Authority and the American Body

cover (17)For much of the second half of the twentieth century, a public debate raged between professionally-trained health experts—doctors, nutritionists, and food scientists—and a motley crew of health reformers. Some of the latter—such as Jerome Rodale, Robert Rodale, and Mark Bricklin—were principled populists who resented the smug elitism of the health professionals and questioned their judgment; others, like Adolphus Hohensee, were opportunistic charlatans who peddled in hope and capitalized on human frailty in the most reprehensible fashion; still others—such as Benjamin Feingold, Adelle Davis, and Robert Atkins—were professionally-trained health experts who, for one reason or another, defected to the enemy camp. Mark Bricklin, often the movement’s most articulate voice, maintained that the conflict between health professionals and the natural health movement was just another episode in the unending struggle between those who think that society should be paternalistically governed by experts and those who believe that an enlightened populace has no need for this kind of guidance.

Despite their claims to professional competence, the orthodox health experts were quite clearly wrong about some things. For instance, Jerome Rodale, Adolphus Hohensee, Adelle Davis, and Carlton Fredericks advocated breastfeeding consistently—throughout the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s—long before the American Academy of Pediatrics got on the bandwagon. The best and brightest of the medical elite insisted, for far too long, that store-bought formula was superior to breast milk. During the same period, American doctors regularly prescribed amphetamine—that is, “speed”—and diuretics to pregnant women to ensure that they did not gain more than fifteen pounds with each pregnancy. Moreover, at present, the consensus among medical experts is that antibiotics have been over prescribed, and that close to ninety percent of the tonsillectomies performed in the decades following World War Two were completely unnecessary.

Health reformers were also often wrong—indeed, manifestly so. Vitamin therapy and herbal remedies, for example, have been subjected to well-designed double-blind studies again and again, and the results have been decidedly underwhelming. Vitamin C does not cure the common cold, as two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling famously maintained; it is, however, a moderately effective antihistamine. Echinacea appears to be even less useful. An herbal supplement derived from purple coneflowers, echinacea was, in 2005, used by close to 15 million Americans, making it the most popular natural product. Yet another excellent study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, found that echinacea neither prevented colds nor eased cold symptoms. Times have been tough for vitamin E, too. Results from a ten-year Harvard study of 20,000 women reported in the July 6, 2005 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association have debunked the notion that vitamin E supplementation prevents cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, or anything else for that matter. Researchers now suspect that long-term vitamin E supplementation may even been harmful. Things are not looking up for the herb St. John’s Wort either. Once believed to be Mother Nature’s answer to Prozac, it now seems to be capable of clearing up a mild case of the blues. As a treatment for even the more moderate forms of clinical depression, however, St. John’s Wort has thus far been proven thoroughly ineffective. In any case, for those who seek to understand the deeper cultural significance of the natural health movement, these time-sensitive judgments are of only limited interest.

The nature of the scientific enterprise is such that the truth it produces is always tentative and imperfect. The facts it manufactures have a shelf-life. For instance, researchers may discover ten years from now that baby formula is, once again, better than mother’s milk. Some pediatricians would surely drag their feet and resist the change, but if the evidence was overwhelming, they would all, in time, recommend store-bought formula. The same could not be said with confidence about unorthodox health reformers. Among their ranks, commitment to the scientific method and the falsification process has been much less consistent. Evidence that contradicts first principles has often been willfully ignored. Health-writer Carlton Fredericks’s wholesale rejection of blood sugar research is a conspicuous example. An ideologue if ever there was one, Fredericks put on the mantle of science whenever it suited him. Yet he flagrantly disregarded numerous scientific studies that demonstrated, quite conclusively, that hypoglycemia—that is, chronic low blood sugar—was not, as he so often claimed, a national epidemic.

Health reformers spoke and wrote in the language of science, and many of their theories were based upon sound research. But these epiphenomena should not distract us from the essentially disingenuous nature of their approach. Men and women like Jerome Rodale and Adelle Davis were not looking for truth when they pored over medical journals; they were looking for vindicating evidence. A priori assumptions guided these plundering expeditions shamelessly, from start to finish. Even so, what was at stake during the second half of the twentieth century was much bigger than any real or imagined fidelity to scientific due process; it was bigger, as well, than the truth or falsity of this or that medical proposition.

Sickness and death are weighty matters and the cadre in any given society—be they priests, witchdoctors, physicians, or pure food activists—that successfully lays claim to epistemic privilege where these things are concerned occupies a powerful place. Mark Bricklin insisted that white-coated scientists occupied that place in twentieth-century America. Both the priest and the scientist, he argued, “feel that they are quite intimately in touch with the true nature of reality. Both the priest and the scientist have to master vast bodies of literature involving strange language and obscure terminology.” “Today,” he added, “if we are uncertain about something, we look to science to give us an explanation. If there is trouble with our crops or trouble with our health, we moderns consult those priests in white coats called scientists.” Even so, Bricklin maintained that perhaps the most telling development was the simple fact that the word “unscientific” was being bandied about in the public sphere—to discredit people and ideas—in much “the same way the word blasphemous used to be used.”

Medical professionals were by far the most numerous members of the priestly scientific caste to which Bricklin referred; they were also the most consequential, since they had face-to-face dealings with the general public on a regular basis. Doctors, in particular, personified scientific authority in a way that other men and women of science could not. “Of all those who consider themselves to be members of the sciencehood,” Bricklin declared, “none are more priest-like than physicians.” It took the medical professionals almost half a century to beat off their rivals—the midwives, homeopaths, chiropractors, and faith healers—and establish themselves as the principal authority on health matters in America. The natural health movement constituted a sustained attack upon this authority.

Looking back in 1984, Mark Bricklin noted that “scientific medicine” had enjoyed unprecedented power and prestige in the 1940s and 1950s. Health professionals had cornered the market; they had a near monopoly on the truth about the American body. But, he added, “we can see that the party mood began to sour about 10 or 15 years ago.” “People,” another Prevention writer declared, “have begun to break the spell of awe surrounding doctors and take care of themselves.” “Ultimately,” alleged yet another, “self-care is a political way of looking at things: Who exercises the power around health? Up until recently, it’s been the doctors and professionals, but now it’s moving toward the consumers and laypeople.”

—John Faithful Hamer, In Healthy Living We Trust (2016)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

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