Jun 10 2010

Death by Homeopathy

No, I am not talking about homeopathic suicide, which is entirely benign (except to the reputation of homeopathy). Rather, every now and then a prominent case pops up in which someone dies of a treatable condition because they chose (or their caregivers chose) to rely exclusively on homeopathy or some other alternative treatment. Since most homeopathic preparations are literally nothing but water and wishful thinking, they typically do not cause direct toxicity (hence the “homeopathic suicide” stunts of skeptics). Most of the harm from homeopathy comes from something far more insidious – confusing people with appealing medical fairy tales.

These cases also occur on a backdrop of inadequate regulation. Essentially those who wish to make money by practicing medicine without proper training have managed to soften the laws so that they are able to practice medicine without proper training. The usual defenders of consumers against rapacious industry are so beguiled by the touchy-feely rhetoric of promoters, that they have been entirely asleep at the switch. The results are predictable.

The latest case to come to media attention comes from down under – Penelope Dingle from Perth Australia, according to local news reports, was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2003. Her doctors gave her a good chance of survival with standard therapy – surgery to remove the cancer, and chemotherapy to mop up any loose cells and reduce the risk of recurrence. It is not a pleasant prospect, but with modern care it’s not too bad, and it buys in many cases a greatly improved quality and duration of life. Penelope Dingle, however, chose to refuse all science-based treatment and opted instead for a regimen of diet and homeopathic treatment.

But the story gets more interesting. Her husband is a bit of a media celebrity in Australia – a self-promoting and self-proclaimed expert on toxicology and alternative health. According to reports:

She said she had been told by one of the couple’s close friends that the Dingles had a pact with the homeopath treating Dingle, Francine Scrayen.

Under the pact, they agreed that only alternative medicine would be used and Dr Dingle would then write a book about curing his wife’s cancer.

Mrs Brown said that under the agreement, Dr Dingle would look after his wife’s vitamin and antioxidant treatment and Ms Scrayen would deal with homeopathy treatments and diet.

Apparently there are diaries in evidence to substantiate this – probably because Dr. Dingle was planning on writing that book (I wonder how that’s going). I suspect he did not want his wife to use any conventional treatment so that they could later claim she was cured entirely with their alternative treatments. It certainly seems as if he put his career and future book potential ahead of his wife’s health and best interests.


Giving evidence at Dingle’s inquest yesterday before West Australian Coroner Alastair Hope, her sister Toni Brown said seeing Dingle in 2003 was like watching “somebody being tortured”.

Not only was Penelope Dingle allowed to die, according to reports she was allowed to remain in pain without the benefit of even pain killers.  That’s the kind of thing that can happen when you blithely reject our entire system of medical ethics and science-based practice.

This is also, unfortunately, not an isolated case. Remember the case of Gloria Thomas Sam – the little girl whose parents tortured to death with homeopathy.

These cases are just anecdotal. I present them not as the evidence for the worthlessness of homeopathy, but rather as anecdotes that demonstrate the evidence. The evidence is in the published literature – systematic reviews of systematic reviews show that homeopathy does not work for any indication. When anyone with the slightest objectivity and scientific knowledge examines homeopathy they can only conclude that not only does it not work – it cannot work. It is IBAR (a variation of FUBAR) – implausible beyond all reason.

Therefore prescribing homeopathy is incompetent and/or unethical. Reliance upon homeopathy instead of conventional treatment for a serious illness is unethical to the point of criminality – akin to depraved indifference.

Homeopathy represents perhaps the greatest disconnect between the scientific community and the public and regulators. Science has definitively spoken – homeopathy is dangerous witchcraft. But most countries treat it as if it were real medicine.

It’s time we got our 21st century medical system in line with 19th century science.

23 responses so far

23 Responses to “Death by Homeopathy”

  1. DevoutCatalyston 10 Jun 2010 at 8:19 am

    from Yahoo Answers:

    “…if you have a cancer diagnosis, be sure that you’re working with a practitioner who is using homeopathy aggressively enough for your situation.”

  2. SARAon 10 Jun 2010 at 11:04 am

    This is one of those areas where I am conflicted.
    Barring children, whom I feel should always be given the most reliable and science based medicine until they are adults and can decide for themselves, I think adults have free choice. However bad the choice is…and obviously it can be very bad.

    I believe very strongly in a persons right to decide to do something that effects them. Its a choice to eat junk food or drink or smoke or go sky diving. None of them are designed to be “good ideas.” But if I choose to do it, it should be my right to do it, assuming I can afford it.

    But on the other hand, I am very much against the people who market their snake oil as if it is the same or better remedy than an FDA approved medicine. I suppose I would say that we need stronger regulations on the purveyors and better disclosure, but that if someone wants to commit suicide after being fully debriefed, then go for it.

    In the Australian case, I wonder how much “over-persuading” was done by the ambitious husband who wanted to become famous selling a cure cancer book and remedy.

  3. Plittleon 10 Jun 2010 at 11:17 am


    I agree with you that adults should be free to make their own choices. That, I don’t believe, is what is at issue here. The problem arises when people are given inaccurate, misleading or untruthful information from which to base their decisions. A person telling you that homeopathic treatments can cure cancer is telling you something that is patently false. Whether or not they believe what they are saying is irrelevent. Those claims are harmful, and people should be prevented from making them.

  4. SARAon 10 Jun 2010 at 11:24 am

    That is true. Regulation would help that. Now apparently you only have to put that your claim hasn’t been evaluated by the FDA in fine print at the bottom of the page where nobody reads anyway. And sometimes you don’t even need to do that.
    Although I wouldn’t bet against the chance that they will still find a way to make the claim inside the law if we change the regulations.

  5. Watcheron 10 Jun 2010 at 11:28 am

    Call me crazy, but I see nothing wrong with getting the word out that homeopathy is a dangerous practice. Can’t wait to see how this is spun.

  6. Tim Farleyon 10 Jun 2010 at 11:28 am

    For those interested, I collect other anecdotes of this type on my site What’s The Harm. As Dr. Novella said, these do not prove anything by themselves, but serve as real-world examples of the danger science tells us exists.

    You can see my homeopathy cases here:

  7. jpm175on 10 Jun 2010 at 11:38 am

    The husband, Dr. Peter Dingle BEd, BSc, Hons, PhD, WASM is not a MD.

    WTF is WASM? Wierd Alternative Silly Man?

    It is quite clear that he attempted to use his wifes illness for personal gain, and by doing so directly contributed to her early death.
    It would be hard to tell whether she participated in this willingly or not, but is there any chance of legal repercussions against him?

  8. BillyJoe7on 10 Jun 2010 at 5:48 pm

    “Can’t wait to see how this is spun.”

    Homoeopaths happily promote bogus treatments for which there is not a jot of evidence.

  9. sheldon101on 10 Jun 2010 at 5:53 pm

    To forestall (yeah, right) the increasingly incoherent Dana Ullman’s comment that conventional medicine kills 3,504,232 people every day, let me make the following remark.

    At least with conventional medicine, there’s at least the possibility of getting some physical benefit.

    With homeopathy, it isn’t merely possible or merely probable, but it is almost certain that the only real transaction between the homeopath and the patient is the transfer of money from the patient to the homeopath.

  10. ccbowerson 10 Jun 2010 at 6:42 pm

    I’ve never figured out how homeopathy got special treatment in the laws of many countries. Of all the quack ideas out there, it isn’t even that convincing in a superficial sense. I’ve tried to think about what is uniquely intuitive or even charming in comparison to other ideas, and I just don’t get it.

  11. MollyNYCon 10 Jun 2010 at 10:04 pm

    I too feel conflicted about this and here’s why: I live part-time in a state (Oregon) where utter quacks are permitted to prescribe pretty much anything. It’s amazing. Within, say, a 5-block radius of where I’m typing this, there are more of these fool-catchers–acupuncturists, homeopaths, NDs, self-described “Chinese medicine” practitioners (1) and something called the Center for Enzyme Therapy–than there are places to get pizza.

    That’s not the conflict-y part. The conflict-y part is what it would take for the shlockmeister medical community to lose prescribing privileges in this state, which is: Someone has to die.

    That’s what it would take to convince people that allowing ignoramuses free rein in this area is a bad idea and galvanize them into making a change. One poor dead fool, or fool’s baby.

    Hence the mixed feelings. As naturopathic medicines don’t do much, quacks’ abilities to harm patients were mostly limited to serious ailments not getting treated in a timely manner. Now they can make people sicker on their own. And they will too, which will cause the law to change. But I’m not really looking forward to it.

    (1) And hello, all that medical chinoiserie is taken from Maoist/pre-revolution China, when most of the whole country barely had a pot to piss in and weren’t talking to Westerners–and herbs, pointy things and wishful thinking were all the medicine they had. This is no longer the case, and when Chinese people get really sick nowadays, they generally want–and can get–an M-freaking-D and some real meds.

  12. ausduckon 11 Jun 2010 at 4:38 am

    It gets worse – Peter Dingle self describes as a ‘nutritional and environmental toxicologist”, is an Associate Prof. in Public Health at one of Western Australia’s universities and is the academic supervisor of Public Health PhD candidates (one of whom has aligned themselves with a prominent antivax group over here). He seems to have come from a solid science background with a Bachelor of Education in Science, a Bachelor of Environmental Science with first class honours and a PhD, but has embraced the woo of the ‘nutritionist’ and homeopathy, unfortunately. The biggest problem is that he not only has had a media presence and is a prolific publisher, but enjoys a little uncritical credibility as well.
    He has his own company and blog easily accessable through googling his name – in the blog he provides precis’ of mainly medical research articles and sometimes makes astounding illogical leaps and connections to present what he feels to be the “message” from the research, in quick, digestable bites reminiscent of the worse media science headlines. But hey, he is a professional ‘presenter’.
    I am starting to despair at the quality of education/lack of critical thinking at tertiary institutions when you see people like this in faculty positions supervising postgrads. My opinion, of course.

  13. Watcheron 11 Jun 2010 at 9:39 am

    That’s interesting. I wonder if the school will let him keep his job after this. It’d be a great way for the school to stand up for science and logic. By canning him and making him fight back, the onus would be on him to prove his beliefs and he acted in the best interest of his “patient.”

  14. ausduckon 12 Jun 2010 at 5:46 am

    @Watcher, the University involved has already been contacted by some grassroot skeptics over this way and it’s wait and see.
    The University was informed a while back that the antivax group was promoting the PhD candidate as being “from xxxx University” and the badge/crest/name of the Uni was always prominent in the background in the promotional photos that appeared on the antivax site and magazine/newsletter. The University responded, when questioned, that the PhD student was not supposed to be misusing the logo in that way as she was not representing the University when she spoke/published for this group. But those pictures still appear, so I wonder how serious the University is.

    It will be interesting to wait and watch, and I agree that it would be a chance for the University board to stand up for science and logic. Whether they do or not is another thing.

  15. Traveleron 12 Jun 2010 at 1:24 pm

    Dingle is wasting his time promoting his woo in Australia. Most people there are already healthy. He should be living someplace where malaria, yellow fever, typhoid and the members of the hepatitis family are endemic. If he wants to prove the power of his mighty magic water, he should put it to a real test.

  16. david56on 12 Jun 2010 at 2:20 pm

    Would it be possible for somebody to email me the paper mentioned in the post to eintown@gmail.com ?

    The Medical Journal of Australia 2010 Apr 19;192(8):458-60.
    Homeopathy: what does the “best” evidence tell us?
    Ernst E.

    My university does not have a subscription to that journal. Thanks very much!

  17. BillyJoe7on 12 Jun 2010 at 6:17 pm

    …don’t encourage him!

    It’s not so bad when homoeopathy is harmless, but when it’s positively deadly…

  18. FOCUSPLEASEon 21 Jun 2010 at 4:30 am

    Another update. Dr Dingle has been sacked from a local television show as a the “health expert” and had his weekly radio presentation cancelled.

    The local University that runs a summer school has also cancelled his sessions.

    Sadly, evidence given today in the coroner’s Court by a “leading Homopathic Practitioner” included a statement that homeopathy could reverse serious symptoms of cancer – what – like death?

    Following the death of his wife Dr Dingle married a ….homeopath. It does not look like the madness is going to end any time soon.

  19. Cath of Canberraon 23 Jun 2010 at 4:17 am

    This would make the basis of a great detective novel. Would it count as murder if the culprit actually knew it wouldn’t work?

  20. BillyJoe7on 24 Jun 2010 at 12:16 am

    …the same homoeopath that killed treated his wife?

  21. Darrenon 25 Jun 2010 at 12:03 am

    It never occured to me that my wife would consider homeopathic remedies – even though one of her acquaintences is – in my words – a nutjob – who doesn’t believe the evidence for vaccinations and believes in homeopathy. Anyway, even after this Dingle case became prominent, i’ve only just today spotted some kids lolipops in the cupboard – which are homeopathic. Our 3yr old has a cough and my wife says ‘apparently these things can help’. I am now frantically searching for articles homeopathy – for and against, but my arguing skills are crap, and almost always, my wife ends saying something like ‘whatever…’ and walks off. I have to admit i’m that i very worried that i won’t be able to help her see that homeopathy is complete nonsense. I need to did up Steve’s ‘How to argue’ article.

  22. The Crack Emceeon 27 Jun 2010 at 3:16 pm


    You can find lots of stuff at my place:


    Just click the “homeopathy” tag (and the links in the various posts) and a whole new, ugly, world will open up to you.

  23. The Crack Emceeon 27 Jun 2010 at 3:19 pm

    And, if anyone’s reading this in the United States, don’t feel safe:


    They’re everywhere.

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