MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

Here is another short passage from my new book A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND. It describes the event where I was first publicly exposed to the weird and wonderful world of alternative medicine in the UK. It is also the scene which, in my original draft, was the very beginning of the book.

I hope that the excerpt inspires some readers to read the entire book – it currently is BOOK OF THE WEEK in the TIMES HIGHER EDUCATION!!!

… [an] aggressive and curious public challenge occurred a few weeks later during a conference hosted by the Research Council for Complementary Medicine in London. This organization had been established a few years earlier with the aim of conducting and facilitating research in all areas of alternative medicine. My impression of this institution, and indeed of the various other groups operating in this area, was that they were far too uncritical, and often proved to be hopelessly biased in favour of alternative medicine. This, I thought, was an extraordinary phenomenon: should research councils and similar bodies not have a duty to be critical and be primarily concerned about the quality of the research rather than the overall tenor of the results? Should research not be critical by nature? In this regard, alternative medicine appeared to be starkly different from any other type of health care I had encountered previously.

On short notice, I had accepted an invitation to address this meeting packed with about 100 proponents of alternative medicine. I felt that their enthusiasm and passion were charming but, no matter whom I talked to, there seemed to be little or no understanding of the role of science in all this. A strange naïvety pervaded this audience: alternative practitioners and their supporters seemed a bit like children playing “doctor and patient”. The language, the rituals and the façade were all more or less in place, but somehow they seemed strangely detached from reality. It felt a bit as though I had landed on a different planet. The delegates passionately wanted to promote alternative medicine, while I, with equal passion and conviction, wanted to conduct good science. The two aims were profoundly different. Nevertheless, I managed to convince myself that they were not irreconcilable, and that we would manage to combine our passions and create something worthwhile, perhaps even groundbreaking.

Everyone was excited about the new chair in Exeter; high hopes and expectations filled the room. The British alternative medicine scene had long felt discriminated against because they had no academic representation to speak of. I certainly did sympathize with this particular aspect and felt assured that, essentially, I was amongst friends who realized that my expertise and their enthusiasm could add up to bring about progress for the benefit of many patients.
During my short speech, I summarized my own history as a physician and a scientist and outlined what I intended to do in my new post—nothing concrete yet, merely the general gist. I stressed that my plan was to apply science to this field in order to find out what works and what doesn’t; what is safe and what isn’t. Science, I pointed out, generates progress through asking critical questions and through testing hypotheses. Alternative medicine would either be shown by good science to be of value, or it would turn out to be little more than a passing fad. The endowment of the Laing chair represented an important mile-stone on the way towards the impartial evaluation of alternative medicine, and surely this would be in the best interest of all parties concerned.

To me, all this seemed an entirely reasonable approach, particularly as it merely reiterated what I had just published in an editorial for The Lancet entitled “Scrutinizing the Alternatives”.

My audience, however, was not impressed. When I had finished, there was a stunned, embarrassed silence. Finally someone shouted angrily from the back row: “How did they dare to appoint a doctor to this chair?” I was startled by this question and did not quite understand. What had prompted this reaction? What did this audience expect? Did they think my qualifications were not good enough? Why were they upset by the appointment of a doctor? Who else, in their view, might be better equipped to conduct medical research?

It wasn’t until weeks later that it dawned on me: they had been waiting for someone with a strong commitment to the promotion of alternative medicine. Such a commitment could only come from an alternative practitioner. A doctor personified the establishment, and “alternative” foremost symbolized “anti-establishment”. My little speech had upset them because it confirmed their worst fears of being annexed by “the establishment”. These enthusiasts had hoped for a believer from their own ranks and certainly not for a doctor-scientist to be appointed to the world’s first chair of complementary medicine. They had expected that Exeter University would lend its support to their commercial and ideological interests; they had little understanding of the concept that universities should not be in the business of promoting anything other than high standards.

Even today, after having given well over 600 lectures on the topic of alternative medicine, and after coming on the receiving end of ever more hostile attacks, aggressive questions and personal insults, this particular episode is still etched deeply into my memory. In a very real way, it set the scene for the two decades to come: the endless conflicts between my agenda of testing alternative medicine scientifically and the fervent aspirations of enthusiasts to promote alternative medicine uncritically. That our positions would prove mutually incompatible had been predictable from the very start. The writing had been on the wall—but it took me a while to be able to fully understand the message.

2 Responses to Wonderland (2)

  • Dear Professor Ernst, I have just read your book and I found the whole account fascinating.

    Right from your uncertain and somewhat rebellious post war youth, to love and jazz in London, to the cultural and academic archetypes you describe in different European cities to the later research highs and then ridiculous shenanigans in Exeter, I couldn’t put it down. More please! I am neither an academic nor a scientist but I would love to read a ‘popular’ account of your Nazi medicine research. This important subject receives too little attention in your book I think – although the link to wider medical ethics (which you correctly point out is almost completely absent from CAM) at the end is compelling.

    I can understand you feeling battered and bruised by events, and I am sorry that your health suffered as a result, but I sense too much disappointment in your final analysis. Surely the fact that you achieved so much in spite of such weighty (in power not intellect) opposition should be a cause of great personal satisfaction.

    I have always enjoyed your blog but after reading your book I also now feel a certain indebtedness because, even putting aside my complete lack of relevant expertise, I know I wouldn’t have had the sheer strength of character and determination to endure what you did and to carry on. I am glad that you did.

    You have inspired me as I am sure you will inspire others. Keep going!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Comments

Note that comments can be edited for up to five minutes after they are first submitted.


Click here for a comprehensive list of recent comments.

Categories