Introduction to Mavericks of Medicine
By David Jay Brown
As with science, the history of medicine reveals that knowledge often advances through the ideas of maverick thinkers–ideas that were initially greeted with disbelief or even mockery. For example, in 1847, when the Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis started making the claim that puerperal fever was contagious, and that poor sanitation was responsible for spreading the illness from one new mother to another, his fellow physicians thought that he was crazy. “Wash your hands!” he shouted in the hospital maternity wards of Vienna, while the other doctors laughed.
Likewise, in 1628, when British physician William Harvey first proposed that the heart might be a a pump at the center of a closed circulatory system–rather than a “heater” for the blood, as was thought at the time–he was ridiculed by his medical colleagues who thought the idea ridiculous. Then, in 1718, when Lady Mary Wortley Montagu insisted that live smallpox culture be introduced into her son’s veins as an inoculation against the disease, her contemporaries thought that she was worse than nuts. Yet, with time, the ideas of these courageous individuals were vindicated, and history simply abounds with examples of how eccentric individuals–that were initially regarded as quacks–helped to advance science and medicine.
Both science and medicine are inherently conservative. Scientists and physicians are trained to always lean toward convention and to be suspicious of new ideas. This tendency to test new procedures carefully, and to make new declarations cautiously, is partially why science and medicine have been so successful and have such reliable track records. However, it is also why the conventional or mainstream core of established scientific and medical institutions–such as the American Medical Association–always advances much more slowly than the peripheral research frontiers, where eccentric individuals are experimenting with unorthodox possibilities that sometimes conflict with conventional thought.
While the right amount of skepticism can be healthy, and it’s certainly necessary for science and medicine to advance, it can also stand in the way of progress. Unrestrained skepticism can mutate into neophobia–the fear of novelty–if it isn’t properly balanced with open-mindedness and curiosity. Neophobia prevents the unbiased experimentation with new possibilities, and, in its more extreme forms, even causes conventional scientists and physicians to ridicule new ideas simply because they are unconventional. Having a proper balance of open-mindedness and skepticism is essential for science and medicine to properly advance.
While maverick thinkers certainly aren’t always right, without these courageous individuals all scientific and medical progress would stagnate. The history of medicine reveals that during every time period there has been maverick thinkers who were ridiculed by their colleagues for having unconventional ideas that were later vindicated. This means that right now–in the historical epoch in which we currently find ourselves–this scenario is most likely taking place. So then, with this illuminating insight in mind, let us now consider who some of the promising maverick thinkers of our time might be, and what their ideas about medicine might mean.
Conversations on the Frontiers of Medical Research
In your hands is a collection of interdisciplinary interviews that I did with some of the most brilliant and controversial medical researchers and practitioners of our time. This collection of interviews with eminent physicians and cutting-edge researchers explores innovative work in the areas of life extension, cognitive enhancement, improved health and performance, integrative medicine, stem cell research, novel pharmacological and nutritional therapies, prosthetic implants, holistic and traditional medicines, mind-body medicine, euthanasia, and the integration of medicine with other fields of science.
As with my three previous interview books–Mavericks of the Mind, Voices from the Edge, and Conversations on the Edge of the Apocalypse–the people who I chose to interview are those creative and controversial thinkers who have stepped outside the boundaries of consensus thought and seen beyond the traditional and conventional view. I chose highly accomplished people who dare to question authority and think for themselves because it is often this capacity for independent thought that lies at the heart of their exceptional abilities and accomplishments. In questioning old belief systems, and traveling beyond the edges of the established horizons to find their answers, these unconventional thinkers have gained revolutionary insights, and they offer some unique solutions to the problems that are facing modern medicine.
Some of the questions that I will be discussing with these brilliant and courageous individuals have profound implications. What are some of the biggest problems with the way that medicine is practiced today, and what can be done to help improve the situation? What role does the mind play in the health of the body? How can people improve their cognitive or sexual performance? What are the primary causes of aging? What are currently the best ways to slow down, or reverse, the aging process and extend the human life span? How long is it possible for the human life span to be extended? What are some of the new medical treatments that will be coming along in the near future? Do we have the right to die? What role does spirituality play in medicine? Speculating on these important questions can help us to understand our bodies better, improve our health, enhance our performance, and live longer happier lives. Let’s take a look at some of these questions more closely.
What’s Wrong With Modern Medicine and How Can We Improve It?
Almost everyone agrees that something is wrong with modern medicine. I recently attended a talk given by Andrew Weil, and when he announced his prediction that the healthcare system in America would soon collapse, everyone in the room vigorously applauded. However, although most people agree that something is wrong with modern medicine, not everyone agrees as to what it is and what to do about it.
On a most basic level, many patients simply feel that their physicians can’t relate to what they’re going through and that they’re treated like a statistic. As a way to help remedy this situation, mind-body physician Bernie Siegel told me, “One simple suggestion would be to put every doctor into a hospital bed for a week as a patient. Put them in a hospital where they are not known, and have them admitted with a life-threatening illness as their diagnosis. Then let them stay there.”
Another big problem with modern medicine is expense. The skyrocketing costs of healthcare, and the lack of healthcare insurance by many, is a serious problem. According to Larry Dossey, the author of Space, Time, and Medicine, “We’re nearing fifty million people in this country who don’t have health insurance.” So what does Dr. Dossey suggest? “We need government-financed, centralized healthcare for everybody,” he said.
However, not everyone that I spoke with agrees that socialized healthcare is such a good idea. When I spoke with life extension researcher Durk Pearson he said, “The most dangerous possible thing I can think of–other than having a complete police state like Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia–is to have a national medical program. Because, believe me, they are not going to be acting in your interest–they’re going to be acting in their interest. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. When you have a government health system, you have a bunch of bureaucrats telling you when it’s time to die. The reason is very simple. They’ll never collect back from you as much tax money as they spend taking care of you, so it’s time for you to die. Read up on Nobel prize-winning economist James Buchanan’s Public Choice Theory.”
Ironically, many people also seriously question the safety of modern medicine–and for good reason. Dr. Dossey also told me that, “The death rate in American hospitals from medical mistakes, errors, and the side-effects of drugs now ranks as the third leading cause of death, behind heart disease and cancer.” Although some people who have studied the statistics that Dr. Dossey is referring to disagree with this figures, they don’t disagree by much, as even the most hard-nosed skeptics rank medical errors and drug side-effects as the fifth or sixth leading cause of death in American hospitals. Not a very comforting thought.
So the lack of trust that many people have toward modern medicine is understandable. However, an even greater cause for concern is that many people think that the medical establishment and the federal government are deliberately impeding medical advances that might divert profits away from pharmaceutical companies. For example, life extension researcher Durk Pearson–who won a landmark lawsuit against the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), charging the government agency with unconstitutionally restricting manufacturers from distributing truthful health information that could save people’s lives–told me that he thought that the FDA was “the biggest barrier between life extension and people.”
Pearson told me that this is simply because many people in the FDA are financially intertwined with the pharmaceutical companies. According to Pearson’s partner, life extension researcher Sandy Shaw “…right now the FDA favors drug companies. There’s no doubt about it. The drug companies are in bed