MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

George Lewith has died on 17 March, aged 67. He was one of the most productive researchers of alternative medicine in the UK; specifically he was interested in acupuncture. If you search this blog, you find several posts that mention him or are entirely dedicated to his work. Undeniably, my own views and research were often very much at odds with those of Lewith.

Wikipedia informs us that Lewith graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge in medicine and biochemistry.  He then went on to Westminster Medical School to complete his clinical studies and began working clinically in 1974. In 1977 Lewith became a member of the Royal College of Physicians. Then, in 1980, he became a member of the Royal College of General Practitioners and, later in 1999, was elected a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians.

He was a Professor of Health Research in the Department of Primary Care at the University of Southampton and a director of the International Society for Complementary Medicine Research. Lewith has obtained a significant number of institutional peer reviewed fellowships at doctoral and post-doctoral level and has been principal investigator or collaborator in research grants totally over £5 million during the last decade.

Between 1980 and 2010, Lewith was a partner at the Centre for Complementary and Integrated Medicine, a private practice providing complementary treatments with clinics in London and Southampton.

A tribute by the British Acupuncture Council is poignant, in my view: “George was a friend not only to all of the acupuncture profession, be it traditional, medical or physiotherapist – he was a member of all three professional bodies – but to the whole of complementary medicine. As well as being a research leader he was also politically savvy, working tirelessly up front and behind the scenes to try to bring acupuncture and CAM further into the mainstream. Nobody did more.”

I find it poignant because it hints at the many differences I (and many others) had with Lewith during the last 25 years that I knew him. George was foremost a proponent of acupuncture. His 1985 book – the first of many – advocated treating many internal diseases with acupuncture!

George did not strike me as someone who had the ability or even the ambition to use science for finding the truth and for falsifying hypotheses; in my view, he employed it to confirm his almost evangelic belief. In the pursuit of this all-important aim he did indeed spend a lot of time and energy pulling strings, including on the political level. George was undoubtedly successful but the question has to be asked to what extent this was due to his tireless work ‘behind the scenes’.

In my view, George was a typical example of someone who first and foremost was an advocate and a researcher second. During my time in Exeter, I have met numerous co-workers who had the same problem. Almost without exception, I found that it is impossible to turn such a person into a decent scientist. The advocacy of alternative medicine always got in the way of objectivity and rationality, qualities that are, of course, essential for good science.

George’s very first publication on acupuncture was a ‘letter to the editor’ published in the BMJ. In it, he announced that he is planning to conduct a trial of acupuncture and stated that “acupuncture will be compared to an equally magical placebo”. Yes, George always had the ability to make me laugh; and this is why I will miss him.

58 Responses to George Lewith (1950-2017)

  • A remarkably gracious obituary, all things considered!

  • How ironic that George Lewith’s seminal letter to the BMJ was followed by one from Mr (later, Sir) Reginald Murley on the subject of collaborative clinical and medical audit.
    If only George had followed the principles of modern clinical audit he might well have earned a prominent place in the pantheon of practitioners.
    I am sure the ‘College of Medicine’, to whom he was a midwife, will provide a thoughtful eulogy.

  • Good George Lewith, may he rest in peace.

  • He died at only 67?
    Acupuncture didn’t do much for him, then..

    • @Lenny

      Tacky!

      • @Lenny on Thursday 23 March 2017 at 11:44

        Perhaps he had chiro and died of a torn artery from a neck twist?

        Why is it that non-meds take the view expressed above yet, generally, crow about the death of a real medical person they regard as an enemy. What will be said about the prof, for example? (Not that I wish any ill will on the prof; may he long be a beacon of reason against the creeping insanity of non-med.)

        • Speaking for the acupuncturists that I know, I can’t imagine any of them would jump on the passing of Prof E (or anyone else) as an opportunity to mock his views, at least I sincerely hope not. If you knew the people in this community you’d realise crowing about someone’s death would be anathema.

    • We each have our destiny. You don’t know what life & trauma’s George Lewith may have endured including the disrespectful energy you appear to be offering towards him even in his death. May George Lewith Rest In Peace.

      • disrespectful?
        energy?
        you have strange definitions of both these terms, I feel.

      • @Julie Tasker on Friday 21 April 2017 at 21:53

        Julie is another A-grade loon, the likes of which pop up here regularly; http://www.jthealing.co.uk/about/

        Her range of “skills” render modern medicine obsolete;

        Health Kinesiology incl. tutor and mentor Energy Healing including tutor Reiki incl. training and attunements
        Shiatsu Indian Head Massage Aromatherapy Sound Healing Therapy
        Massage Therapy Massage in Schools Instructor Infant Reflexology Instructor Master Energy Colour Healing incl. tutor Ear Candling
        Reflexology Foot Reading Meditation: Individual / Group Archetypal Consultancy
        Soul Midwifery: Healing into Death and Dying including bereavement. Also helping to cope with other losses. Stone Massage Yoga: Individual / Group

        For someone who claims to have a BSc (Hons) in Education and Psychology, she must have been asleep in the hard science parts of the course, if indeed it ever happened.

        • Well I have previously offered to meet with you for face to face discussion & yet you have declined.
          I’m not sure why you doubt my qualifications including the BSc(Hons) in Psychology & Education.
          Yet again you are proving yourself to be disrespectful.
          I’ve included my website on your contact information as it appears you have accessed it already http://www.jthealing.co.uk
          All I ask for is respect & allow people to have different healthcare choices that they may even decide to pay for themselves.
          I find word of mouth is the best recommendation – obviously not from people such as you. Then clients continue to access me again through their own choice.
          Interestingly my work within the NHS tends to be for staff & wellbeing events …hmm so complementary therapies are acknowledged as beneficial for staff health & wellbeing 🤔
          Enjoy your life whilst allowing others choice in how they may choose to enjoy theirs.

          • “…complementary therapies are acknowledged as beneficial for staff health & wellbeing …”
            evidence please!

          • Well if you met me we could talk about it & I could share face to face my experiences …
            George Lewith’s death: We need to accept death as a part of life whilst also allowing people choice in their healthcare.
            Edzard: Why do you seem to be so angry about allowing people choice in healthcare?
            You have your life journey & past experiences but why do you seek to have to appear so cross about other people making healthcare choices that differ from yours?

          • We need to accept death as a part of life whilst also allowing people choice in their healthcare.
            Edzard: Why do you seem to be so angry about allowing people choice in healthcare?
            You have your life journey & past experiences but why do you seek to have to appear so cross about other people making healthcare choices that differ from yours?

          • “I find word of mouth is the best recommendation – obviously not from people such as you.”

            In other words: Obviously, Julie Tasker rejects feedback from everyone who has not been helped by Julie Tasker.

            In promotion and of advertising, a testimonial or show consists of a person’s written or spoken statement extolling the virtue of a product. The term “testimonial” most commonly applies to the sales-pitches attributed to ordinary citizens, whereas the word “endorsement” usually applies to pitches by celebrities. Testimonials can be part of communal marketing.

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Testimonial

            Thank you, Julie, for revealing your true colours.

          • @Julie Tasker on Saturday 22 April 2017 at 18:37

            “Well I have previously offered to meet with you for face to face discussion & yet you have declined.”

            To whom is this addressed? If me, I don’t recall such an invitation, though I will be in England in late September and early October near Cornwall.

            “I’m not sure why you doubt my qualifications including the BSc(Hons) in Psychology & Education.”

            If you had studied science and statistics, it is bewildering how you could believe in the claptrap you purvey. It cannot have included any study of critical thinking, epistemology, philosophy, or logical fallacies.

            “Yet again you are proving yourself to be disrespectful.”

            Disrespect of what or whom? A person must earn respect and no idea is quarantined from scrutiny and criticism.

            “I’ve included my website on your contact information as it appears you have accessed it already http://www.jthealing.co.uk

            Self-evident, since I posted the URL.

            “All I ask for is respect & allow people to have different healthcare choices that they may even decide to pay for themselves.”

            I do respect people’s healthcare choice when it is a choice between different forms of “healthcare” and not some contrived rubbish which is unable to show any efficacy.

            “I find word of mouth is the best recommendation – obviously not from people such as you. Then clients continue to access me again through their own choice.”

            This shows you clearly have no idea about science, research, the placebo effect, logical fallacies, regression to the mean, self-limiting, or post hoc ergo propter hoc.

            “Interestingly my work within the NHS tends to be for staff & wellbeing events …hmm so complementary therapies are acknowledged as beneficial for staff health & wellbeing 🤔”

            Who cares? There are fools everywhere.

            “Enjoy your life whilst allowing others choice in how they may choose to enjoy theirs.”

            One might assume, based on the naivety shown in your other posts, you are genuine in your stupidity, however, this tends to show you have a different motive; money.

          • Apologies I meant I had offered to Edzard to meet.

            Would you like to arrange a meeting?

            Kind regards
            Julie

          • no, thanks

    • Hardly kind or appropriate!

  • I’ve got a copy of an even earlier Lewith book, from 1980:

    ‘Modern Chinese Acupuncture’
    By GT Lewith and NR Lewith.
    Thorsons Publishers Ltd.
    Wellingborough, Northants
    ISBN 0-7225-0662-7.

    It explains that it is inspired by, and derived from, a three-month British Council-sponsored acupuncture course that the two authors attended at the College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Nanking in 1977. The dedication is ‘To our Chinese friends and teachers’.

    • “a three-month British Council-sponsored acupuncture course that the two authors attended at the College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Nanking in 1977”

      A three month course and a definitive book as a result? It suggests much about the paucity of thought about and rigour of the subject.

  • For all the disagreements over many years, George remained a provocative debater who retained his sense of humour and his interest in people and in illness . The field will be less stimulating without him.

  • Pretty crass and insensitive to use someone’s death as a spur to criticise them and promote your own world view I’d say.

    • yet someone who knows the situation much better than you commented: “A remarkably gracious obituary, all things considered!”
      so perhaps what you’d say is not all that objective ???

      • The situation is pretty straightforward – the man died. Show some class.

      • Perhaps just considering your past comments & judgements … Do you consider yourself to be totally objective? If so: how come? … as inevitably emotion & feelings bring some subjectivity in … unless you are the robot that your computer check offsets … ah we as audience aren’t allowed to check it really is you that responds…
        Also your responding audience so far as needed an amount of competence in maths … what about others who perhaps aren’t competent sufficiently in maths & yet are ‘real’ people….

        • @Julie Tasker on Saturday 22 April 2017 at 21:04

          “Also your responding audience so far as needed an amount of competence in maths … what about others who perhaps aren’t competent sufficiently in maths & yet are ‘real’ people….”

          It is simple Roman numerals, not competence in maths. You are really painting a picture of immense stupidity.

    • @Tom Kennedy on Friday 24 March 2017 at 19:13

      More crass than writing complete crap, such as this; http://www.tomtheacupuncturist.com/research/, or more crass than misreading a post to suit your own agenda of flogging b@llshit to the gullible?

      You are also out of your depth with this crap; http://www.tomtheacupuncturist.com/resources/

      • @Frank not that I want to get involved in a pointless debate, but should I take it that you deem everything on the links you’ve posted to be ‘crap’, or were there specific things you found so offensive? The respective aims of those pages were to provide a summary of some of the problems inherent in acupuncture research; and to offer simple, sensible advice about leading a healthier life. Although I wrote them quite a while ago and they could do with updating, I think I achieved those goals in a modest way (I’ve had feedback from people who’ve found the latter helpful I’m happy to say), but I look forward to being enlightened. Can I also ask, out of curiosity, what your own background is?

        • @Tom Kennedy on Saturday 25 March 2017 at 14:57

          What you know about research would not take up the head of a pin. The good prof has tried to help but, apparently, you know better, embracing witchcraft even the Chinese discarded until Chairman Mao needed a quick fix for the masses.

          • @Frank And I dare say what you know about Chinese Medicine wouldn’t take up the head of a fine-gauge acupuncture needle. Thanks for your thought-provoking and intelligent critique of my work – I will take it deeply to heart.

          • @Tom Kennedy on Sunday 26 March 2017 at 22:00

            I need to know about “Chinese medicine” and acupuncture in the same way I need to know how many miniature unicorns can fit on the head of a pin.

          • Frank, do you suppose your head of a fine-gauge acupuncture needle understanding of Chinese medicine is enough to say it’s witchcraft?

            Do you think it’s good practice to come to definitive conclusions with such little understanding of a subject?

          • @jm on Wednesday 26 April 2017 at 08:57

            “Frank, do you suppose your head of a fine-gauge acupuncture needle understanding of Chinese medicine is enough to say it’s witchcraft?

            Do you think it’s good practice to come to definitive conclusions with such little understanding of a subject?”

            As usual, your inability to process means, I repeat;
            “I need to know about “Chinese medicine” and acupuncture in the same way I need to know how many miniature unicorns can fit on the head of a pin.”

      • Your over all tone isn’t actually discussion but merely attempting to discredit, & having to resort to words such as crap & bullshit merely shows your lack of listening & perhaps trying to understand that each person deserves to be allowed genuine choice rather than to be belittled for their choices. If they didn’t feel benefit they wouldn’t continue t access acupuncture & other complementary therapies.

    • Science is NOT a “world view”.

  • Dr George Lewith was my practitioner for onwards of 20 years – he was an inspiration and I miss him terribly since he retired several years ago. His approach was gentle and he got me better over the years. I will miss you George may you RIP

  • This post begs the question: What did he die of?

    • I have no idea. all I found was this:
      George unexpectedly passed away at the age of 67 while on a trip to Austria on Friday 17 March.
      Elsewhere, someone stated that he died peaceful in his sleep.

    • Why do you need to question what George died of? Jesus died, at only 38 years old, on the cross having been betrayed etc. Jesus still is celebrated for his life & death throughout the world by many even now.
      George obviously had a lot of empathy as a genuine & authentic person, & through that empathy has fulfilled his life & death destiny, having touched many lives in positive ways … if only each person, including Dr Ernst & yourself, could be suggested by others as bringing that fortitude to at least one life…

      • @ Julie Tasker:

        At least we know how Jesus died–and of course he had the advantage of not staying dead–for believers anyway.

        @EE

        Thank you for the reply. I am always curious about cause of death and find that even the almighty internet falls short on this one. If the initial obit doesn’t give it, then you can scour the interwebs for hours and still not find out. In the case of celebrities, it will come out later after the autopsy, but the ordinary dead seem pretty good at maintaining their privacy in the internet age sometimes. 🙂

  • George Lewith was someone I got to know over the last few years as my own research activity began to interdigitate with a lot of what he and other academics at the University of Southampton were investigating. I will remember him as a mentor, a hugely intelligent and curious man, someone that could simultaneously eviscerate with insightful critique of an idea or plan while simultaneously and rapidly picking one back up and leading with kindness and expertise toward a better idea or a more fruitful trajectory. He mentored and influenced many influential academics and thinkers and even more young researchers who wanted to help improve the way our healthcare system and clinicians helped the patients in their care. He was a champion of the young career researcher and had many and diverse individuals under his expert care. He pursued a more inclusive and some would say more compassionate view as to what medicine actually constitutes and how one might deliver the best care possible, unshackled from the constraint of some of the traditions and power structures inherent in the field of medicine. He was an original; innovative, courageous, smart, a pioneer. Most of all he was a kind and good friend. I will miss him very much.

  • George Lewith was a wonderful man, especially kind and encouraging to young researchers. I think he desired to help patients and was thoughtful in his puzzlement over findings from various complementary medicine studies, which did not have the simple interpretations found in many drug studies. I always found him open to critiques regarding methodological rigor. Complementary medicine’s greatest gift may well be its holism, perhaps this is a “placebo”, but if so, one that needs to be understood and exploited clinically so long as it can be ethically done. I appreciate George’s thoughtfulness in this regard. I believe he will be mourned as a pioneer in this area. Pioneers may well make mistakes in some of the details, but they help us look at findings in a new and more useful fashion. I believe this will stand the test of time far more than the findings of an encyclopedia of meta-analyses and systematic reviews that are broad in scope, poorly done and always end with the caution that the studies are poor quality and more research needs to be done. As an epidemiologist and clinical trialist, I am well aware that rigor is critical but unthoughtful meta-analyses of tiny studies get old after awhile. Edzard, I shall remember you as someone who was courageous enough to leave the University of Vienna after finding out about it’s shady past and someone who wanted to apply rigor to the field of complementary medicine, but was unable to get past some biases. Moreover, the execution of the systematic reviews and meta-analyses in those situations where I worked with you or reviewed them, was often poor, leading me to doubt the conclusions of the trials. None of us is perfect, but I hope to focus on the good qualities of those who have left us.

    • Veiling your false accusations against Dr. Ernst in sympathetic language is rather hypocritical to your thesis, no? Your employer should be informed of your misunderstanding of the scientific method.

  • Complementary medicine’s greatest gift may well be its holism, perhaps this is a “placebo”, but if so, one that needs to be understood and exploited clinically so long as it can be ethically done.

    No, holism is not placebo and holism is not unique to “CAM”. Placebo and its effect is already well understood and efficiently and ethically exploited in everyday health care all over the world.
    Don’t get me started on “holism”, a term abjectly misused as a marketing cliché for CAM. But allow me to dissect your fallacy concerning placebo.
    The placebo effect may be defined as the improvement-enabling factor left unexplained when effects of the external factor(s) being studied and of the normal disease/healing process have been accounted for. As many have shown placebo effects have mostly neglected to subtract the effect of normal disease process variability (regression to the mean) resulting in gross overestimation of the purported placebo effect. This has not only been a problem in studies trying to isolate the placebo effect, but even more so in studies of unlikely and imaginary interventions (CAM), where normal self-improvement is systematically mistaken for an external effect of the intervention being investigated. The oft cited “30% placebo effect” is thus a serious overestimation.
    The placebo effect is not some mysterious, hitherto unexplained, unlikely magic inherent in an intervention, just waiting to be elucidated by further research. It is simply the small but significant contribution to a patient’s well being that is provided by good, compassionate, holistic[sic] and competent health care staff (not only doctors) every day. We may need to improve and facilitate this, but we do not need help from amateurs wielding more or less unsubstantiable and incredible inventions.
    We do not need to lie to our patients that e.g. imaginary “zones” in the soles of their feet are connected to their internal organs and massaging them contributes to their healing through a misinterpretation of a perfectly well defined effect that has nothing to do with the massage other than providing a sense of well-being. We can massage our patient’s feet and thereby their souls without lying and perhaps even defrauding them s many do. We can apply the placebo effect with honest, upright and most of all, truthful measures of loving human interaction. Lying to your patient and even injuring him or her with needles, unproven herb-teas or silly suction cups, is neither efficacious nor honest. The placebo effect provided by a compassionate and caring CAM-ist is short-lived and as likely to hurt as to heal.

    The placebo effect is not going to be uncovered in further studies of Hepar Sulf 30C, or needling of mystical meridian points. It is inherent in any TLC -Tender Loving Care. Further studies are not warranted.

    • It’s the gooey, wooey, mystical and dishonest or ignorant claptrap which CAM piles on top of the placebo effect which makes me sick.

      George Lewith may have had some beautiful human qualities but he bought himself a prize pup with CAM.

      • Please explain ‘scientific’. Dr. Ernst appears to lack an openness to allow people to decide for themselves without being made to feel inferior – even this blog requires a certain ability of mathematics including roman numerals to enable posts… what of others who could actually offer their thoughts & experiences?

    • @Björn Geir

      No, holism is not placebo and holism is not unique to “CAM”.

      Not only is holism not unique to CAM, but most CAM is not remotely holistic. Most CAM restricts itself to a specific type of treatment (which is why they are so hostile to the sort of rigorous testing which is capable of showing that the treatment doesn’t work), and when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Hence, for example, homoeopathy considers its patients to be nothing more than collections of symptoms to be treated with a sugar pill, and chiropractic assumes that whatever is wrong with the patient requires ‘adjustment’. No system that is tied to a specific modality can achieve holism.

  • You complete cretin Ernst, he was a far better man than you could ever aspire to be.
    Disgraceful obituary

    • thanks for the compliment!
      in case anyone wonders who Andrew is [I don’t think I have ever met him but I looked him up]:
      Andrew Sordyl is a well respected, highly qualified and experienced exponent of his profession. After three years Diploma study at the London School of Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine, he completed a two year post-graduate Licentiate in Oriental Herbal Medicine at the London College of Traditional Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. He has completed post-graduate clinical training at the second affiliated hospital in Nanjing, China, and in the Colombo general hospital in Sri Lanka.
      He has trained in, and mastered, all the disciplines of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) including Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, Tuina, nutrition, meditation, Qi Gong, as well as Shiatsu, Yoga and western massage. He has a background in Homeopathy and is a Master Practitioner of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), which he uses in Life Coaching. He is a member of the Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine (MRCHM) and Member or the British Acupuncture Council (MBAcC).
      He has been practising since 1994 and has three busy Clinics in Surrey. Because of his former extensive experience in business, and as a family man, he brings great insight and empathy to his work.

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