Just off Scott Circle -- at 16th Street, Massachusetts and Rhode Island avenues--stands a statue of a man so well known in 1900 when the statue was erected that President William McKinley dedicated his monument.

Today, Samuel Christian Friedrich Hahnemann, the 19th-century German physician who developed homeopathic medicine, is virtually unknown. But his often-controversial system of medicine is enjoying a renaissance--although still modest--as consumers search for low-cost, natural methods of healing.

While one out of every six U.S. physicians was a homeopath in the 19th century, it fell out of favor here in the early 20th century, both because of opposition from the American Medical Association and lack of professionalism in its own ranks. It is practiced more widely in England, Europe, Latin America, India and the Soviet Union.

The word homeopathy (also spelled homoeopathy), which comes from the Greek words homoio (similar) and pathos (suffering), is based on the principle of "like cures like." Hahnemann believed that certain medications could cure diseases if they produced symptoms in a healthy person similar to those induced by the disease.

Some remedies in the homeopathic repertoire are used in orthodox medicine in a different form. For example, syrup of ipecac--prescribed to induce vomiting in small children after the ingestion of a poisonous substance--is used by homeopaths in minute quantities to treat nausea and vomiting.

Dr. David Wember, a Falls Church homeopathic physician, describes homeopathy as "a system of medicine practiced by licensed physicians that uses nontoxic remedies to stimulate the body's own healing forces to cure itself.

"The remedies stimulate the person's own defense mechanisms to throw off the disease," claims Wember, "and in doing so it also strengthens the resistance of the person."

Wember, 43, was introduced to homeopathy 11 years ago when he was a practicing psychiatrist. His children suffered from a series of ear infections that were treated repeatedly with antibiotics. A friend gave him four homeopathic remedies:

Chamomilla, made from a tincture of the same chamomile plant used to make chamomile tea, is prescribed for babies who suffer discomfort while teething; ferrum phosphoricum album, derived from white phosphate of iron, for colds and ear aches; gelsemium, derived from the yellow jasmine, for colds, influenza and mild fevers; pulsatilla, made from a tincture of the windflower or meadow anemone, for headaches and other complaints.

"It seemed that the children were not as sick," says Wember. "Whatever seemed to come up, if you gave the remedy, it seemed to avert it."

In 1972, Wember took a three-week course for physicians and other health professionals sponsored by the National Center for Homoeopathy at Millersville State College near Lancaster, Pa., and later served an apprenticeship with practicing licensed homeopaths. Most U.S. homeopathic physicians now follow that basic pattern of training.

Homeopathic literature contains many case histories of physicians treating and curing patients with chronic conditions such as asthma, diabetes, eczema and nephritis.

Wember says he has been successful in treating such chronic conditions as colitis, bronchial conditions, dysmenorrhea, migraine headaches and allergies.

Meanwhile, the controversy about homeopathy goes on, much of it surrounding the principle of dilution, or what homeopaths call the law of the minimum dose.

To many orthodox physicians, the concept is nonsense. Using the same arguments brought out in the 19th century by noted physician, essayist and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in his essay "Homeopathy and Its Kindred Delusions," they mention that when a substance is diluted 10 to 1 six times, the remedy will be useless.

The law of dilution is "out of keeping with one of the laws of thermodynamics," says Harold J. Morowitz, professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale and author of a Hospital Practice magazine article attacking the underlying premise of homeopathy.

When a substance is diluted to one part per million, argues Morowitz, the odds are that the dose received by the patient will contain none of the original ingredient.

"How can nothing do something?" he asks. "If by simply diluting something thousands of times, you could achieve powerful cures, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans would be a panacea for everything."

"Does anybody know why aspirin works?" counters Wember. "There are lots of mysteries, but we know empirically that if you get the remedy that causes the set of symptoms most similar to the patient's, that remedy then stimulates the person's own healing force. I like to call it the person's own defense mechanisms.

"I've seen it in hundreds of patients I've treated over nine years. It works. It's fast, it's efficient and it gets people healthy."

He acknowledges, however, that "it doesn't help every single person. Nothing is a panacea."

Morowitz and others maintain that homeopathy works because patients think it works.

"What homeopaths say is, operationally, it works," says Morowitz. "We also know that faith healers work, that placebos work. Every conceivable type of therapy has some successes.

"Very fortunately we are self-healing systems most of the time. Left to ourselves, most things get better. The fact that something works operationally doesn't mean it's scientific."

Morowitz points out that Hahnemann developed homeopathy as a reaction to the harsh practices--including bleeding and purging--employed by physicians of his day.

The homeopath's gentle methods and nontoxic remedies undoubtedly did save more patients than those of the orthodox physician, he concedes. "However, I suspect that medicine has gone beyond the stage where nothing is better than something."

There is little research to prove or disprove the claims of the homeopaths. Because most homeopathic remedies existed before 1938 when Congress gave the agency the authority to prove the safety of new drugs, the remedies are "grandfathered," and the Food and Drug Administration has not tested them to establish safety and effectiveness.

The agency, however, is beginning to be concerned about the introduction of some substances labeled homeopathic that "come close to quackery," according to one FDA official.

"We've seen some drugs labed homeopathic that purport to treat some very serious conditions. We've seen for example, homeopathic interferon. What is that? We don't know. We're starting to look and see what's being sold (under the homeopathic label)."

One of the few studies available, done at the Glasgow Homeopathic Hospital and the Centre for Rheumatic Diseases at the Royal Infirmary of Glasgow and reported in a 1980 British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, charted the conditions of 46 patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. Half the patients received a traditional arthritis treatment plus a placebo; the other half, the traditional treatment plus various homeopathic remedies. All the patients had been on the traditional treatment only for several months previously and had shown no improvement. After three months, the researchers found that the patients who received the homeopathic remedies improved, and those who received the placebo did not.

"It's open-ended," says Wember of homeopathy. "It could have an effect on almost anything if a remedy could be found. It's often hard when a person has had a long illness and a lot of drugs that often suppress the symptoms. If a person has had arthritis for 20 years and has been on cortisone and had all kinds of gold treatments, I can't say I could cure them."

Whatever homeopathy's efficacy, membership in the National Center for Homeopathy--although still only 2,000--is growing, according to executive director Bruce MacDonald, and the organization "is flooded with requests" for information.

In 1980, the center listed 150 physicians nationwide who practiced homeopathy. Last year, says MacDonald, there were 300.