Jan Willem Nienhuys
Whenever the flu season nears, prudent consumers get immunized
against the most virulent strains of flu that are expected. This is
especially recommended for people who are elderly or have chronic lung
disease, diabetes, or various other chronic diseases. In France,
however, lots of people arm themselves against this by taking
Oscillococcinum. What a strange name! Where does it come from, and what
does it mean?
Oscillococcinum was discovered by Joseph Roy (1891-1978) , a
French physician who was on military duty when the Spanish flu hit the
world in 1917. He examined the blood of victims and found a strange
microorganism: a bacterium that consisted of two unequal balls that
performed a quick vibratory motion. Roy called them "oscillococci" and
thought they could vary much in size. Sometimes they shrunk so much that
he couldn't see them with his microscope. But they could also grow and
get one or two more balls.
Next Roy discovered these bacteria in the blood and the tumors of
cancer patients, in syphilitic ulcers, in the tubercles of tuberculosis
patients and in the pus of gonorrhea sufferers. Also people who had
eczema, rheumatism, mumps, chickenpox and measles turned out to harbor
this "universal germ."
It is not clear today what Roy saw through the eyepiece of his
microscope. But one thing is certain: he did not see the causes of those
diseases. Rheumatism, eczema, and most forms of cancer are not caused by
microbes, and mumps and measles are caused by viruses, which can't be
seen with an ordinary microscope. Moreover, no other bacteriologist has
ever reported seeing Roy's special cocci again.
Roy thought he had made a new and thrilling discovery on the road to
the cure for cancer. He even wrote a book about it. In his time, many
people doubted the idea that every disease has its own cause (such as
its own microbe). Such skeptics embraced Roy's discovery.
Roy thought immediately of a homeopathic application. The fundamental
teaching of Samuel Hahnemann (1775-1843) is that disease is a
disturbance of "life force" and that specific causes for diseases do not
exist. Possibly vague environmental factors may play a role, he thought,
and his idea was that scabies and syphilis were such factors, which he
called "miasmas." Hahnemann first published his views in 1796. Other
parts of Hahnemann's views were that diseases can be cured if one
imparts to the patient an artificial disease that produces similar life
force disturbances as the real disease. The short-lived artificial
disease will drive out the real disease and then the patient is cured.
The remedies act by their spiritual power and this spiritual nonphysical
power can be imparted to alcohol or milk sugar by a process of shaking
or rubbing, just like iron can be made magnetic by rubbing it with a
Roy's finding fit perfectly with the homeopathic view that diseases
do not have specific causes, and he thought that his discovery could be
adapted to treat cancer homeopathically. Just take any abundant source
of oscillococci, and after homeopathic reinforcement, it will become a
panacea. Now oscillococci occur virtually everywhere, but for reasons
nobody knows Roy took as source the muscovy duck, which French cooks use
to prepare duck breast. These cooks call the animal Canard de Barbarie,
but biologists know it as Cairina moschata. Completely in line
with the unscientific traditions of homeopathy, Oscillococcinum is
denoted in Latin with the wrong name, "Anas Barbariae, Hepatis et Cordis
Extractum," even though Anas ducks are quite different from Cairina
Since 1925, Oscillococcinum has been prepared as follows. Into a one
litre bottle, a mixture of pancreatic juice and glucose is poured. Next
a Canard de Barbarie is decapitated and 35 grams of its liver and 15
grams of its heart are put into the bottle. Why liver? Doctor Roy
writes: "The Ancients considered the liver as the seat of suffering,
even more important than the heart, which is a very profound insight,
because it is on the level of the liver that the pathological
modifications of the blood happen, and also there the quality of the
energy of our heart muscle changes in a durable manner." Maybe the
French tendency to call any form of not well-being a "crise de foie"
("bilious attack") had also something to do with it. After 40 days in
the sterile bottle, liver and heart autolyse (disintegrate) into a kind
of goo, which is then "potentized" with the Korsakov method.
Semyon Nicolaevich Korsakov (1788-1853) was a modest landowner in the
village Tarusovo near Moscow . After 1813, he held a
not-too-demanding desk job in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, enabling
him to dabble in lay medicine. In about 1829, he converted to homeopathy
and invented a quicker way of preparing high dilutions. The glass
containing the remedy is shaken and then just emptied and refilled, and
the dilution factor is assumed to be 1:100.
In ordinary homeopathy one has to use a new clean glass for every
dilution, so the Korsakov method is very cost-effective. In preparing
Korsakov potencies, distilled water is used rather than alcohol
(sometimes only after the 30th dilution), which saves a lot of money if
one has to repeat the dilution step 200, 1000 or even 50,000 times.
Oscillococcinum's manufacturer (Boiron) uses "ultrapure water" from the
first step on. Oscillococcinum is designated as "200K"—which means that
the original amount is subjected to 200 Korsakov dilutions—and the
resulting fluid is used to moisten small 5 milligram balls of milk
sugar. Some packages have been labeled "200CK." ("C" is the abbreviation
for centesimal, which means 1-to-100 dilution, and "CK" stands for
"centesimal Korsakovian." ) Other packages have been labeled 200C,"
which does not specify which dilution method was used.
Korsakov's first name is often incorrectly transcribed as Semen, and
some biographers use the nonexistent first name Iseman or Isemen. In
German transcription he is Simon Korsakoff. Various myths say that he
was a nobleman or count, a physician with or without PhD, the czar's
personal physician, or even a general who invented the Korsakov method
on the battlefield. None of this is true. Hahnemann addressed him as
"Monsieur le comte de Korsakoff" in a time that foreigners customarily
used noble titles for any Russian who could speak French. Korsakov's
method gained Hahnemann's approval in 1832.
The good doctor Roy thought that his concoction worked against
cancer, syphilis, scabies and tuberculosis, but Boiron only recommends
it for "flu-like states" and asks just over a dollar per gram for it.
Hundreds of thousands of French buy this energetically advertised
nonsense product. It is recommended for prevention (one dose per week in
the flu season) and as cure. And, contrary to classical homeopathic
usage, one has to gobble up a one-gram doses, rather than take a single
5 mg ball as a lifetime dose.
There's no logical reason to believe that anything in duck liver or
heart will be an effective flu remedy. But even if there were some magic
substance, the manufacturing process guarantees that it will not be in
the finished product. The laws of chemistry indicate that after the 12th
dilution, it is unlikely that a single molecule from the original organs
will remain. Moreover, at "200C" (or "200K" or "200 CK") the
concentration of the original substance would be 1 part in 100200,
which is a 1 followed by 400 zeroes. A 1 followed by 100 zeroes is
called a googol. The estimated number of particles in the universe that
we can see is a googol, give or take a few zeroes. So in order for one
of the original molecules to be present in a container of
Oscillococcinum, the mass of that container would have to be about a
googol googol googol times our world, which would be incomprehensibly
larger than the visible universe.
How, then, could anyone conclude that Oscilloccinum is effective?
Homeopathic theory holds that if large amount of a substance can produce
symptoms in healthy people, infinitesimal amounts can cure diseases with
those symptoms. The alleged effects are determined through experiments
(most done over 100 years ago) in which people ingest the substances and
report what they experience afterward. These reports have been compiled
into huge books that supposedly provide the "drug picture" of each
substance. The books, called materia medica, are said to comprise "all
the recorded mental, general and local (particular) symptoms and signs,
modalities, pathological changes and test findings" for each substance."
Oscillococcinum's drug picture illustrates irrationality to the nth
degree. I received it after I complained about an ad. A Dutch Boiron
representative responded that the drug picture supported the company's
claims of curative powers. The drug picture alleged that oscillococcinum
can can help:
Diabetics who are afraid when during a thunderstorm their husband
seems to be late, while they have a feeling of electric currents
through their varicose veined legs, anal itch and itchy bumps on
their wrist, that they keep trying to wash off in a maniacal way,
especially when they have a runny nose and stubbornly resist advice
not to worry.
The list of relevant individual symptoms included:
Tuberculosis patients sensitive to chilling.
Luetic patients having obsessive ideas.
General symptoms: Lean, pale, chronic invalidity, weakness,
need for fresh air even when afraid of cold. Stiffness,
shivering, feeling too hot, headache, weakness, repeating shakes
descending down the body. Feeling of electric current running
through the diseased part. Bitter and grayish secretions, not
Aggravates: when you think about it, by moisture, fog,
changes of weather, in the night, when resting, after eating
eggs or drinking milk.
Improves: in free air, at the seaside, by heat, resting,
Sleep: sleepless with agitation during the night.
Mental symptoms: Latent anxiety, especially when someone
doesn't return on time) fear, unquietness without clear cause.
Impatience, improves when one is busy. Quick speech and
understanding. Futility, tendency to be maniacal. Pettyness.
Can't stand disorder, fear of dirt and pollution. Urge to often
wash hands. Afraid to shake hands for fear of contagion.
Stubbornness. Depressed, thinks back of his past fear of
Local symptoms: Clouding of the senses. Sudden vertigo. Pain
in the right of the head, with repeated shaking. Heavy feeling
in the head. Sudden feeling of decoupling in the head. Headache
in the front of the head, also occipital, worse in the morning
than in the evening, better when one blows the nose. Pain in the
maxillary region. Feeling of something running across the face
on the right half. Feeling of a bug that runs over the face
during the night.
That's about half. The rest include:
Violent needle-like pain in the ears; flu-like state; runny
nose; yellow conjunctiva; dry painful cough; wet cough with
mucopurulent expectoration; whole tongue putrid; vomit; pain in
the appendix region; abdominal cramp followed by fetid smelling
diarrhea; persistent obstipation; full feeling in the belly;
anal itch, worse in the warmth of the bed, with or without
hemorrhoids; itch after antibiotics; hyperglycaemia; painful
micturation; cloudy urine; sugar in urine; fetid and yellow
leucorrhea; hypotension; hypertension; varicose veins;
phlebitis; ulcerations in the legs, painful in the night;
chronic streptococcal eczema; feelings of electric shocks in the
lower leg; little bumps that itch on the inside of the wrist.
Do you believe that any product can provide such wide range of
benefits? I certainly do not!
Addendum By Stephen Barrett, M.D.
On June 8, 2010, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Federal
Trade Commission sent a joint
to Homeopathy for Health of Moses Lake, Washington, indicating that two
claims made for Oscillococcinum were illegal:
"Anas barbariae hepatis et cordi extractum, a nosode made
from a fowl bird source, so look at this product for emergency
preparedness for swine flu, which is a mutation of bird or avian
influenza, swine influenza and human influenza."
"Use Oscillococcinum for fast relief of flu infection
The letter—a copy of which was sent to Boiron Borneman, Inc.—further
stated: "You should take immediate action to ensure that your firm is
not marketing, and does not market in the future, products intended to
diagnose, mitigate, prevent, treat (including to treat the symptoms of)
or cure the H1N1 Flu Virus that have not been approved, cleared, or
authorized by the FDA.
Oscillococcinum, le joli grand canard. Science et
Pseudo-sciences, Cahiers bimestriels de l'Association Française
pour l'Information Scientifique, No 202, mars-avril 1993.
The history of homeopathy in the
Russian Empire until World War I, as compared with other
European countries and the USA: similarities and discrepancies.
PhD thesis, submitted November 1999.
Anas Barbariae, Hepatis et Cordis Extractum. The Homeopathic
Pharmacopoeia of the United States, monograph #0137, June 1989.
Homeopathic Medicine Research Group. Dictionary of
Homeopathy, First Edition, 1996.
Dr. Nienhuys is a retired mathematician, formerly at Eindhoven
University of Technology in The Netherlands. He is also secretary of the
earlier version of this article appeared in the organization's magazine,
This article was posted on August 27, 2003.
The addendum was added on December 4, 2010
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