How ‘scientific’ medicine came into being

In 1959, the English scientist and writer C. P. Snow famously delineated the disparate worlds of the arts and sciences as “the two cultures.” Each had its own language and reference points, and the world was the poorer for their separation.

Medicine, too, has its two cultures, and they have come into stark contrast by the response to the Covid-19 epidemic. ‘Natural’ remedies, such as high-dose vitamin C and D as preventatives and cures, have not been generally adopted in intensive care units,
but instead have been dismissed as unproven or unscientific. 

The view has been supported by studies that have been set up to fail. And one study that did demonstrate success—it reported that vitamin D reduced the number needing intensive care treatment by as much as
60 percent and halved the number of Covid deaths—has been removed from the web pages of The Lancet  medical journal after editors received complaints.

Most studies into nutritional therapies show little or no effect, and it’s usually down to the ignorance of the researchers (to put it as kindly as we can) about nutritional medicine and its effects on the body. Small doses, far below therapeutic levels, are used, or the vitamin is applied incorrectly. 

My mother’s end-stage breast cancer was reversed in three months from high-dose vitamin C given intravenously—and yet studies couldn’t replicate that success. Why? It was eventually discovered that researchers were giving too-low doses orally, a formula for failure.

But go back to the start of the twentieth century and you’ll see medicine was one culture. Homeopathy was the main medical system in the US, and most studies being published explored the effectiveness of vitamins and herbs. More than half of doctors were practicing holistic healing, and the medicine we recognize today was restricted to a few vaccines such as for smallpox, surgery and some potions. 

The revolution that would cause the schism in medicine didn’t come from doctors, researchers or even patients—but from the petrochemical industry. It was in its infancy when the twentieth century dawned, but it was already discovering marvelous things that the chemical offshoots from oil could create. 

The first plastic, Bakelite, was developed in 1907, and scientists were beginning to play with the possibility of developing pharmaceutical drugs from oil.

This brave new world was of special interest to John D. Rockefeller, who controlled
90 percent of oil refineries in the US through his company, Standard Oil. Already a billionaire, Rockefeller saw opportunities in the wonderful new things that petrochemicals could create.

But to accommodate the large-scale manufacturing of drugs, Rockefeller realized he needed to put medicine on a ‘scientific’ footing—all people are the same and so experience illnesses in similar ways, and therefore the same medication can be prescribed to everyone. Welcome to the world of mass production, another industrial innovation of the era.

He just needed proof that the model was true. To achieve that, medicine needed to become a science, and less an art, to produce pills for the masses. 

Rockefeller employed Abraham Flexner, who was on a quest to create consistent standards in the education system, to do the same for medical colleges, half of which were still teaching natural and holistic medicine.

Flexner was impressed by the scientific rigor of the medical schools in Germany and advocated something similar be created in the US. ‘Scientific’-based medical training would eventually be adopted around the world, spurred on by Rockefeller’s magnanimous grants to fund new programs.

Research centers were also funded to isolate the active ingredient in plants and replicate their chemical signatures, which could then be patented. As part of the scientific drive, the American Medical Association was established to uphold ‘good science.’ 

Paradoxically, it was headed by a homeopath, while homeopathy and natural medicine were mocked as quackery. Some who continued to practice the ‘old medicine’ even ended up in jail. To this day, nutrition is taught for around nine hours at medical school, and alternative medicine not at all.

The mantra of Rockefeller’s day, “a pill for an ill,” still holds true now, and doctors have been taught to apply the knee-jerk response of ‘quackery’ and ‘unscientific’ to anything they haven’t been taught at medical school. 

So the two cultures of medicine were created, and coexist today. And as C. P. Snow discovered, the patient is the poorer for the divide.