First mad, then destroyed
May 24th 2017, 13:35
Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.
Medicine's governing bodies—those who determine the truth about disease, its causes and proper treatments at any given time—clearly took a leaf from Euripides's book when it came to dealing with malcontents, nay-sayers and iconoclasts—or, in other words, people who disagree.
The history of medicine is littered with visionary folk who were right, told they were wrong, then driven mad in the process before their careers and reputations were destroyed. When they were safely out of the way (as in dead, retired or banished), someone from the 'right' side of the fence would pop up, say exactly the same thing and be applauded for his wonderful insight.
You don't have to look too far back in time to find an example. Step forward John Yudkin, the nutritionist physiologist who set up the nutrition department at the University of London. Back in the 1970s, Yudkin was banging on about how sugar was the real cause of heart disease. But by then, saturated fats had been fingered as the culprit, based on the theory expounded by Ancel Keys and 'proven' by what has since been revealed to be some pretty dodgy science.
No matter—it launched the multibillion-dollar statin drug industry and the even more lucrative low-fat food and diet-drink industry. With that sort of money at stake, Yudkin was about as welcome as a mime act on a radio show.
So, taking lesson one from the Euripides Guidebook for Sorting Out Malcontents, the process of making Yudkin go mad began. The British Sugar Bureau started the ball rolling with a press release that dismissed him as "emotional", while the chorus was bolstered by the World Sugar Research Organisation, which described his theory as "science fiction".
Yudkin fought back and sued the organizations. They quickly retracted their slanderous remarks with this apology: "Professor Yudkin recognizes that we do not agree with his views and accepts that we are entitled to express our disagreement." So, having been slandered, it now read as though he was the narrow-minded bigot who couldn't stand being contradicted.
Then stage two of the Madness Process kicked in. Yudkin found himself suddenly, and inexplicably, uninvited to conferences, and even the ones he had organized were mysteriously cancelled. Papers he submitted were left out of publications, and his own college refused to let him use the research facilities he had created once he had retired.
As he once wrote: "Can you wonder that one sometimes becomes quite despondent about whether it is worthwhile trying to do scientific research in matters of health? The results may be of great importance in helping people to avoid disease, but you then find they are being misled by propaganda designed to support commercial interests in a way you thought only existed in bad B films."
He died in 1995, a forgotten and discredited scientist.
Move the clock forward to today and guess what? Sugar is becoming recognized as the real cause of heart disease. Poor Yudkin: driven mad, then destroyed.
Wouldn't happen today? Just ask Prof Tim Noakes or Dr Gary Fettke. Noakes is the scientist at the University of Cape Town who, over the years, has become an advocate of the high-fat/low-carb diet. A couple of years back, he found himself in front of the Health Professions Council of South Africa for sending a Tweet to a breastfeeding mother about giving her baby high-fat breast milk, then weaning it onto high-fat foods.
It wasn't clear what the charge against him was, as it wasn't apparent what rules, if any, he'd breached. Not surprisingly, he was eventually acquitted, but the country's Nutrition Society, which had started the whole rigmarole, remained unrepentant. In a statement, it said: "We are glad that the hearing has been finalized after almost three years, unless there is an appeal. The judgement, however, has absolutely no bearing on the current or future status of nutrition or the dietary guidelines in South Africa."
So, having been left hanging for three years, Noakes could still face a new hearing, and he is still wrong, say his persecutors, and always will be. About what? Having a different point of view, it seems.
In the case of Gary Fettke, a surgeon in Australia, he has been "banned from giving nutritional advice to his patients or the public for the rest of his medical career". Fettke is another high-fat/low-carb advocate who happened to recommend the diet to a patient who had type 2 diabetes. Although the patient saw his diabetes reverse, Fettke hadn't followed the standard dietary protocols, which attest that diabetes can't be cured by diet (even when it is). By now, some of you may be quietly whispering the name of Andy Wakefield under your breath, but I couldn't possibly comment.