, figuring this might be the last time he ever willingly goes on a trip with his mother. I tried to make it fun. Every day after I finished up my research at the Library of Congress, we explored the city. We had lunch at Shake Shack, took our picture in front of the White House, toured the Air and Space Museum, and visited the Hahnemann Memorial. You know, the normal D.C. tourist stuff.
Wait — you’ve never heard of the Hahnemann Memorial? That’s okay, neither had my son. But at this point, he is used to me dragging him to obscure historical sites. In typical teenage fashion, when I told him I wanted to visit a memorial dedicated to the founder of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann, he just rolled his eyes and went with it.
Because I am a historian of medicine, tracking down one of the most controversial medical memorials in our nation’s capital was obviously high on my to-do list. It’s not an easy memorial to find, either. Just east of Scott Circle, the memorial is basically in the middle of a busy intersection, and nowhere near the National Mall.
So one hot and sticky August afternoon, my son and I hiked all the way out to Scott Circle in search of Hahnemann. When we finally found him, not even the miserable D.C. weather could suppress my excitement. The Hahnemann Memorial is actually a beautiful piece of public art.
Designed in the Classical Revival style by architect Julius Harder and sculpted by Charles Henry Niehaus, the memorial is a larger than life tribute to the German physician who invented a whole new (and problematic) system of medicine. Regardless of my serious qualms with modern homeopathy, I was truly impressed with the majesty of the piece. My son, not so much.
While the Hahnemann Monument is indeed an attractive piece of art, we can’t and shouldn’t ignore the backstory of how a memorial to homeopathy ended up in our nation’s capital. All memorials are political projects. The story of the Hahnemann Memorial is an example of how groups often use public commemoration as a means to gain legitimacy for their cause.
In 1881, at the annual meeting of the Homeopathic Medical Society, physician James H. McClelland first proposed a memorial to Samuel Hahnemann. It wasn’t until 10 years later that fundraising for the project began in earnest. Homeopathic organizations across the country began raising money to build the memorial. In fact, I first came across the memorial while looking through an 1898 edition of The Critique, a homeopathic medical journal based in Colorado.
Fundraising efforts like the one above ultimately managed to raise over $75,000 for the construction and installation of the memorial, but actually getting federal permission to install the monument in Washington D.C. proved an almost herculean task. The biggest roadblock facing the homeopaths was the teeny, tiny fact that Hahnemann was not an American, nor had he ever even visited the United States. Up until that point, only famous foreigners associated with the American Revolution had been memorialized in D.C.
Undeterred by that small detail, homeopathic physicians and their influential supporters lobbied Congress, President Grover Cleveland, and later, President William McKinley to get the memorial installed in the nation’s capital. After years of fundraising and lobbying efforts, homeopaths finally got their Hahnemann when Congress approved the memorial on January 31, 1900. Believe it or not, the dedication ceremony in June of that same year was a big deal. Thousands of people attended the event, including President McKinley and his wife, Ida, both of whom were ardent supporters of homeopathy. Following the ceremony, McKinley even held a reception in the White House for over 1,000 supporters of homeopathy.1
It turns out that the Hahnemann Memorial, in the short term anyway, accomplished the goal that homeopaths sought ever since the practice crossed the pond in the 1820s: the goal of legitimacy. As I have written previously, thousands of Americans turned to homeopathy beginning in the mid-nineteenth century because it was perceived as a much more holistic and gentle approach than “regular” medicine of the period, which often relied on purging, bloodletting, and dangerous drugs. By the turn of the century, however, homeopathy was in danger of disappearing. The advent and acceptance of germ theory, combined with the AMA’s campaign to first discredit then absorb homeopathic practitioners, led to the downfall of the practice in legitimate medical circles by the end of the 1920s. The fundraising rhetoric found in various medical journals offers evidence of how homeopathic organizations believed that by getting federal recognition through a memorial in the nation’s capital, Hahnemann’s reputation, and by extension the reputation of homeopathy, would be solidified in American history. Perhaps they imagined that a permanent memorial would give homeopathy itself some sense of permanency.
We should keep in mind that that the Hahnemann Memorial is about more than a German physician; its advocates sought federal validation of an alternative medical practice. But let’s be honest: all memorials are about more than memorializing. They are political projects meant to lend legitimacy to ideas. We can point to several other examples in American history. The Washington Monument is about more than honoring the first President of the United States; Republicans fought against the memorial for years for fear of installing a permanent symbol of Federalism in the nation’s capital. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is about more than commemorating an individual man; Civil Rights leaders wanted a visible symbol and federal acknowledgment of the larger movement that King embodies. And, of course, the hundreds of Confederate memorials that dot the landscape of the United States are about more than simply remembering fallen soldiers; they are also deliberate shrines to a state-sanctioned system of racial enslavement.
Obviously it’s a huge stretch to connect an obscure memorial of a German physician to the recent movement to reevaluate the place of Confederate memorials in public spaces, but that’s exactly what I was thinking about as my son and I stood in Scott Circle that hot August day staring at the bronze statue of Hahnemann. Monuments may seem static, uncomplicated, and quiet, but they bring to mind the very notion of what history is: change over time. Remembering the political motivations behind our nation’s memorials – and how our ideals, values, and beliefs have transformed– provides important historical context to contemporary debates.
- Eve L. Barsoum, “National Register of Historic Places, Nomination Form – Samuel Hahnemann Monument.” (National Park Service, April 2003). Return to text.