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The Development of the Office of Alternative Medicine in the National Institutes of Health, 1991-1996
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The Development of the Office of Alternative Medicine in the National Institutes of Health, 1991–1996

In 1991 the Senate Appropriations Committee responsible for funding the National Institutes of Health (NIH) declared itself “not satisfied that the conventional medical community as symbolized at the NIH has fully explored the potential that exists in unconventional medical practices.” 1 “Many routine and effective medical procedures now considered commonplace,” like cancer radiation therapy, had once been “considered . . . quackery”; to “more adequately explore these unconventional medical practices,” the Committee directed the NIH to set up within the Director’s Office “an advisory panel to screen and select the procedures for investigation and to recommend a research program to fully test the most promising unconventional medical practices.” 2 This “advisory panel” became the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM). Thus government was brought in a new and very direct way into a growing national health-care conflict between the forces of establishment biomedicine and the [End Page 279] diverse ranks of alternative medicine, the latter gaining increased acceptance and usage by the American public. In determining whether this trend promoted or jeopardized the public health, the actions of the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM) might well be decisive. Factors underlying its legislative creation justified skepticism about the scientific standards that would be applied in the Office’s future role.

The prime mover of this edict was Appropriations Committee chair Thomas R. Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, in his second Senate term after having served four terms in the House. Harkin had been urged to take this legislative step by two constituents, Berkley Bedell and Frank Wiewel. 3 Bedell, a former member of the House, believed that two crises in his own health had benefited from the use of unconventional medicine: colostrum derived from the milk of a Minnesota cow, he held, had cured his Lyme disease; and 714-X, derived from camphor in Quebec by Gaston Naessens, had prevented recurrence of his prostate cancer after surgery. Bedell, giving evidence of his Lyme disease recovery at a Senate committee hearing, observed: “Unfortunately, Little Miss Muffet is not available to testify that the curds and whey which she was eating are safe.” 4 Wiewel had long been a vigorous champion of immunoaugmentative therapy for cancer, scorned by orthodox specialists; made in the Bahamas, this mixture of blood sera was finally barred from import by the Food and Drug Administration. Wiewel then began operating from his home in Otho, Iowa, an agency called People Against Cancer, a referral service for cancer treatments that orthodox medicine considered questionable. 5

Harkin, having lost two sisters to cancer, was susceptible to an interest in alternative therapies. 6 Soon after sponsoring the law that launched the Office of Alternative Medicine, Harkin himself became a true believer in [End Page 280] an unorthodox “cure.” On Capitol Hill, Bedell introduced the senator to Royden Brown of Arizona, promoter of High Desert bee pollen capsules. Harkin suffered from allergies; persuaded by Brown to take 250 bee pollen capsules within five days, he rejoiced that his allergies had disappeared. 7 The senator did not know at the time that Brown had recently paid a $200,000 settlement under a consent agreement with the Federal Trade Commission, promising to cease disguising television infomercials as objective information programs and to stop including in his scripts dozens of false therapeutic claims for his capsules. These promotions also averred that “the risen Jesus Christ, when he came back to Earth,” had consumed bee pollen; a more recent customer, Brown’s infomercial declared, was Ronald Reagan. 8 Brown later wrote Hillary Clinton, warning that her husband should begin dosing with bee pollen lest he develop fatal throat cancer. 9

The Congressional injunction to create the new Office upset NIH leadership, though they could not publicly admit it. After resigning as director, Bernadine Healy revealed that she had deemed the project to link qualified research scientists with true believers in therapies like homeopathy and magnets, in order to conduct experiments, as foreshadowing nothing but disaster. “We had no choice,” Dr. Healy observed: the agency could not refuse a mandate from the Congress. 10

Other scientists shared Dr. Healy’s...