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Mainstream Medicine's Serene Rebel

October 22, 2000|SUSAN VAUGHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Andrew Weil's cherubic countenance is recognizable to millions. His kindly eyes, peaceful expression, fluffy beard and shining dome shout health and wellness, his twin passions.

While more traditional--and far less famous--doctors grapple with managed-care strictures, insurance woes and declining public trust, Weil seems blissfully unaffected.

In fact, with eight best-selling books under his belt, a citation as one of Time magazine's 25 most influential people, a Web site racking up an estimated 2 million hits a month and a clinic with a waiting list of 1,500 patients, Weil seems to have reached physician nirvana.

But not all is well in Weilville. Like another rebel doctor before him--Benjamin Spock--the paterfamilias of alternative medicine has drawn the ire of peers who disagree with his medical philosophies.

Ironically, Weil's staunchest and most media-ready nemesis is one of his former Harvard Medical School instructors: professor emeritus Arnold Relman, a former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine.

"I taught that man physiology, and what he says about respiration will make me prematurely gray," said Relman about Weil, who wrote and recorded an audio CD, "Breathing: The Master Key to Self Healing" (Sounds True, 1999).

Relman and other traditional medicos express irritation that Weil might consider alternative healing methods such as homeopathy, therapeutic touch and what Relman calls "that nonsense mind-body stuff" as potentially curative as traditional medicine. They chastise him for not publishing research in peer-reviewed journals to prove the modalities work. And they blanch at the thought of adding such subjects to medical-school curricula.

"He had the advantage of a Harvard education," said Relman, who wrote a nearly 9,000-word jeremiad about Weil in the New Republic. "This is a guy who ought to know better."

At the mention of his former teacher's name, Weil sighs. "It seems he is quite obsessed with me," he said. "And the only reason I can think of for it is that I'm an articulate, credentialed spokesperson." When prodded further, Weil confides, "I really think he's a dinosaur."

Weil's decades-long refusal to conform to the American medical establishment's dogma has earned him considerable controversy. After completing studies in ethnobotany, Weil attended Harvard Medical School. While there, he explored marijuana's medicinal uses--and later drew public denunciation for having done so from Vice President Spiro Agnew.

Upon graduating in 1968, Weil found himself disenchanted with his medicalschool training. He believed he had been taught to treat symptoms, rather than to look for underlying causes of disease, he later wrote in "Spontaneous Healing: How to Discover and Enhance Your Body's Natural Ability to Maintain and Heal Itself" (Knopf, 1995). He also had been trained to rely on pharmaceuticals and all but ignore the body's ability to heal itself.

From 1969 to 1973, Weil traveled through Mexico, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, among other countries, to study medicinal plants, belief-based healing and shamanism. The world became his classroom, and he returned to the United States with new ideas: Altered consciousness--induced through trances, meditation, ritual magic, hypnosis and psychedelic drugs--could generate powerful insights and foster healing. The mind could cause sickness--or produce health.

Perhaps if Weil had remained in South America, sampling psychoactive mushrooms and chewing yoco vines, his conservative foes could have ignored him. But Weil rankled them by declaring war on their medical practices and teachings. While churning out bestsellers and propounding alternative health treatments over the years, he concurrently announced that he intended to try to overhaul medical-school curricula and establish "integrative medicine"--the amalgamation of carefully selected conventional Western and alternative health treatments--as a new medical school discipline.

A battle of words, mostly dauntingly polysyllabic and technical, ensued. Conservative physicians and researchers contended that Weil was attempting to mainstream quackery.

Weil countered that his goal was to find better treatments for maladies that hadn't responded well to allopathic protocols. These include allergies, chronic skin problems, cancers, digestive ailments, autoimmune disorders, chronic degenerative disease and stress-related ailments. To accomplish this, he said, he would explore the efficacy of homeopathic, naturopathic, herbal and osteopathic remedies, among other nontraditional offerings.

His aim is not to abolish conventional medical practices, he stressed, but to add to physicians' healing arsenals.

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