Herbs and Helpers ®

Herbal Services and Solutions | Herbalist | Supplier | Herbs

   Feb 04

Homeopathy and the petulant prince

Prince Charles is a man of many passions, but his lifelong interest in alternative medicine must surely count as one of the most persistent.

It has also proved to be bitterly controversial.

For, over the years, his advocacy of everything from acupuncture and herbal remedies to massage and homeopathy has prompted scientists to endlessly accuse him of, as they see it, promoting ‘mumbo jumbo’ and ‘quackery’.

In 2004, to cite one example, Professor Michael Baum, a prominent cancer surgeon, wrote an open letter to the British Medical Journal after Charles used a speech to endorse an ‘alternative’ cancer treatment under which patients were treated with, among other things, coffee enemas designed to strip the gut of harmful pollutants.

Describing Charles as being ‘surrounded by sycophants’, Professor Baum declared: ‘The power of my authority comes with knowledge built on 40 years of study and 25 years of active involvement in cancer research.

‘Your power and authority rests on an accident of birth.

‘I don’t begrudge you that authority, but I do beg you to exercise your power with extreme caution when advising patients with life-threatening diseases to embrace unproven therapies.’

In 2009, to cite a second example, the Advertising Standards Authority [ASA] censured the Prince’s Duchy Originals company for falsely claiming that a homeopathic ‘tincture’ it was selling – at £10 for 50ml! – was capable of treating cold and flu symptoms.

The remedy contained a highly diluted extract of the root of echinacea plants, which are traditionally used in Native American medicine.

But it has never been scientifically proven to work, prompting the ASA to issue a formal reprimand.

All of which led Edzard Ernst, the emeritus Professor of Complementary Medicine at Exeter University and one of the most high-profile critics of what he calls ‘pseudoscience’, to accuse the Prince of ‘exploiting a gullible public’ for his firm’s financial gain.

As it happens, few people have better first-hand knowledge of Charles and the lengths he will go to in order to defend alternative medicine than Ernst, who has famously dubbed the Prince’s brand ‘Dodgy Originals’.

Indeed, the saga of the Prince and the Professor provides a fascinating insight into the mind of the man who will be King.

An eminent, German-born scientist, who has published more than a thousand papers, won 14 medical awards, and written around 40 books, Ernst claims to have been forced out of a job and ‘treated like dirt’ as a result of the Prince and his courtiers trying to ‘silence’ him.

Ernst’s extraordinary story stretches back to the mid-Nineties, when he was hired to head a revolutionary new unit at Exeter University to investigate the safety and effectiveness of complementary and alternative medicine.

The appointment, making him the world’s first Professor of Complementary Medicine, was initially cheered by alternative practitioners, who thought it would help lend credibility to their trade.

Among them was Prince Charles, who enthusiastically asked for copies of his early lectures, and invited him to Highgrove, where the herbs Black Cohosh (to treat PMT) and Siberian Ginseng (to increase stamina) are grown in a medicinal herb garden.

‘It was fun to see all the Prince’s diseased fruit trees,’ Ernst recalled when I paid him a visit at home this week.

‘He’s against pesticides and says he can keep plants healthy by natural means, or cuddling them, or whatever.

‘Well, they were not bearing fruit when I visited. They had some strange disease.’

The Prince’s support for his visitor soon began to wane when it became apparent that Ernst was a scientist rather than a propagandist, and that his rigorous, randomised clinical trials would end up undermining, rather than strengthening, the case for alternative medicine.

Shortly after arriving at Exeter, Ernst produced a blind study that showed so-called ‘faith healers’ to be no better at curing chronic pain than actors who were pretending to have healing powers.

Another study, soon afterwards, showed that the success rate of acupuncturists attempting to stop patients smoking was unaffected by the use of fake needles (which, designed like stage daggers, did not pierce the skin).

And several more studies found that homeopathic remedies have no medical benefit beyond placebo effects.

Over the ensuing decade, Ernst’s team completed a total of about 40 studies, and 300 systematic reviews.

They found complementary and alternative medicine to be effective in certain areas. Acupuncture was effective at treating some types of nausea and pain.

Some herbal remedies, including St John’s Wort for mild to moderate depression, appeared to work. Massage could successfully treat constipation, stress, and backache.

Yet the vast majority of even the most popular therapies, they concluded, did little good. Ernst, who believes scientists have ‘a duty’ to educate the public, began to be quoted regularly in the Press, debunking ineffective alternative treatments.

Shaken by this apparent threat to their livelihoods, therapists reacted furiously. In a memoir published this week called A Scientist In Wonderland, Ernst tells how his team began to be subjected to threats and vicious public smears.

At one point, the police were called to his office to advise staff on how to screen for letter bombs.

‘These people have little regard for the truth,’ he told me. ‘They don’t like science, because they don’t want to discover the truth.’

Ernst recalls carrying out one study, with a successful plastic surgeon, into the effectiveness of homeopathic arnica remedies to aid healing.

‘The surgeon said he gave it to all his patients, and that it worked,’ Ernst recalled. ‘So we did a randomised test, using a placebo, and it found that arnica didn’t work.

‘The surgeon got death threats as a result.’

Perhaps inevitably, in this febrile atmosphere, Prince Charles and Ernst were bound eventually to collide – though no one would have predicted quite how spectacularly.

In 2005, the Prince’s Foundation For Integrated Health – an organisation he had founded to further public acceptance of complementary and alternative medicine – sent Ernst a draft of a leaflet it had been sponsored by the Government to produce, entitled Complementary Healthcare: A Guide For Patients.

The document included a section devoted to ‘evidence’ regarding the effectiveness of common alternative treatments.

However, Ernst soon discovered it contained, as he saw it, ‘numerous embarrassing mistakes’.

He duly wrote to the Foundation, offering to correct the leaflet, but the offer was rejected.

Instead, it was simply published (at the taxpayer’s expense) without any ‘evidence’ section whatsoever.

‘Because the guide seemed like a promotional brochure for quackery, I felt it was my moral and ethical duty to speak out,’ Ernst said.

In a newspaper interview, he called the guide ‘frankly inaccurate and over-optimistically misleading’.

A few months later, a second, ultimately more damaging brouhaha unfolded: Ernst was asked by a newspaper to pass comment on a draft report by the economist Christopher Smallwood which had been personally commissioned by Charles, and was to be handed to Government ministers.

It claimed that complementary and alternative remedies were cost-effective, could save hundreds of millions of pounds, and should be available on the NHS.

Noting that the draft report contained several glaring inaccuracies, including the seemingly dangerous assertion that asthma, a potentially fatal condition, could be treated via homeopathy, Ernst on August 24 issued a no-nonsense statement described it as being ‘outrageous and deeply flawed’.

So began an extraordinary, and at times scandalous, witch-hunt.

On September 22, Sir Michael Peat, then the Prince’s Private Secretary, wrote to Steve Smith, the Vice-Chancellor of Exeter University, demanding that Ernst be disciplined because those comments had represented a ‘breach of confidence’.

Peat’s complaint revolved around the fact that Ernst had been interviewed under conditions of secrecy by Smallwood when the report was being researched.

By speaking publicly about the draft report, the Professor was being unprofessional, Peat argued, by breaking an agreement to keep their discussion secret until the date of publication.

Ernst, for his part, took a different view: he insisted that he had agreed to remain silent only about the contents of his interview with Smallwood, and had never given an undertaking to not discuss the wider contents of the report, either before or after it was printed.

Either way, Peat’s letter, sent on Clarence House notepaper, had an immediate effect: the Professor was subjected to a 13-month investigation in which Vice-Chancellor Smith attempted to get to the bottom of their competing versions of events.

The inquiry saw Ernst in his words, ‘subjected to dozens of aggressive interrogations’ and ‘cross-examining emails and letters’ by university authorities, in which he was ‘treated as guilty until proven innocent’.

‘It was the most unpleasant period of my entire professional life. I felt like they were constantly trying to cook me,’ he recalled. ‘For example, in one meeting, I was asked to justify some comments I had made in a BBC radio interview.

‘But the interview in question had been with the Today programme, and it was broadcast after rather than before the report was published, so it was completely irrelevant to Peat’s complaint.

‘It was inadmissible evidence.’

With his job and reputation under threat, Ernst was forced to hire an employment lawyer. ‘Even then, the lawyer was never allowed to accompany me to interrogations.

‘It was always me giving evidence, to two members of university staff.’

Although eventually exonerated in late 2006, Ernst had incurred around £10,000 in legal fees.

More important, his card had been marked.

In flagrant disregard of the principles of academic freedom, not to mention free speech, the university attempted to limit his future contact with the Press.

University fundraisers, whose efforts his unit’s financial future relied on, stopped treating Ernst as a priority, or even returning his calls, he said.

Cash swiftly began to dry up.

Soon, all 15 members of his staff were sent letters informing them that their contracts would not be renewed.

The unit dwindled, and in 2011 Ernst was ushered off into retirement and his team soon disbanded.

Their Unit Of Complementary Medicine Research, the world’s only academic institution devoted to critical study of alternative therapies, was closed.

Meanwhile, Steve Smith, the Vice-Chancellor who oversaw this shoddy affair, was granted a knighthood.

Had Charles been pulling strings?

‘As a scientist, I have to establish cause and effect,’ said Ernst. ‘There’s no proof of cause and effect here [in terms of Charles causing him to lose his job], but as a human being, I have absolutely no doubt that this is the reason.

‘That’s my gut feeling, though, not a proof.’

Exeter University has never commented on the affair.

Clarence House, for its part, has claimed that Prince Charles was ‘not even aware’ of Sir Michael Peat’s letter, and has denied that he sought to have the academic fired.

Ernst, who at 67 is now in retirement in rural Suffolk, described that line as ‘bunkum’, pointing out – among other things – that Sir Michael Peat began the letter by stressing he is ‘writing as the Prince of Wales’s Principal Private Secretary’.

‘There are two possibilities,’ Ernst told me. ‘Either Sir Michael Peat wrote such a letter without telling the Prince.

‘In which case, the Prince should have a medal for running the shoddiest office of an important person anywhere in the world.

‘Or somebody is lying. Neither of these possibilities reflect very well on the Prince.’

Reflecting on the sad demise of his career this week, Ernst blamed Charles’s reluctance to be challenged.

‘As a Prince, by definition, he has no capacity to digest, or react positively, to criticism, because he has never been criticised.

‘Nobody really likes criticism. But criticism can be very instructive. As a result [of never facing his critics] all this weird stuff is firmly ingrained in his mind.’

It must be said, of course, that millions of people who believe alternative medicine has enhanced their lives will applaud the Prince’s stance.

But in light of Ernst’s experience, worries must surely persist over what will happen if he meddles in the same way when he becomes King.

As is known, the Attorney General has blocked the release of Charles’s so-called ‘black spider’ private letters to ministers and government departments (many discussing alternative medicine) on the grounds that ‘disclosure of the correspondence could damage the Prince of Wales’s ability to perform his duties when he becomes King’.

That decision will shortly be the subject of an appeal.

Unsurprisingly, Professor Ernst has absolutely no doubt that these letters should be made public.

Source: Daily Mail

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.