Killed by Homeopathy

The mathematician, philosopher and logician George Boole died on the 8th December 1864. What most people don’t realise is that he was in all probability killed by homeopathy.


Georg Boole c. 1860 Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1849 Boole, a self-taught mathematician and school master, was appointed Professor of Mathematics at the newly founded Queen’s College Cork and it was here in 1850 that he first met Mary Everest, niece of the military surveyor Colonel George Everest after whom the mountain is named, who was visiting another of her uncles, John Ryall who was Professor of Greek at Cork.  The family name, by the way, is pronounced Eve – rest and not Ever – rest. From 1852 on George became Mary’s maths tutor and when her father died in 1855 the two of them married. Despite a fairly large difference in age it was a happy marriage that produced five rather special daughters, who I might blog about another time.


Mary Everest Boole Source: Wikimedia Commons

Mary Everest Boole was a highly intelligent woman who after the death of her husband, she lived for another 52 years, would go on to become a noted educationalist who today is something of a feminist icon. She had, however, at least one fatal flaw. Mary’s father had been a devoted disciple of Samuel Hahnemann and she spent a large part of her childhood living in Hahnemann’s house in France where she too became an adherent of his medical philosophy.


Samuel Hahnemann

The Boole’s lived outside of Cork and one day when walking home from work George got drenched in a downpour and developed a chill. Mary following Hahnemann’s guiding principle that “like cures like” wrapped her ailing husband in wet bed sheets. George developed pneumonia and died. This story is not based on hearsay or a popular myth but the written testimony of one of their daughters who never forgave her mother for having, in her opinion, killed her father.

The next time somebody tells you that homeopathy is harmless you can tell them that it killed one of the greatest mathematical minds of the nineteenth century on whose algebraic logic both the soft- and the hardware of your computer function.


Filed under History of Logic, History of Mathematics, History of science

88 responses to “Killed by Homeopathy

  1. Pingback: Killed by Homeopathy | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Darwin was another sucker who went for a cold water “cure”. In his case it seems to have been merely very unpleasant rather than fatal.

  3. Have you seen the this comedy sketch on homeopathy.

    Kinda summaries the situation pretty well.

  4. Jeb

    But hydrotherapy also explained the racial superiority of the Northern nations (physically more superior due to cold climate resulting in us winning lots of wars against those from hot climates as history demonstrated) and it also illustrated why christian religion was very very bad “and perhaps for that very reason were neglected by the bigots of an antinatural creed. The self-torturing monks gloried in filth ”

    So it must be true.

    Or cultural warrior (or early 20th cen. bigot) Brenner McFadden seemed to think so ( B. Mc. died of an infection after refusing medical treatment).

  5. Jeb

    A spoonful of sugar helps pseudo science become more palatable.

  6. I was fascinated by this article. You may be interested in my forthcoming book, The Water Doctor’s Daughters, due to be published by Robert Hale next February. It tells the story of Dr James Loftus Marsden, homeopathist and water-cure practitioner of Malvern. Two of his daughters died in 1853, partly due to his extreme views. The girls had been playmates of the young Darwins.

  7. Michael Boswell

    Thanks …. Printing it and putting it on my facebook page.

  8. Pingback: A Mathematician Killed by Homeopathy | My Daily Feeds

  9. Wet blanket is not homeopathy!!!

  10. Petrakeas

    What you describe is not hemeopathy… Educate yourself first..

    • I suggest that you and J.Smith actually read what I have written and then comment!

      BTW I fairly sure that Mary Everest having lived in Hahnemann’s house for several years had a better understanding of the principles of homeopathy than either of you.

      • Petrakeas

        It so happens that I have read a book about homeopaty and Hahnemann’s principles and this is by no meas homeopaty just because it “appears” that the first principle is true.
        Homeopaty is not so simple as 3 rules and of course the result depends on how it is practiced. Nowadays, homeopathy is (best) practiced by doctors who have an actual medical degree and a post grduate degree on homeopathy.
        Moreover, homeopathy at Hahnemann’s day was quite different that it is today. Early drugs were actualy true posion (nowadys this is not the case, but it’s complicated). Back in the day people even died form blood transfusion because they didn’t know about blood types. So it’s not fair to state that homeopathy can kill a person.
        Think about the thousand of people that die from convetional medicine because of their strong chemical nature.. Of course no system is perfect.. TRUE homeopathy can act complementary to conventional medicine depending on the problem.

        You can beleive whatever you want, but this post my no means proves anything about homeopathy. It’s actually quite misleading.

      • It so happens that I have read a book about homeopaty and Hahnemann’s principles…

        No shit!

    • Harvey

      You’re “educated” about it, and you can’t even spell it?

  11. Robin

    Pneumonia does not come from temperature or wetness, and they do not affect the outcome. It’s bacteria. You might want to make sure you are on the side of science before laughing at those who aren’t.

    • He died of a chest infection whether it was actually bacterial pneumonia is irrelevant

      • Robin

        What is relevant is you don’t get any form of chest infection from a walk in the rain, and wet sheets don’t cause you to die from it. I think that invalidates your example here.

      • If you are carrying an infection, and we do, lots of them, getting drenched in the middle of winter can reduce your body’s natural defences enough to allow the infection to break out. If the body is then kept cold and wet the infection will eventually become acute and possibly, as in the case of Boole, fatal.

        Example in no way invalidated!

      • Robin: I’ll make a suggestion. Next time you develop a chest infection then wrap yourself up in a cold soaking wet bed for a week and see if you infection improves or gets worse OK?

      • Robin

        From the webMD link:
        “You do not catch pneumonia by not dressing properly for cold weather or by being caught in the rain.”

        I’m sure you know best though.

    • Jeb

      Whilst my Irish Granny would claim (repeatedly) that a hat or putting up the hood of you’re school coat had mystical powers to stop the onset of Pneumonia I read Thony as suggesting such beliefs and the use of non-scientific cures meant the real condition was not determined and went untreated rather than the cure being the cause of death.

      “A good, especially a homoeopathic, physician has always at the right time, and in a suitable case, made an excellent use of cold water, without causing harm.”

      Hahemann correspondence.

      His attitude to hydrotherapy changed over time, but he does seem to strongly suggest that it is part of Homoeopathic medical belief. Not limited to homeopathy but he appears to be strongly inferring that homeopathy ensures ‘good practice.’

      He does seem to be attempting to legitimize it as a a sound treatment if used by a homeopathic practitioner and seeking to discredit its usage outside of such a system. i.e he would appear to be claiming this form of treatment for homoeopathy and a vital part of such treatment.

    • Harvey

      One of the body’s defenses against bacteria is elevated temperature.
      Wrapping in wet sheets would lower the temperature, thus lowering the defenses.

    • Neither in my post nor in any of my comment did I say or even imply that you do. Before your waste my time by commenting again I suggest you learn to read what is written and not make up things that are not written

      • Jeb

        “You do not catch pneumonia by not dressing properly for cold weather or by being caught in the rain.”

        Its an old medical belief based on the humors Robin that modern medicine still has to contend with in relation to this belief. Common sense nature of the system and its ability to explain a wide range of phenomena allowed for wide dispersal, acceptance and retention outside of the small circle of specialist medical practitioners who used it.

        Like homeopathy while medicines may have been ineffective, prophylaxis was a major draw. One feature that sustained the humors that you see repeated in Hahnemann’s use of hydrotherapy, is to get critical of other practitioners as the reason for fault and error, while remaining uncritical of the system as a whole.

  12. Tom

    j.smith and Petrakeas: It might be be homeopathy, but it’s based on exactly the same principle and is utter bullshit:

    • Dminor

      For that matter, so are vaccinations.

      • Walter Hehl

        This is funny: yes, vaccination with small doses of weakened bacteria or viruses is probably closest to homeopathy (which is working with nothing at all), but in the mean time most addicts to homeopathy fight just against vaccination as some hell medicine …

  13. thisisnotmyname

    This is a very interesting story, too bad you had to wrap into some narrow sighted agenda pushing. Your analogy is really really bad to the point that it probably have the opposite effect.

    AFAIK homeopathy is based on 3 principles of which “like cures like” is considered the most important one but the other two individualization and infinitesimal and required too.
    For your analogy to be valid, Mary should have used at most 1/100 000th of a wet bed sheet to put on her husband.

    I also wonder what logic do you use to jump from “wrapped in wet bed sheets” to “developed pneumonia and died” as if there as a causal link between the two. Correlation doesn’t imply causation.

    Please next time keep it to the story telling and don’t venture into logical fallacies and bad analogies territory it is really unnecessary and only hurts your credibility.

  14. Pingback: Overdosing on Homeopathic Medicines « Illuminutti

  15. This isn’t homeopathy as it’s currently practiced. Besides, the modern medical era didn’t begin until the late nineteenth century. Prior to that time even established medical practice was quite absurd compared to what we know today.

  16. Kishor Gurtu

    I know a lot more people who have been killed by allopathy.

  17. Emma Goldman-Sachs

    >> Mary Everest Boole was […] highly intelligent

    >> wrapped her ailing husband in wet bed sheets

    Does not compute.

    Mad trolling skills, though.

  18. Thony C

    drcristo: If you wish to run unsubstantiated advertising for homeopathy do it on your own blog not mine.

  19. Wrapping someone in wet sheets is hydrotherapy, not homeopathy.

  20. So, because she was trained in Homeopathy, using wet bedsheets is Homeopathy?

    I am trained in physics, but when I drink wine it is still called drinking and not physics…

    • You might be trained in physics but you obviously forgot the courses in critical reading and logic

      • Please ramp up your politeness skills.

      • You’re telling me what to do on my blog?

      • why not? If you’re impolite, should I not say so because it’s your blog?

        You opened your article for criticism, and when I contributed fair criticism, you insult me. That’s what I call impolite.

        Just because he was wet when he got a cold and the blankets were wet, too, the treatment is not homeopathy.

        To use another analogy: Would you call it homeopathy if you break a leg on a wooden log and I use a wooden baseball bat to break your other leg as treatment?

      • In short: You made a mistaken analogy in your article. Just have the confidence to admit it and move on.

    • Your arrogance is as large as your ignorance. I made no analogies what so ever in my post so I can’t have made a mistaken one. This confirms my judgement based on your earlier comment that you lack both critical reading skills and the ability to argue logically.

      • arnebab

        “wet blanket used *because of* homeopathic principle, so it’s homeopathy which killed”
        That’s actually an assumption (“because of”). I provided the analogy why your logic is flawed.

        So, yes, replace the phrase “made a mistaken analogy” in my post with the phrase “used flawed logic”. Maybe that makes you happier…

        See my later comment for a further *analogy* why your logic is flawed:

        > people often drink lemon juice together with tequilla. So when they drive while drunk and hit a tree, they got killed by lemon juice…

      • Your latest comment only confirms that you don’t actually know what an analogy is and you also lack the ability to analyse or construct a logical argument.

      • arnebab

        I think we can end this discussion now, since the only thing you keep contributing is hostility.

  21. jumeirajames

    I agree with some others – wrapping yourself in wet bedsheets is not homeopathy – homeopathy is a lot more stupid than that.
    It didn’t kill my mother it just made her live another 15 years in misery.

  22. so ths is blogging! my first blog and my last.

  23. DCA

    Many of the commenters here seem to be suffering from a severe case of nominalism.

    Before antibiotics pneumonia had to run its course, either to death or recovery. Certainly warm and rested would have been easier for the body’s natural defenses than cold and wet–if you are running a fever, it is an indication that for now, hotter is better (if riskier in a different direction).

    Thanks for the post.

  24. Pingback: Killed by Homeopathy?

  25. The therapies of homeopathy and hydrotherapy were often combined in the 19th century, notably by Great Malvern physicians James Loftus Marsden and the infamous James Manby Gully.

    • arnebab

      Also people often drink lemon juice together with tequilla. So when they drive while drunk and hit a tree, they got killed by lemon juice…

  26. There’s an immense reservoir of anger out there on the part of people like me who have had love ones hurt because of homeopathy. Most forms of woo are harmless diversions. You can think of astrology as a parlor game or a way to strike up a conversation in a bar. Reflexology mostly results in foot messages. I have less patience for the modern-day witch doctors who insist that shaking a gourd over a broken leg is medicine.

    In summary: Argggh!

    • arnebab

      And I don’t really understand that anger. Are there actually that many people who use homeopathy instead of going to a doctor when they have serious health problems?

      I don’t know anyone who uses Homeopathy but would not go to a hostpital when he breaks his leg – or who would not go to a doctor but keep trying homeopathic treatment instead when health problems persist after a week or so.

      But I know people who went to many doctors, and who turned to homeopathy after nothing the doctors did helped them – to find that it worked.

      But maybe that’s because I live in Germany where (almost) everyone has a health insurance which guarantees (almost) free treatment by doctors and hospitals whenever you need it. You can just go to the doctor whenever you feel ill and let him check you, and you don’t have to pay more than 10€ per quarter for that.

      • Ahno

        There are idiots who deny real medicine in a serious cases in favor of homeopathy. But there is other side when if part of modern doctors can con someone to pay them more and more they will do it without second thoughts. There is common practices of over-diagnosing, over-medicating and healing of non-existent illnesses nowadays in a traditional medicine, what to say about homeopathy that can damage as a placebo at max while real medicine can do much worse if abused. It’s not homeopathy that is dangerous idiots are.

      • arnebab

        > It’s not homeopathy that is dangerous idiots are.

        I agree wholeheartedly 🙂

  27. Ahno

    When someone ignorant trying to help it can be called stupidity regardless of what it is based on.

  28. Pingback: On Giants Shoulders #54: A Sleigh Load of History « Contagions

  29. magufo

    What the author writes is not homeopathy. The principle of similars is not “lwrapped her ailing husband in wet bed sheets. George developed pneumonia and died”. The author is doing bad information.

  30. Bea

    I’d like to point out that bloodletting, blistering and purges (inducing vomiting or diarrhea) were accepted and widely used methods of medical practice at the time of Hahnemann. I wonder how many people were killed by these “scientific” methods. Thousands, I bet. BTW, iatrogenic effect (caused by medical drugs) is the 3rd leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer, causing 250.000 deaths annually in the US alone.

  31. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. #26 | Whewell's Ghost

  32. Pingback: Boole, el suegro homeópata y el monte Everest |

  33. Pingback: George Boole Bicentenary Links | Irish Philosophy

  34. I think there is little doubt the story is true.
    However, a colleague of mine questions the first part of the story; he maintains that one catches a cold by infection, not from getting wet! I suppose the answer is that getting wet and cold lowers our resistance to such things etc?

  35. What the woman did doesn’t become homeopathy just because she once lived in a homeopath’s house, even a homeopath of Hahnemann’s standing

    • Mike from Ottawa

      ‘even a homeopath of Hahnemann’s standing’??? He fucking invented it.

      Not that one expects more of someone so credulous they’ll step up to defend homeopathy.

  36. Alf Andreassen

    This is plain stupidity. You need to find a remedy able to produce the same symptoms as the patient have: Then you give that remedy in a diluted potency matching the intensity of the symptoms. Now you have applied the homeopathic principle of like to cure like.

    • Mike from Ottawa

      Of course, Alf understands homeopathy better than someone who learned it from its inventor. But, again, what can you expect from believers in magic water.

      • Alf Andreassen

        Yes Mike, referring to the story above wrapping a person with wet clothes after having a chill from being wet has nothing to do with homeopathy. Homeopathy is preparations from plants, minerals, animal poisons etc. that are diluited following a strict regime. Then you give those remedies according to the principle like cures like. For the situation described in this story you must give a remedy able to produce the same symptoms in a healthy person. Besides where does it say that she learned from the inventor? She was just adherent to the principles.

  37. Sparrow

    Wrapping her ailing husband in wet bed sheets to cure pneumonia is not homeopathy !
    Homeopathy is based on infinitesimal potencies of adequate substances. And in these conditions, with the right remedy chosen (not so easy), I have been cured of pneumonia myself with a quick recovery.
    The mainlimit of homeopathy is the quality of the homeopath

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