Please help us spread the word with your generous, tax-deductible donation.
Most people want to trust their physician. After all, you are at your most vulnerable when you are having health problems, and you want, and need, a physician to be compassionate, empathetic, and sensitive to your needs. The last thing you need is a doctor with a hidden cruelty streak.
I have some bad news for you. Cruelty is fundamental to medicine. And it’s why I am not an M.D.
I was in the medical school Class of ’93 at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston. I was also in the Ph.D. program in Medical Humanities. My tuition was covered by a full scholarship, and my future seemed bright and promising.
I never imagined I would quit both programs in disgust and disillusionment.
To this day, the emotional scars of my medical training are still there. It wasn’t the cadaver you start to dissect on the first day of school. It wasn’t the hard work, or the long hours of study.
It was the animal cruelty that turned me off.
Animal research, also called vivisection, is fundamental to medicine. Drugs are tested on animals, despite questionable application to humans. Physiological processes are studied in animals. The most horrendous diseases are modeled in animals. Hundreds of millions of animals are killed and tortured each year in the name of science.
How can a healing profession be so cruel to animals?
I have always loved animals. In fact, my first career goal was to become a veterinarian.
In 1974, I began attending the University of Maryland at College Park in their Pre-Veterinary Medicine program. As my education progressed, however, I became increasingly aware that veterinary medicine was dedicated to serving the needs, not of the animal “patients”, but of the human customers.
In a culture where animals are treated merely as property, it is no surprise that the vet serves the needs of the human owner and not of the animal. The vet is like a mechanic working on a biological machine. The interests of the machine are irrelevant. The machine is assumed to have no thoughts or feelings, only conditioned responses.
As a result, animals are culled if they are not productive enough, cats are declawed to save the furniture, dogs are surgically “debarked” to make them quieter, or their ears and tails are cut to make them “show” better. The welfare and interests of the animal are secondary to the interests of its owner, if they are considered at all.
Disillusioned with vet medicine, in my junior year I decided to transfer to the University of Utah, and there I earned my Bachelor’s of Science degree in biology in 1979.
But my exposure to animal abuse was just beginning. I entered the Biochemistry Ph.D. program at Duke University, which I started in 1979. It was a mistake, as I discovered.
Throughout my undergraduate years I had earned extra money working as a lab tech in various biochemistry labs, including at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, where I spent the summer of 1977, and the Veteran’s Hospital Research Facility in Salt Lake City, Utah, where I worked from 1978-79, and other research positions. In all cases, I was required to use animals in my work. I became sickened by the sight of frightened, caged rabbits, cats, dogs, and monkeys who were being subjected to all sorts of tortures in the name of scientific research.
Despite this experience, I still pursued a career in biochemistry. But I soon learned that much of biochemistry relies heavily on animals as sources of enzymes, blood, tissues, or living systems in which to study biochemical processes. Not all biochemistry uses animals. But animal research is the core standard of biochemistry research.
Maybe it was the caged, hairless cat I saw crouching in fear. Maybe it was the pain I saw in the rabbit being stuck with a needle, without anesthetic, into its heart to get a sample of blood. Maybe it was the friendly dog that offered its front leg to “shake hands”, as the technician injected it with an overdose of barbiturates so we could get its liver. Or maybe it was the other friendly dog which didn’t stand still for the injection, causing the frustrated tech to stab the dog in the chest with the needle, causing the dog to shriek out in pain as the needle broke from the syringe.
Whatever it was, I progressively became disgusted with biochemistry, and left that Ph.D. program.
Was animal cruelty essential for science? Is there another way to study health and disease without causing suffering to innocent animals?
I was looking for new answers, a new reality where science is not used as an excuse for animal cruelty. I became attracted to the field of cultural anthropology and its study of different ways of seeing the world. I wanted to challenge the scientific dogmas I had been taught.
In 1981 I started Duke University’s Ph.D. program in Cultural Anthropology.
However, I soon realized that anthropology was not the correct path for me, either. My interest was in improving the health of humans and animals, and anthropologists seem to mostly study cultural problems, write and lecture about them, and ultimately do nothing to change things.
So in 1982 I took a qualifying exam and was awarded a Master’s of Arts degree.
Years later, in 1988, after taking a break from university training, I decided I wanted to become a physician, and applied to medical school. Having been out of school for years, I was concerned about my prospects for admission. However, my Medical College Admission Test scores were within the top 1% of all applicants. I felt confident that this would be the path for me at last.
The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston was just starting a new Ph.D. program, called Medical Humanities. This program appealed to me because it seemed to integrate my interests in the social sciences with medicine. It dealt with literature, art, ethics, history, philosophy, and religion as they influence and relate to medicine. I felt it was perfect for me given my background.
The school recruited me on full academic scholarship to be their first medical student in the medical humanities program. I entered their M.D./Ph.D. program that year, beginning with a year of medical humanities.
But something happened that made me leave my Ph.D program. It had to do with with the dog lab I would need to participate in once I started my medical training.
You see, UTMB used live dogs in laboratory demonstrations of heart response to various drugs. A dog is wheeled into the lab in a cage and put under sedation, hooked up to an EKG machine, and injected with different drugs. Students were not trained to read the EKG, but simply used it to see whether the heart beat faster or slower. The dog is then overdosed and killed, and then one of the students, usually the one who wants to be a surgeon, cuts open the dog’s chest, cuts out the heart, and slices it open to look for heartworms.
Such labs are not legal in the UK, and many US medical schools no longer do these labs. I asked to be given an alternative, having seen enough animal abuse in the name of science to last a lifetime.
The medical school denied my request.
The head of the animal lab was a professor who was a burn researcher. He would do burn research on dogs, forcing them to inhale super-heated smoke, and burning their bodies with flamethrowers. He was the last man in the world to be sympathetic to my request.
He told me being a good doctor requires that you, “Feel and smell the blood on your hands”.
He also told me he was concerned that letting me out of the lab would set a bad precedent that might threaten the field of animal research.
As an anthropologist, I was clear about what was happening. The dog lab was desensitization training, a blood ritual to initiate students into the cruel world of medicine.
At the time, I was still in the medical humanities Ph.D. program, and I asked the medical humanities faculty to support my efforts. This was the faculty that taught the medical students about ethics. Surely, I assumed, they would defend my right to oppose this animal lab on ethical grounds. After all, it’s not ethical to force doctors to do things that they do not believe are moral.
But my assumption was wrong. I was told by the department head that they could not help me, even though they sympathized, since they receive a check from the same place as the medical school faculty. In other words, they had a conflict of interest and, despite my request to have my ethical beliefs respected, they could not help me.
That’s when I left that department.
However, my struggle not to be forced to do the animal lab got hotter as the day of the lab approached. I reached out to animal protection organizations for support, and while I received moral support, I was still on my own.
Finally, I had to threaten the school with a lawsuit. I claimed that it was against my moral and religious beliefs to cause unnecessary suffering to animals, as was done in this lab. I was prepared to take this as far as it would go.
Fearful of a lawsuit, and embarrassed by the publicity I was getting in the local Galveston and Houston media, the school backed down and did not force me to take that lab. However, the entire affair made me a pariah on campus, and I started to be harassed by students and faculty. Students were afraid to be seen talking to me. Some faculty members secretly told me they respected my position and admired my courage, but others harassed me, as when one crossed out my name on the Class of ’93 student pictures, posted behind a closed glass case, replacing Syd Singer with “Shit Slinger”.
At the same time, I was increasingly disappointed with my medical training. I received little to nothing in the prevention or cause of disease or in nutrition. And almost every lecture involved some reference to animal research. The “father” of modern physiology, after all, was Claude Bernard, who did dog research without anesthesia, with the howls of suffering dogs disturbing the neighbors. Biochemistry, pharmacology, and neurology are all animal based sciences. Medicine knows more about dogs, rats, and other animals than it does about humans.
I began to deeply question the value of medicine when it is so based on animal suffering. Can a healing profession be so cruel? My heart cried for the dogs I saw wheeled into labs for various demonstrations, their bodies later found in a pile in the freezer.
So I left medical school in 1991, after my basic science training. I realized that the practice of medicine merely consisted of identifying symptoms to treat with drugs or surgery. It had nothing to do with prevention, or finding the cause of disease. Drug companies provided us with textbooks and gifts. Animal research stained the pages of textbooks red with the blood of innocent creatures.
Medicine was a dirty business, and I wanted nothing to do with it.
I took a leave of absence. At that time I met Soma Grismaijer, who was the director of the Good Shepherd Foundation, which had been fighting against animal research since its inception in 1949. I started working with the Good Shepherd Foundation in 1991 as their science adviser.
My focus was on discovering the cause of disease, which is essential for prevention and proper treatment. Animal research is typically justified as necessary for saving humans. “It’s a dog or your child”, pro-vivisection propaganda would claim. Animal research is a necessary evil to help medicine diagnose and treat (not prevent) disease, according to this dogma.
However, my background in anthropology, biochemistry, and medicine gave me a unique perspective on the cause of disease. According to the World Health Organization, 80-90% of disease and death is caused by lifestyle and cultural factors. This means that we humans and our ways of life are the biggest enemies of our health. It’s the way we live that needs to be studied. Our lifestyles are the greatest factor impacting our health.
Clearly, animal studies are not appropriate for human lifestyle research. This is a human cultural problem for which you need to study humans, not animals.
Our subsequent discovery of the link between breast cancer and tight bras illustrated this issue. Breasts are not just biological organs, as they are regarded by medicine. Women treat their breasts differently depending on their cultural conditioning and fashions, and this impacts on breast physiology and can cause disease. Breast cancer research on tissue culture, or in mouse genetic lines that are bred to have mammary tumors, or in any other animal model are not going to reveal this cultural cause of breast disease and cancer. Rats don’t wear bras! But women do, especially the ones who later develop breast cancer. (See our book, Dressed To Kill: The Link Between Breast Cancer and Bras for our research and findings.)
Diseases caused by the culture we call “culturogenic disease“. The study of this requires an honest and objective analysis of the attitudes, behaviors, and unquestioned dogmas and rituals of our culture, and how these may be harmful to mind, body, and spirit. It is a new field we call “Applied Medical Anthropology”.
There are many discoveries we have since made in the cultural causes of disease which have been ignored, and even suppressed, by the disease detection and treatment field. Many of these involve simple mechanical principles, such as the effect of constrictive clothing on lymphatic circulation, or the impact of gravity on brain circulation, or the modulation of thyroid function through vibration by the voice, and more. These are ignored because they do not yield medical treatments that use drugs or surgery.
It is important to realize that medicine is a business. It makes money detecting and treating disease. Lifestyles that cause disease are not a doctor’s concern. The medical profession is not interested in changing the culture to make it more healthy, and thereby reducing medical costs. The more people are sick, the more powerful and rich the medical industry becomes.
The goal of medical research is not to produce lifestyle solutions to health problems. It is to produce new drugs and new diagnostic machinery and new surgical techniques. Prevention is anti-business. Instead, the goal is early detection and treatment, which means failed prevention and guaranteed customers.
Applied Medical Anthropology takes a different approach. It is prevention focused, finding the cause of disease in harmful cultural practices. By ending these damaging lifestyles, the body is allowed to heal naturally.
And people can do their own lifestyle research on themselves, to see how lifestyle changes affect them personally. We call these Self Studies. It’s personalized research that also solves the problem at the same time.
The fact is, the greatest cause of human disease is human culture, and the solution is to change that culture and the way we live. It has nothing to do with animals. A medical industry dedicated to animal research is corrupted by cruelty and cannot be a truly healing profession.
Bottom line: If your doctor can’t have compassion and sympathy for a helpless, innocent animal, can you trust that doctor with your life? If a medical industry is invested in disease detection and treatment, can you trust it to help you prevent disease?
You know the answer. So do I. And that is why I am not an M.D.