Doctors Have Been Whistleblowers Throughout History. They’ve Also Been SilencedHistorians in the News
tags: public health, medicine, coronavirus
Rudolf Virchow was a German physician in the 19th century, known for linking cancer to the cell. He was also a writer, a scientist and a politician, applying his faculties in microscopy to the city infrastructure in Berlin to curb the spread of disease through sewage and water. Virchow is credited with creating Germany’s first public health programs.
Virchow got in trouble regularly – he was expelled from Charite hospital for joining the 1848 revolution, and was ostracized by his colleagues. But the doctor truly found himself in the line of fire when he criticized the government’s investment in the military instead of education and alleviating poverty.
As one story goes, the Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck was so furious that he challenged Virchow to a duel. Bismarck found Virchow at work in his lab, where he had recently identified the roundworm Trichinella spiralis, which can contaminate meat. “I suppose I have the choice of weapons,” the doctor apparently said, and held up two large sausages. He told the Bismarck that one was filled with the roundworm he was studying, the other was completely safe to eat, and asked him to choose one. The duel ended there.
Virchow’s fate, however, is in some ways a lucky one. Other physicians who have spoken out on behalf of their patients, or the poor, have suffered blackmail, violence and persecution.
The British physician Judith Mackay, for instance, started speaking out against tobacco companies in the 1960s when she studied the stark impact of smoking on health in Hong Kong. But when she started pushing the government to adopt stricter regulations, she was immediately threatened. Mackay was called “psychotic human garbage”, a “power-lusting piece of meat” and “a key individual [whose] presence is a danger signal” by multinational companies that launched campaigns to discredit her research.
In more recent years, Binayak Sen, an Indian pediatrician, highlighted the struggles and inequities in healthcare faced by the most marginalized in Indian society: the country’s adivasis, or indigenous people, some of whom identified with a Maoist movement. For three decades, Sen lived in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, where he trained health workers to provide where government healthcare failed. He systematically documented the senseless deaths from malnutrition, lack of access to adequate healthcare and lack of political agency.
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