OVER THE COURSE of his five-decade career, few medical professionals have proved as influential and controversial as Dr. Andrew Weil. A born iconoclast and one time Harvard colleague of Dr. Timothy Leary, Weil’s visionary work in the field of integrative medicine – essentially the rational co-mingling of FDA approved approaches with the best practices of the alternative medicine world – has made him a hero to a public eager for new approaches to healthy living and a bête noir to many in the entrenched medical industrial complex.
As the author of several best selling books and participant in many high profile television appearances, Weil’s compelling narrative and pronounced media savvy has assisted him in disseminating his message to millions, all the while courting establishment backlash. Weil’s detractors in the medical community have characterized him as everything from “anti-scientific” to a proponent of “stoned thinking,” and seem to regard him as a pied piper for all manner of unproven health care fantasias.
With the passage of time and further advancements in science, the welter of evidence seems increasingly in favor of Weil’s integrative approach to healing. Previously out of the mainstream views espoused by Weil on plant and animal science, the integration of Eastern traditions into Western thought, and the commitment to mind-body connection have become widely accepted and even obligatory elements aspects of mainstream care. We caught up with him for five questions addressing his unique professional trajectory, his thoughts on contemporary medicine, and what keeps him motivated and productive.
What inspired you to become a reformer in medicine, and what kind of attacks were you subject to as you took on the medical establishment?
Well, I think my motivation goes back to really early childhood. I developed a strong interest in plants from my mother. That led me to become a botany major as an undergraduate at Harvard, which got me interested in medicinal plants. For as long as I can remember I was fascinated by how the mind affected the body. I began reading about alternative medicine when I was in college. So all of these interests were there before I went to medical school. And then when I finished my medical training, I really felt cheated in that I had learned nothing about health or how to keep people healthy – which I thought should be the main business of doctors. Plus, the methods that I was taught to use to manage disease seemed to me to do too much harm. So those are the roots of my interest in trying to reform medicine and medical education. When I began writing and speaking on the subject in the early 1970s, I was totally ignored by colleagues. Gradually over the years I got a larger and larger following from the general public, but I was not taken seriously by medical professionals until the early 1990s – when medical economics really began to deteriorate. And it was at that point that I began drawing strong attacks. Some still come from the “quackbuster” community, which sees me as advocating unscientific or anti-scientific ideas and practices. Other people attacked me for being commercial because I lent my name and likeness to the sales of products, although I don’t get profits from those – I donate all of them to the Weil Foundation to support integrative medical education. As I have developed a wider audience, the attacks have continued. It’s interesting, though – at this time, integrative medicine is rapidly becoming mainstream. If I were not being attacked, I would feel I wasn’t really doing my job.
In a many-faceted career as an experimental scientist, as an advocate, as a best-selling author, what do you believe your greatest contribution has been? And do you believe that your work is saving lives and improving lives?
Well, in terms of my writing, one of the most frequent comments I have received from readers is that I have put into words they’ve always had but never expressed. And that makes me feel very good. And also many people have told me that what I say and write is just common sense, but they’ve never articulated it. From patients a very frequent comment is: “You are the only doctor who ever told me that I could get better,” I hear this from people who have gotten better after long struggles with serious chronic illnesses, who had seen many physicians and had tried many treatments. With many of them I expressed my genuine conviction, based on my belief in the body’s healing potential, that healing was possible. Often I’ll say, “I don’t really know exactly how you can get better, but I will give you suggestions to try and ask you to report back to me.
What were the forces that shaped your life and who are your heroes?
I was born curious and inquisitive and my parents supported that – they encouraged me to follow my own path and never stood in the way of my curiosity.
My family doctor when I was growing up in Philadelphia was a general practitioner whose office was three blocks from my home; he made house calls and was the model of what now seems like an old-time practitioner. He mentored me and wanted me go into medicine. He was a great influence on my life.
I had two other fine mentors at Harvard, One was Richard Evans Schultes, the director of the Harvard Botanical Museum, I studied under him and worked with him for a number of years. He got me interested in the study of medicinal plants. Norman Zinberg, a psychiatrist, was the other. We collaborated on drug research and worked toward drug policy reform.
One other mentor, very important, was an old osteopathic physician in Tucson, Robert Fulford, I met him when he was in his 80s and consider him the most effective healer I have ever met. He showed me the possibility of promoting healing using very low-tech, high-touch methods that cost very little.
So if you were advising a young person or a young couple today on the selection of a family physician, what would you tell them?
Anyone looking for a family physician, should seek one trained in integrative medicine, because such doctors have rounded out very glaring deficiencies in conventional medical education, such as training in nutrition and mind/body interactions and the strengths and weaknesses of other systems of medicine – like Chinese medicine – as well as all the aspects of health, health promotion, and healing that are very much un-emphasized in conventional medical education. Our center at the University of Arizona has now graduated almost 1500 physicians from very intensive training, they’re in practice in all states. And we’ve now developed a credentialing system for integrative medicine practitioners. So I would go to our center’s website and click on our “Find A Practitioner” link to locate one of our graduates.
Now we want to delve into your personal life – what do you love doing in your spare time? Do you listen to music? What books or newspapers do you read? Do you work out? What do you do?
Okay, first of all, I don’t tell anyone to do things that I don’t do myself. I follow my own teachings. I really enjoy leisure time. I like to garden – that’s one of my favorite activities – I grow a lot of my own food. I like to prepare food and cook and experiment with recipes.
I swim everyday – that’s my main form of exercise. I also have two dogs (Rhodesian ridgebacks) who walk me several times a day. I do some sitting meditation regularly in the mornings. I practice the breathing exercises that I teach.
I do like listening to music – I enjoy classical music and have ever since I was young. I also like a lot of ethnic music. I don’t like hard rock and I don’t like non-melodic jazz, but other than that I like most kinds of music. I also like to sing when I get the chance, especially with other people,
I read widely, and again my choices are very diverse – I’m always reading scientific articles, medical articles. I like good fiction, but it has to be very good to engage me.
And I love film – watching movies is a favorite form of relaxation for me.