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Confessions of a Medical Heretic

by
Robert S. Mendelsohn, MD
1979

Reviewed by Mira de Vries

Although he was not the first to do so, even over a quarter of a century ago when he wrote this book, Mendelsohn describes Modern Medicine as a religion:
physicians = priests
research = prayer
medical jargon = sacred language
patient and family histories = confessions
drugs = communion wafers
hospitals = temples
operating rooms = tabernacles
operations = ritual mutilations
institutional care = holy war on the family
non-drug healers = infidels
medical failure = the devil
death = the god
He jocularly observes, “[D]octors always say to take ‘two tablets’ of five grains each despite the availability of a single, ten-grain aspirin tablet. Could there be some sort of religions significance of receiving ten of something in two tablets?” More seriously, he points out that “Modern Medicine is an idolatrous religion, for what it holds sacred are not living things but mechanical processes.”

Mendelsohn himself may be credited with prophecy in light of the 2005 Vioxx fiasco, as he was writing this in 1979: “One of the unwritten rules of Modern Medicine is always to write a prescription for a new drug quickly, before all of its side effects have come to the surface. Nowhere is this syndrome more evident than in the unleashing of the herd of new antiarthritic drugs on unsuspecting patients.”

Not only most drugs are unnecessary and dangerous, according to the author, but also most operations, and even just being in the hospital, with its germs, poor diet, emotional stresses, and isolation of the patient from family and friends. As to preventive medicine, he states, “If this is preventive medicine, I’ll take my chances with disease.”

I ordered the book during a recent strike of family physicians in the Netherlands. Physicians here are not allowed to stay on strike more than three days consecutively. Having lived in other countries where physicians’ strikes lasted for months, I was aware that at their conclusion, statistics consistently reveal a drop in mortality during the strike period. However, at the time I didn't foresee that decades later I would become an activist, so failed to keep newspaper clippings to use as references. On the Internet I learned that Mendelsohn refers to physicians’ strikes in this book, but I didn't realize that he had already published it in 1979, before the strikes I experienced. Also, unfortunately, he does not provide sources for his claims. In the bibliography he explains that he purposely avoided footnotes so as not to interfere with the reader’s concentration on the book itself and because his ideas are plain common sense. He’s right that the book is comfortable to read this way, but a claim like drops in mortality during physicians’ strikes does need to be buttressed by a source, which I now still do not have.

Plain common sense, however, is quite satisfactory a source when he states: “What was once an option of a free people is becoming an enforced obligation. … If doctors didn’t want more and more power over the individual, why would more and more medical procedures be showing up as laws?... [N]ormally alert and powerful organizations like labor unions and the American Civil Liberties Union haven’t responded to this threat against our freedom. They fail to acknowledge the problem because they subscribe to the religion of Modern Medicine.”

Mendelsohn’s otherwise excellent book goes off on a tangent when he tries to meet the demand for an alternative vision. The new type of doctor he fantasizes is not only unrealistic, but just as much a priest as the kind he disparages, only of a different sect. MeTZelf’s alternative vision is to make us a nation of priests by educating everybody in medicine. As the author points out, “Anybody with an eighth grade education and a dictionary can read any medical book.” (his italics) When he wrote that, he probably hadn’t in his wildest dreams imagined the Internet.

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