The Man Who Invented Medical School

More

Elsewhere on our site, there's a lively debate raging around David H. Freedman's recent Atlantic magazine story about alternative medicine. Today, we're featuring a response by David Colquhoun, an acerbic British pharmacologist who bemoans the decline of The Atlantic, the folly of his fellow panelists, and the crumbling of the entire U.S. health care system. 

Writing about the growing number of American doctors who support alternative medicine, Colquhoun laments:

This is all very sad for a country that realized quite early that the interests of patients were best served by using treatments that had been shown to work. The Flexner report of 1910 led the world in the rational education of physicians. But now even places like Yale and Harvard peddle snake oil to their students.

As it happens, the author of that report, Abraham Flexner, was an Atlantic contributor. In 1910, the magazine published "Medical Education in America," an excerpt from his landmark report on America's 155 medical schools. "Not a few so-called university medical departments are such in name only," Flexner wrote, explaining how a loose apprenticeship system turned into an unregulated industry that churned out "rapidly made doctors."

flexner.jpg

Flexner himself wasn't a physician, but his critique had a sweeping influence on the way medicine was taught. After his report, about half the medical schools in the United States closed their doors forever. Those that met Flexner's strict empirical standards were rewarded with plentiful foundation money from John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie.

It's hard to guess what Flexner would have thought of our current article, in which doctors from America's most reputable medical institutions praise alternative therapies they don't fully understand. ("Who cares what the mechanism is?" a Mayo Clinic endocrinologist asks author David H. Freedman. "The patient will be healthier.")

But there's reason to think Flexner would have approved of doctors like Dean Ornish, who, in our debate, argues that inspiring patients to eat vegetables and reduce stress does more to prevent heart attacks than bypasses or angioplasties. As Flexner wrote in his 1910 report:

The physician's function is fast becoming social and preventative, rather than individual and curative. Upon him, society relies to ascertain, and through measures essentially educational to enforce, the conditions that prevent disease and make positively for physical and moral well-being. It goes without saying that this type of doctor is first of all an educated man.
Jump to comments
Presented by

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is The Atlantic's digital features editor. More

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, an Atlantic senior editor, began her association with the magazine in 2002, shortly after graduating from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She joined the staff full time in January 2006. Before coming to The Atlantic, Jennie was senior editor at Moment, a national magazine founded by Elie Wiesel.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon About the Toys in Your Cereal Box

The story of an action figure and his reluctant sidekick, who trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Juice Cleanses: The Worst Diet

A doctor tries the ever-popular Master Cleanse. Sort of.

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Video

What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.

Video

Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."

Feature

The Future of Iced Coffee

Are artisan businesses like Blue Bottle doomed to fail when they go mainstream?

Writers

Up
Down

More in Health

Just In