MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

Guest post by Louise Lubetkin

(A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND: A MEMOIRE OF SEARCHING FOR TRUTH AND FINDING TROUBLE has now been published. An apt opportunity perhaps to post a letter and comment from the person who helped me GREATLY in finishing it.)

People write memoirs for a variety of reasons but perhaps one of the strongest impelling forces is the need to make sense of one’s own experiences. It is not surprising that you, who spent your entire professional career searching for explanations, identifying associations and parsing correlations, found yourself looking at your own life with the same analytical curiosity. Memoir is in many respects a natural choice in this regard.

That you chose to undertake a profoundly personal inventory at this juncture is also understandable in human terms. Retirement, whether anticipated and planned for, or (as in your case) thrust rudely upon you, reorders one’s sense of identity in ways that cannot fail to prompt reflection. It would have been surprising had you not felt an urge to look back and take stock, to trace the narrative arc of your life from its beginnings in post-war Germany all the way to the quiet house in rural Suffolk where you now sit, surrounded by the comfort of books and the accumulated paraphernalia of a life spent digging and delving in search of the building blocks of truth.

Given the contentious circumstances surrounding your departure from academic life, it is quite likely that you will be asked whether your decision to write a memoir was driven, at least in part, by a desire to settle scores. I think you can dismiss such a question unhesitatingly. You have no scores to settle: you came to England after a steady and unbroken ascent to the apex of your professional career, voluntarily leaving behind a position that most people would regard with envy and deference. You were never a supplicant at Exeter’s door; far from it. The fact that things went inexorably downhill over the course of your 20 years’ tenure there, and ended so deplorably, is not a reflection on you, your department, or the quality or quantity of work you turned out. Rather, it is a reflection on the very nature of the work you went there to do – and if there is any message in your memoir, it is this:

Alternative medicine is not, at its heart, a logical enterprise, and its adherents are not committed to – nor even interested in – a rational evaluation of their methods. Rather, alternative medicine is primarily an ideological position, a political credo, a reaction against mainstream medicine. To many of its adherents and impassioned advocates, its appeal lies not in any demonstrable therapeutic efficacy but in its perceived outsider status as the countercultural medicine, the medicine for Everyman, the David to the bullying medical-pharmaceutical Goliath. That your research work would elicit howls of protest was perhaps inevitable, given the threat it posed to the profitable and powerful alternative medicine industry. But it didn’t stop there: astonishingly, your work drew the ire of none less than the meddlesome heir apparent to the British throne. Prince Charles’ attempts to stymie your work call to mind the twelfth century martyr Thomas à Becket, of whom Henry II reputedly cried: “Oh, who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” (Henry’s sycophantic henchmen were quick to oblige, dispatching the hapless cleric on the steps of Canterbury cathedral.)

It’s clear that you were acutely aware, as a young man growing up in Germany, that science was not immune to the corrupting influence of political ideology, and that the German medical profession had entered – enthusiastically – into a Faustian compact with the Nazi regime. You have exhibited a courageous insistence on confronting and examining a national past that has at times felt like an intensely personal burden to you. It is ironic that in going to sleepy Exeter in an earnest, conscious attempt to shake off the constricting, intrigue-ridden atmosphere of academic Vienna, you ultimately found yourself once again mired in a struggle against the influence of ideology and the manipulation of science for political ends.

You went to Exeter strictly as a scientist, a skilled inquirer, a methodical investigator, expecting to be able to bring the rigors of logic and the scientific method to bear on an area of medical practice that had until then not been subjected to any kind of systematic evaluation. Instead, you were caught in a maelstrom of intrigue far worse than that which you had gratefully left behind in Vienna, buffeted and bruised by forces against which a lesser man would surely not have had the fortitude to push back so long and so hard.

7 Responses to A Scientist in Wonderland: a thoughtful comment on my new book

  • What a lovely letter! What a great friend to have. This is the most succinct summary of alternative medicine that I have read–a brilliant synthesis. I look forward to a very good read (I believe I have this pre-ordered at Amazon, but will make sure).

  • “Alternative medicine is not, at its heart, a logical enterprise, and its adherents are not committed to – nor even interested in – a rational evaluation of their methods. Rather, alternative medicine is primarily an ideological position, a political credo, a reaction against mainstream medicine.”

    Let us give thanks for that glimpse through the Doors of Perception and for Edzards Ernst’s revealations of the thereafter.

  • What a beautiful and deserved tribute.

  • today, I was approached by the ‘daily mail’; they wanted to do a feature on my new book focussing on the ‘prince Charles story’. when I tried to divert them to the real issues of my book [disregarding reason, endangering enlightenment values etc.], they dropped the idea. I suppose the DM and enlightenment do not mix all that well.

  • As always, my support and admiration for your life’s work against quackery, misinformation and outright cheating. You are an example worldwide, although at times it may seem you’re fighting the good fight alone. You’re not. Best wishes for the success of your book.

  • Thank you, Edzard for your integrity and fortitude. You have always strived to bring the best and most effective
    Medicine for our patients. Your comments are right on. You were inadvertently fighting a counter-culture that inherently is quite dangerous to the future of good medicine. Along with you, I have tried to extract the most important attributes from other medical cultures but, unfortunately, the truth turns you into a pariah (sometime from both sides). However, the truth will prevail, and a humanistic medicine based on science and compassionate physicians will develop thanks to your critical thinking. Frankly, you deserve an OBE, but what the *^#%, taxes could be better spent on healthcare instead.

    Best wishes,
    Stephen Sagar
    Professor of Oncology
    McMaster University

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