Peter Fisher and Elsevier have rather kindly given me permission to reproduce the experimental papers from the special issue of Homeopathy on the memory of water, so I’m posting them in full below. As you know I’m a strong believer in free access to academic journals, especially when they’ve been press-released and discussed in popular fora.
As you also know, I’m very much against censoring the unusually well-informed brand of internet childishness which happens in the discussion on this blog, but on this occasion, since I’m posting academic papers, and since they’ve graciously given us the papers to post and discuss, it might be good to be marginally more journal clubby about it.
I don’t want you to feel inhibited, but I do have a bit of a fantasy about setting up an entertaining online journal club (although a formal one already exists), and I was hoping this could be some kind of dry run, although obviously these aren’t mass appeal clinical papers, which are the kind that I’d aim to do in the future.
So, the papers are set out below, and I’ve marked them as written in 1970 so that they don’t all clog up the front page of the site. There’s some interesting stuff in there, and some very, er, odd stuff too. Enjoy!
It all kicks off with a characteristically metered editorial from Peter Fisher.
Editorial The Memory of Water: a scientific heresy?
Available online 31 July 2007.
This special issue of Homeopathy is devoted to the ‘memory of water’, a concept forever linked to the name of the late Jacques Benveniste, although not coined by him. The term first appeared in the French newspaper Le Monde, commenting on a fierce controversy which blew up in the pages of the leading scientific journal Nature in 1988. In June of that year, Nature published a paper by a large international group led by Benveniste which made the sensational claim that the antibody anti-IgE in dilutions up to 10−120 molar, far into the ‘ultramolecular’ range, triggers degranulation of human basophils in vitro.1
Nature had resisted publishing the paper, and the then editor, John Maddox, agreed to do so only on the condition that Benveniste allowed an inspection team, nominated by Maddox, to visit his laboratory after publication. The team duly visited, and, a month later, published its report denouncing Benveniste’s work as ‘pseudoscience’, but nevertheless justifying its decision to publish.2 Two subsequent attempts to reproduce Benveniste’s results failed, and  although he remained defiant until his death in October 2004. Yolène Thomas, a long-term collaborator of Benveniste, recounts that episode and the subsequent history of the memory of water in this issue,5 and Michel Schiff has given a detailed insider’s account of the treatment Benveniste suffered for his heresy.6
A bad memory
Yet, the memory of water is a bad memory: it casts a long shadow over homeopathy and is just about all that many scientists recall about the scientific investigation of homeopathy, equating it with poor or even fraudulent science. So why revive it now? The reason of course is the claims made by homeopathy for the action of ultramolecular (also called ultra high) dilutions. Although the basic idea of homeopathy is similarity, the most controversial and, for many, implausible claim concerns the properties of the ultramolecular dilutions characteristic of it. Avogadro’s constant, the number of particles (atoms or molecules) in a gram mole of a substance, is of the order of 1023. The inescapable corollary is that dilutions of substances above this level are unlikely to contain a single molecule of the starting substance, whose name appears on the label. In homeopathic terminology, 1023 corresponds to a 23x/dH or 12c dilution. In fact, for reasons including the concentration of the starting substance(s) the ultramolecular limit is often passed well before 23x/12c. In any case, it is only a statistical probability and many homeopathic starting materials of biological origin are complex mixtures of many chemicals in varying concentrations.
It is this problem that links Benveniste’s work to homeopathy: he claimed to have discovered that aqueous dilutions of a protein retained the essential properties of that protein many 1:100 dilution stages after it had been diluted out. The water diluent ‘remembered’ the anti-IgE long after it was gone. The underlying hypothesis can be stated as follows: ‘Under appropriate circumstances, water retains information about substances with which it has previously been in contact and may then transmit that information to presensitised biosystems’. Note that this hypothesis has two parts: retention of information and transmission of information.
In fact, there are competing theories for the effects of homeopathy. The most widespread is that no explanation is required: homeopathy has no specific effects, and its outcomes are attributable to purely placebo effects: psychological phenomena, including expectation of benefit in which the homeopathic medicine plays no role except to convince the patient that they are receiving a genuine medical treatment.
Among the counterarguments to this position is that homeopathic medicines and treatment regimes seem, from what is known about the factors which increase placebo effects, designed to minimise it!7 They are small and unimpressive, and often administered at low frequencies.
Of course the main counterargument is the steadily growing body of evidence from both clinical and bench science that homeopathy and homeopathic ultramolecular dilutions have effects which cannot be discounted in this way. Other hypotheses which accept that there is something to be explained have emerged, most notably a group involving ‘macroscopic quantum entanglement’. These are represented in this issue in the papers by Weingärtner8 and Milgrom.9
Yet, among those hypotheses which accept that there is something to explain about the properties of homeopathic ultramolecular dilutions, the largest group involve what can be broadly described as ‘memory of water’ effects. In fact, as our Guest Editor Prof Martin Chaplin shows in his masterly overview, there is no doubt that, at a simple level, water memory effects do exist.10 But this is far from proving that they have the features (such as the specificity to ‘remember’ individually all of the large number of substances used as the bases for homeopathic medicines), which would be required to account for the claimed effects of homeopathy.
The memory of pure water?
One interesting theme to emerge from several contributions is that the memory may not be that of water alone. As Jose Teixeira points out in his sceptical view the process of producing an homeopathic medicine produces very high dilutions, but not necessarily in very pure water.11 There is a growing view that chemical contaminants, particularly silica leached from the walls of the glassware, may play a crucial role, a hypothesis developed in this issue by Anick and Ives.12 Voeikov suggests that peroxide species created by the succussion process may be significant.13 There may be homology here to the ‘doping’ of semiconductors. On a different theme, David Anick develops a mathematical model which elegantly accounts for the series (‘octaves’) of dilutions traditionally used in homeopathic practice, independent of the underlying mechanism of information retention.14
But perhaps most significant is the growing body of experimental evidence, based widely on different physico-chemical methods represented by the papers in this issue by Elia,15 Rao et al,16 Rey,17 Vybíral and Voráček.18 None of this work is final, conclusive or above criticism and in some cases the relevance to clinical homeopathy is not immediately obvious. But here are some remarkable convergences, for instance, Elia and Vybíral and Voráček, on the basis of entirely different methods, have detected properties that are unexpected, reflect large-scale organisation in liquid water, and, perhaps, mostly remarkably, increase with time.
The work collected in this special issue reflects convergent views from widely different perspectives that water can display memory effects and that homeopathic production methods might induce them. These findings represent a fundamental challenge to the complacent view which refuses even to think seriously about homeopathy. It may develop to the point at which, after over two centuries of controversy, there is finally consensus about the key to understanding mode of action of homeopathic high dilutions.
There is much work to be done, but at this stage we can say one thing with certainty: the assertion that homeopathy is impossible because the ‘memory of water’ is impossible is wrong.
1 E. Davenas, F. Beauvais and J. Amara et al., Human basophil degranulation triggered by very dilute antiserum against IgE, Nature 333 (1988), pp. 816–818. Full Text via CrossRef | View Record in Scopus | Cited By in Scopus
2 J. Maddox, J. Randi and W.W. Stewart, ‘High-dilution’ experiments a delusion, Nature 334 (1988), pp. 287–290.
3 J.H. Ovelgönne, A.W. Bol, W.C. Hop and R. van Wisk, Mechanical agitation of very dilute antiserum against IgE has no effect on basophil staining properties, Experientia 48 (1992), pp. 504–508. View Record in Scopus | Cited By in Scopus
4 S.J. Hirst, N.A. Hayes, J. Burridge, F.L. Pearce and J.C. Foreman, Human basophil degranulation is not triggered by very dilute antiserum against human IgE, Nature 366 (1993), pp. 525–527. Full Text via CrossRef | View Record in Scopus | Cited By in Scopus
6 M. Schiff, The Memory of Water, Thorsons, London (1995).
7 D. Evans, Placebo: Mind over Matter in Modern Medicine, Oxford University Press, Oxford (2003).
15 V. Elia, E. Napoli and R. Germano, The Memory of Water: an almost deciphered enigma. Dissipative structures in extremely dilute aqueous solutions, Homp 96 (2007), pp. 163–169. SummaryPlus | Full Text + Links | PDF (338 K)
16 M.L. Rao, R. Roy, I.R. Bell and R. Hoover, The defining role of structure (including epitaxy) in the plausibility of homeopathy, Homp 96 (2007), pp. 175–182. SummaryPlus | Full Text + Links | PDF (775 K)