A Few Notes on Robert Mendelsohn, M.D.
Robert S. Mendelsohn, M.D. (1926-1988) engaged in irresponsible criticism of the medical profession and science-based health care during most of his medical career. Although he had taught at several medical schools and been chairman of the Illinois state licensing board, Mendelsohn considered himself a "medical heretic." He opposed water fluoridation, immunization, coronary bypass surgery, licensing of nutritionists, and screening examinations to detect breast cancer. One of his books charged that "Modern Medicine's treatments for disease are seldom effective, and they're often more dangerous than the diseases they're designed to treat"; that "around ninety percent of surgery is a waste of time, energy, money and life"; and that most hospitals are so loosely run that "murder is even a clear and present danger." From 1981 to 1982, Mendelsohn was president of the [../Nonrecorg/nhf.html National Health Federation], a group whose primary purpose is to prevent government agencies from protecting consumers against quackery. He spoke frequently at NHF conventions and produced a newsletter and a syndicated newspaper column, both called The People's Doctor. He was also president of the New Medical Foundation, a tax-exempt organization formed in the late 1970s to support "innovative forms of medical education of the public and the medical profession." At a meeting sponsored by this group in 1984, he said:
Doctors complain that quacks keep patients away from orthodox medicine. I cheer! Since all the treatments, both orthodox and alternative, for cancer, coronary heart disease, hypertension, stroke, and arthritis, are equally unproven, why would a sane person choose treatment that can kill the patient?
In 1986, the National Nutritional Foods Association gave Mendelsohn its annual Rachel Carson Memorial Award for his "concerns for the protection of the American consumer and health freedoms." During the mid-1980s, Mendelsohn was a guest on hundreds of radio and television talk shows. His unfair attack on immunization on Phil Donahue's show was so irresponsible that spokespeople from the American Academy of Pediatrics were permitted to rebut that he said in a follow-up program shortly afterward. As far as I know, this is the only time that Donahue's producers ever permitted unopposed criticism of quack nonsense. The jacket of Mendelsohn's 1984 book How to Raise a Healthy Child . . . in Spite of Your Doctor described Mendelsohn as practicing pediatrics for almost 30 years. However this description was misleading. During a 1980 deposition, Mendelsohn said that had practiced full-time from 1955 through 1966, held administrative jobs for about ten years, and resumed practicing in 1976 but saw only 6 to 12 patients per week. He also testified that he opposed "all forms of routine examinations by any health practitioner of any kind" and said that no one should ever see a doctor when feeling healthy. Here is a review of Mendelsohn's first anti-medical book:
Book Review: Confessions of a Medical Heretic (Warner Books, 1980)
Whereas a calm, mature, and scholarly application of professional self-examination can readily uncover many areas for correction or modification in the practice of modern medicine, Robert Mendelsohn chooses instead to take the low road in an apparent effort to use shock therapy for the selling of his very private and dogmatic panaceas. What ensues is a boring and repetitive harangue which attacks frontally the patient-doctor relationship and tries ineffectually to foster a hodge-podge of confused views about the physician as a social and scientific manipulator of the patient's well being.
Confessions of a Medical Heretic aims a litany of indictments at most life-benefiting therapeutics whose occasional side effects are considered grounds for outlawing all pharmacologic research, and essentially all physicians whose motivations, mentality, and training are thought by the author to be perverse, and at an entire health care system which is defamed as being diabolically structured and contrived for patient abuse. Although it can be readily acknowledged that medicine as a profession, like most of society, is peopled by a spectrum from good to bad, it is pathetic to find a physician so negativistic and so obviously laying bare his own lack of professional joy.
If this book were merely one man's diatribe about his own career dissatisfactions and misadventures, it could be passed over as yet another commercial "pop paperback. What becomes disturbing, however, is the amount of actual misinformation dispensed on such health tenets as childhood immunizations, fluoridation, the causes of breast cancer, and even the alleged transmission of disease via the use of the stethoscope. It is gratifying that some of us can still recall with satisfaction our exposure to some of the giants of medical education whose wise teachings have never reached this overbearing prophet of gloom.
In truth, this book makes several cogent observations such as the overuse of laboratory procedures by physicians and the now well accepted value of second opinions in order to curb unnecessary surgery. But these few appropriate consumer alerts become diluted to near obscurity by the incessant pleas for the author's two ``cures for all ills --- home birthing and breastfeeding. In the case of breastfeeding, medical experts have long ago conceded to its nutritional, emotional, and practical superiority over formula feeding, but this principle hardly requires the monolithic arrogance of a pedant. As for home deliveries in an age of life-saving technology for high-risk pregnancies, the author shows an astounding ignorance of biostatistics.
After nearly decimating all systems and people that make up the rubric of modern medical practice, Dr. Mendelsohn puts forth a naive collection of personal notions, hardly new and mostly ethereal, that constitute his "New Medicine. As the replacement for all past medical discovery, including the body thermometer, we are subjected to exhortations that we should all love one another, that the home is the temple of all good things, and that marriage and bearing children will counteract most depressions and other feelings of ill health. Such are the simplistic solutions of a pediatrician who has apparently labored too long in the nursery and not experienced sufficient exposure to the real adult world.
If the author has just now made the discovery that a good physician should be a sensitive and caring person who relates warmly and sincerely to his patient, he has fortunately been preempted long ago by the wise writings and humble teaching of Sir William Osler and Dr. Francis Peabody. If the arrogance of the modern day physician must be exposed and dissected in a constructive manner, so be it – but I would then refer the reader to the posthumous publication of Dr. Franzingelfinger's gentle but persuasive essay in a recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. From such responsible writing should blow the winds to change.
Joseph M. Miller, M.D., M.P.H
ACSH News & Views, March/April, 1981