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Year : 1978  |  Volume : 24  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 131-137

Utopia and modern medicine

Department of Anatomy, Seth G. S. Medical College and K.L.M. Hospital, Parel, Bombay-400 012, India

Correspondence Address:
M L Kothari
Department of Anatomy, Seth G. S. Medical College and K.L.M. Hospital, Parel, Bombay-400 012
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

PMID: 722610

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How to cite this article:
Kothari M L, Mehta LA. Utopia and modern medicine. J Postgrad Med 1978;24:131-7

How to cite this URL:
Kothari M L, Mehta LA. Utopia and modern medicine. J Postgrad Med [serial online] 1978 [cited 2023 Mar 30];24:131-7. Available from:

At a time when Nobel awards for Medi­cine chase only the molecular biologists, when the basic-science route is considered the way to medical nirvana [7],[24],[29],[33],[46] ,and when Presidents and politicians roll up their sleeves to conquer, say, cancer [27],[51] at any cost, it is time to speculate on the shape of medical things to come, by the close of this century.

The air, in countries overdeveloped or otherwise, is of given-enough-dough-­anything-can-be-achieved. Assuming the entire OPEC earnings were pipelined to medical research from today, what would Modern Medicine (MM) be in the 21st century? Let us consider the medi­cal futurama in 3 parts: (a) where MM is right now; (b) why it is where it is; and (c) what would MM be, given 25 years and money for the asking! Diseases in our medical school days were con­veniently classified as congenital and acquired, the latter comprising traumatic, infective, neoplastic, metabolic, degenera­tive, and psychic; the same classification can be used here.
"It is a sobering thought that after several decades of research, a number of international conferences and many other meetings, seminars and symposia, the problem of human malformations re­mains essentially unchanged." Having so introduced a symposium, McKeown [42] proceeds to chastise MM further on human malformations-etiology un­known, rate unchanged, relative contri­bution to infant mortality greatly in­creased. Trauma, MM can "treat," for God, a la Ambroise Pare, continues to heal the wound with the same pristine secrecy that a century's research [65] on would-healing has not scratched even on the surface. A few things are certain in life, and the rapid appearance of bacterial resistance to a newly introduced drug is one of them. [8] The latest bug to bug antibioticism is the penicillinophagic gonococcus, reported from St. Thomas's.London [43] Dubos [15] begins his chapter with disquieting heading-THE SO­CALLED CONQUEST OF MICROBIAL DISEASES-pointing out that there has been no decline in the percentage of hospital beds occupied by patients with infections, as compared to 50 years ago. On the tumor front, [21] the outcome of un­told manhours of research and uncount­able moneys-now more people live on cancer than die of cancer [3] -has been "precisely nil, "[10] the whole anticancer crusade having been declared as "scienti­fically bankrupt, therapeutically ineffec­tive, and wasteful." [26] Diabetes mellitus, as a paradigm of metabolic disorders, continues to ail from definitionlessness and is comprehended the less and less the more and more we know about it. [44],[50] Cardiovascular disorders have not decid­ed where they etiologically belong and research on its leading members-myo­cardial infarction, hypertension, stroke­offers nothing special to write home about. [1],[6],[18],[19],[37],[45],[47] On the senescent front, rats kept in a "Rat Palace" senesce the same way as do rats in sewers, forc­ing the investigators to declare that degeneration and death are unalterably, and predictably, built into the rats, the rat-findings being comfortably extrapola­table to the human situation. [57] While hopes are raised that some wundermittel might prevent the decay of aging ,[20],[59] Selye [56] concluded a gerontologic sym­posium on a totally pessimistic note. Finally coming to psychiatric disorders, one has only to see/read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, to realize where the psychiatrists and their patients are. [35],[29],[64] It may be that the foregoing forced Malleson [41] to write Need Your Doctor Be So Useless?, and Burne [11] to candidly declare that MM as an enter­prise has virtually reached the stage of zero returns.

Why is MM where it is? The respon­sible factors operate both within MM, and without. The former include MM's causalism, experimentalism, compro­misism and promisism. The latter com­prise bioforces that are wholly outside MM's realm-individuality, herdity (herd-ity), and temporality.

Causalism-the kill-joy crusading that makes breakfast butterless/breadless/ sugarless/cyclamateless/coffeeless, and amorous bedtime fraught with cancer­ has not for once satisfied the basic tenet of causalism: the cause must be followed by the effect, and the effect preceded by the cause, without any temporal gap in between. Bertrand Russell [54] threw away causalism from "advanced science" long ago, but it seems to survive in MM, probably because MM is neither advanc­ed nor scientific. A direct offshoot of causalism is preventionism which "con­tains more unknowns than scientific truths." [18] The unmitigated failure of MM on all major fronts is by itself a testimony to the failure of MM's experi­mentalism. In cancerology, for example, experimentalism has not provided one causative/curative cue that was not known before the experiments were started. [13],[32] A learned book [53] purport­ing to solve AM's problems has a recur­ring refrain-"the absence of a suitable (animal) model"; yet having admitted so, it goes on to describe one experiment after another, in one section after an­other. The force that keeps MM's experi­mentalism alive and kicking has been aptly summed up by Burnet: [9] "I be­lieve however, that one might justly summarize American medicine as being based on the maxim that what can cure a disease condition in a mouse or a dog can, with the right expenditure of money, effort and intelligence, be applied to human medicine." MM's compromisism. consists in its being unable to define essential hypertension, diabetes mellitus, cancer, immunity, tumour immunity, and so on, and yet spawn on each one of these a burgeoning science-each over­sized, amorphous and labyrinthine, with ramifications that have neoplastic auto­nomy, draining away resources in "a remorseless but seemingly purposeless growth. "[38] MM is more political [27],[28],[29],[51] than potent, and hence promisism is its only way of survival. That is how cancer is cured every week, [55] and prophylaxis and cure of diseases are promised via genetic engineering [52] that also forms the title of a new MM journal. [23]

The more important thwarters of MM are too far from its curative reach, too abstract to be attacked by OPEC opulence. Every human being is govern­ed by the bioforces of individuality, herdity, and temporality-biolaws that can be understood, not altered. Indivi­duality implies, in Dubosian [16] phraseo­logy, unprecedentedness, unparalleled­ness and unrepeatability, an unsituation from which even homozygous twins are not exempt. Herdity means that every feature-anatomic, physiologic, patho­logic-of an organism is a part of the whole herd, enjoying its own place some­where on the curve of normal distribution and falsely designated hyper-, eu-, or hypo- by the medical men suffering from diagnosophilia. Temporality or chroni­city (chronos, time) is a bit difficult to appreciate, but Portmann [48] makes it lucid: "Animal life is configured time."

Individuality rules out our breaking the transplant barrier, even among the inbred animals. No two individuals throughout the history of mankind would have the same "immune" genotype for the individualistic repertoire of DNA is endless-"the figure 256 followed by 2.4 billion zeros." [25] Despite "successful" renal transplants [63] now running into thousands, the problems, [11],[14] that plague the procedure remain unabated. Im­munosuppressors promote graft-survival -at what overall cost, we do not know -but MM has no means [11],[14] of altering the self-ishness of a single human being, a situation that makes transplant, a hit­-and-miss measure for all time to come.

An individual's biotrajectory is an un­predictable element [12] ruling out modern medicine's ability to predict who will get what disease, when, and to what end. Screening programmes will thus always remain a travesty of medical common sense; prognostic judgments shall betray the judge now and again; therapy by rule of the thumb (and so it will always be because of an individual's unpredictabi­lity) will boomerang often to prove costlier than the disease. Many a patient, with diabetes far more severe than that of his physician who strives to be fit as a fiddle, will outlive the latter, a thing equally true of heart disease, hyper­tension or cancer. Physician, better kneel before the nemesis of thy perennial ignorance!

Herdity is the least understood aspect of biology: It is, to use a Galtonian phrase, "the supreme law of unreason" that governs the distribution of all phenomena in a herd, thus dictating that someone with carcinomatous stomach dies at 19 and someone at 91, or that someone's serum cholesterol level should be on the "higher" side because someone else has it on the "lower" side, both be­ing normal. The medico is merely nurs­ing an illusion when he relates the "levels" to heart attacks or hypertension. Willis, [62] the tumour pathologist, has alluded to "the smooth ideal curve of the age distribution of a large series" of cancers in general. What is normal, MM seems to forget, is the frequency distri­bution, that shows itself as the typical bell-shaped Gaussian curve serenely rul­ing over such mundane things as ocular refraction, [4] red cell diameter, [4] and the effect of pH/temperature on enzyme activity, [30] as well as such anxiety-making things as blood pressure [22] serum chole­sterol, [4] IQ, [1] age-incidence at diagnosis of/death from gastric ulcer, [61] duodenal ulcer,"' carcinoma stomach [62] in men and women. The tails of the normal Gaus­sian curve stretch to infinity, [52] a thing that explains carcinoma tongue in a new born, or a disease-free individual aged 105 years. Summarizing, one may define herdity as a force that governs the ages, levels and so on, in a herd, the herd controlling the individual and vice versa. "Population thinking denies uniformity and looks to the range of diverse indivi­duals within a group. The range, not the average, is the reality." [2]

If, a la Portmann, [48] man is configured time, then man as being time-bound, is unhelpably and unarrestably prone to disfigurement on passage of time. Cancer is not a disease, but a programmed event, strictly obeying the temporal programme within an individual, in consonance with the herd. "Senescence takes a generally similar form in each species, whether judged by the physicochemical changes in collagen, the incidence of degenera­tive changes in blood vessels or the high incidence of malignant disease .... The essence surely is that there is a genetic `programme in time' laid down for each species. There must be a biological clock and a means by which a series of processes can be made to occur accord­ing to the expediencies of evolutionary survival." This timely statement by Burnet [10] on human/animal survival and senescence sums up the truth about herd mortality governed by time. The ap­pellation chronic is most appropriate for all forms of degeneration ranging from a symptomless cervical spondylosis to a rapidly lethal cervical carcinoma, since both the processes are temporal, or chronic. It is not this gene or that, that mediates the occurrence of heart attack or cancer. It is the time-order that the genes follow in harmony with the herd and in conformity with the individual's programme.

What would, or should, MM be by 2000 AD? By then, it may have freed it­self of the anthropocentric do-goodistic cocoon, to view life, disease and death from a wider, biological, perspective. Hopefully, then, MM would be more aware of the ignorance it is steeped in and the uncertainties it faces. When this is made public, more doctors and more patients will abjure "exaggerated opinion of the powers of medicine," a relevant warning-phrase that Jacob Bigelow [5] uttered in the earlier half of the 19th century. "Medicine, like women's shoes, is governed by the dictates of fashion." Having said this, Humphries [31] suggests that the fashion ought to turn in the direction of economy rather than into that of waste and pollution. If Humphries is heeded to, the Everest Complex-­ "because it is there" -would no longer dominate medical research, although this is a moot point on which, to cite an exam­ple, two top men [7],[11] from the same lead­ing institute hold polar-opposite views. MM had better bear in mind its rank ignorance on such simple things as wound healing or the definition of a gene, so as to persuade the engineering-proponents [58] into crying a halt. The hazards of tinker­ing with the genes may more than offset the gains. [36]

Thanatorealism-that death has its own rightful reasons for being around-is gradually dawning upon lay and medical minds. [17],[34],[36],[49] To this robust approach to death, MM may add a robust approach to life by emphasizing a la Thomas [20],[60] the built-in durability and sheer power of the human organism, instead of portray­ing it-as is the raging fashion now-as a teetering, fallible contraption always in need of watching and doctoring. Life may not be demedicalized to the Illichian extreme, but surely, all that is unneces­sary-9/10th of what is prescribed [40]­-could easily be done away with, by 2000 kD.

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