Doctors had been mocked before. But the scorn they received in Brian Inglis's "Fringe Medicine" (Faber and Faber, 1964) was of a completely different order. Inglis sought no compromise (the book is not called "Complementary Medicine”). Here was England’s quintessential authority figure1 giving disillusioned patients the tools and conceptual framework they needed to advocate for themselves in the lion’s den—their doctor’s office.
A patients’ charter, "Fringe Medicine" covers the waterfront, and provides a bold introduction to a spectrum of unorthodox therapies (although some branches of healing are omitted—notably Ayurveda).2
Fifty-four years on, popular interest in alternative medicine and wellness stand at all-time highs. Resources are available on-line for patients seeking facts on new treatments and their dangers. How my father would have cheered the fall of such medications as Vioxx (withdrawn from the market), Celebrex (carrying black-box warnings), and other drugs first introduced with hoopla and now cringing in shame.3 Likewise, Inglis would have pored over recent studies suggesting that mammograms and annual physicals have little or no impact on patient outcomes.4
The public was more trusting back in 1962, the year Brian Inglis’s family expanded by one (with the arrival of son Neil). As a firm believer that orthodox medicine did more harm than good, Brian was vexed by my mother Ruth’s classically American deference to doctors (she grew more skeptical over time). According to an American pediatrician Ruth consulted in the 1950s, raw cow's milk was top stuff for babies.
That old wives’ tale was in disrepute by the time Ruth stepped off the plane at Heathrow in 1960. It was as a newcomer to London that she encountered her new husband's hard-line beliefs for the first time, an early flashpoint in their marriage. No doubt Brian had been treated with penicillin while serving in RAF Coastal Command in WWII, but he remained wary of antibiotics: horror stories were appearing by the time "Fringe Medicine" was published (see the lengthy discussion of Chloramphenicol and its linkage to cases of aplastic anemia).
Some of Brian's warnings concerning broad-spectrum antibiotics, and the rise of drug resistance, are prescient and on-point. Still, my mother ignored her husband's concerns and had medications administered to my sister Diana and me behind Brian's back. Would Ruth have taken Thalidomide while expecting me, had she been prescribed it? To my everlasting good fortune, Ruth's gynecologist counseled against it.
As always, Brian was evasive about his authorial motivations. He would have strenuously denied that parenthood had anything to do with his newfound interest in medicine. But was it such a new interest? He claims in the Acknowledgements that "Fringe Medicine" had arisen out of an Autumn 1960 profile in The Spectator—the magazine which Brian had edited prior to embarking upon his television career. A closer look at the Inglis bibliography unearths the earlier “Revolution in Medicine” (Hutchinson, 1958)—a critique of modern medicine and its materialistic viewpoints and a defense of psychosomatic approaches and psychotherapy.
In my mother’s recollection, a meeting with an Indian healer might have awakened Brian to the possibilities of alternative medicine; but that must remain in the realm of conjecture. Either way, the language of psychosomatic medicine permeated our household, and I remember discussing the topic with my grandfather's caregiver in Sussex when I was all of ten years old.
One obvious criticism is that “Fringe Medicine” is a book about illness for healthy people. It is all very well to argue (as Brian does) that the vital force just needs a push in order to put patients back on their feet, but sometimes (due to immunosuppression, or cancer) the force may be faint indeed. It takes a hard heart to withhold antibiotics from a child with an ear infection, as the parent's urge to do something—anything—to ease a child's suffering is all-powerful.
"Fringe Medicine" requires some suspension of disbelief. Observe how the author gives unorthodox techniques the benefit of the doubt:
The standard criticism of the [black box] has been that as the leads connecting the various dials, rheostats and magnets do not connect up with anything, it is a fraud. But they are not supposed to connect up with anything—except the operator and patient...
Acupuncture and other methods get a briefer reception. Homeopathy for historical reasons had a toehold in the medical establishment, as did osteopathy in the USA. They were collaborating with the enemy.
Even with the knowledge of Brian’s earlier “Revolution in Medicine,” I had imagined (prior to reading “Fringe Medicine” for the first time) that Brian would be charting a cautious and exploratory course. Not a bit of it: the polemical voice that reached full volume in Brian’s later two-volume history of psi5 was fully formed by 1964. The psi force was, for my father, the major under-reported story of his age; the obverse of the gift of healing—and both were rejected by rationalists.
In seeking to vindicate this ancient wisdom, Brian is torn between the urge to build a mountain of evidence, and the need to propose explanations, for the hidden power he describes (and venture them he does). At other times he argues that rationalists clamoring for answers are spoilsports, a source of negativity (a.k.a. the "observer effect") that banishes healing and hope from the hospital room, while silencing debate in the public square.
Brian’s bitterest quarrels lay in the future. His views made him enemies inside the UK and out, and his nemeses were marshaling on the horizon. Scientific American columnist Martin Gardner (the only skeptic Brian valued) is quoted in "Fringe Medicine," ten years before the formation of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP)6.
Brian was a man of principle, but the niche he occupied required him to make occasional contortions. Britain's National Health Service was the darling of Brian's social circle; yet it was also the public face of the hated medical establishment. As such, “Fringe Medicine” readers should expect only fleeting, wary references to the NHS—although Inglis stops short of asking patients to dump their doctors altogether. Still, in later years he threw his weight behind officialdom on a crucial issue, when he proclaimed myalgic encephalomyelitis (M.E.) as psychiatric, a dead-end diagnosis foolishly embraced by the NHS to the distress of sufferers ever since.
In the early 1960s, Brian could rely on his unassailable status as a public intellectual (he stands alongside Winston Churchill, Roy Jenkins, and David McCullough in the pantheon of non-academic historians). At least at first, Brian grasped the importance of guarding his reputation by combining books on pet subjects (the occult) with conventional works of history. His "Poverty and the Industrial Revolution" is a tour de force, as is the biography of Irish revolutionary Roger Casement, in which Inglis holds his sympathies in check to build a rounded portrait.7
And yet publishers Faber and Faber knew that in “Fringe Medicine” they had a bombshell on their hands. The trained eye can detect qualifiers and equivocations inserted by in-house editors to soften the text. Brian's own memory of the editorial process was fallible. He recalled to me that cancer surgeon Sir Heneage Ogilvie (cancer surgeon at Guy's Hospital) had been hired to write an introduction, and thereby lend a patina of respectability to a controversial exercise. Ogilvie is mentioned in passing, but the critical veneer was supplied by G.M. Carstairs, Professor of Psychological Medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Carstairs admits that Brian's work is readable (it always was) while also "polemical" (i.e., journalistic). Polemical works can leave a giant legacy, and “Fringe Medicine” is a classic of the genre.
Neil L. Inglis
1 Inglis was an instantly recognizable and highly regarded historian, journalist, and TV presenter. His weekly documentary about the events of 25 years previously, “All Our Yesterdays” (Granada), was compulsive viewing for the WWII generation. AOY was often at #2 in the ratings behind “Coronation Street.”
2 The following topics are mentioned on the front cover: Naturopathy, herbalism, homeopathy, osteopathy and chiropractic, acupuncture, psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, auto-suggestion, Christian Science, and radiesthesia.
3 The linkage between antidepressant use and suicide would have caused the author sorrow but no surprise.
5 “Natural and Supernatural” and “Science and Parascience” (1976 and 1984, respectively, originally published by Hodder & Stoughton). Both titles have been reissued by White Crow Books.
6 Today CSICOP is known as CSI, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.
7 Respectively published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1971 and 1973. Both titles are being reissued by Endeavour Media.
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