Friday, November 13, 2009

The Amazing Story of Holly Dunsworth and her Osteopathic Doctor

Recently I read a fascinating article on The Huffington Post called, “The Amazing Story of Charles Darwin and his Homeopathic Doctor.”

Quoted from the article:
"We may all have to thank the water cure and homeopathic treatment provided by Dr. Gully for Darwin’s survival."
"Lucky for all of humanity, Charles Darwin sought out a different type of medical care and experienced a profound improvement in his health."
This article is a summary of a more detailed article that was published in a medical journal published by Oxford University Press, called eCAM (which stands for “Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine"). Click here to see the article in its entirety.

I hope that you read either of these articles and then come back.

Welcome back!

Now, I don’t know a whole lot about homeopathy. But I do know a little about science and I also know a little about some of the stuff James Randi has done to debunk homeopathy. So…Psssst….let me let you in on a little secret:

Homeopathy is cow manure.

(Masculinize “cow” and lewdify “manure” to decode my intended sentiment.)

The author of the article is using Darwin’s fame and notoriety to lend legitimacy to homeopathy.

Everyone wants a piece of Darwin, especially this year.

The questions that haunt me after reading the article are probably the same that you have:

• In Darwin’s day, how much more effective was medicine than homeopathy? How scientific was medicine?

• Was Darwin’s use of homeopathy a rejection of science in favor of alternative treatments, or did he simply choose one pretty hopeless option over another?

• Was Darwin's plight so different from that of many people today?

I’m sure that there are historians of science and medicine who have answers for these questions (and please see the thoughtful comments in the Comments section below). But I do know the answer to the last one and it’s NO.

For example, people with eczema can suffer terribly, and there's no certain or easy cure. And this is why people are still drawn to alternative cures, either right off the bat, once they start showing symptoms, or after real science and medicine have failed to help them.

Desperation leads us all to search for solutions to relieve our pain and suffering. However, homeopathy is absolutely stark-raving ridiculous.

If you want to see the kind of discussions people who seek homeopathic cures are having, take a look at this mind-blowing back-and-forth about a little girl with eczema. Make sure to read what "passkey" writes.

It’s actually not that surprising that so many people are drawn to homeopathy, because finding real medicine isn’t always as easy as it sounds.

Recently I learned this lesson for myself.

I’m new to Chicago and so every time I need a new doctor I have to find one. So I go to my insurance company’s website and search for doctors in my neighborhood who do what I think I need them to do based on their listed area of expertise.

I had just come back from doing fieldwork in Kenya with a large bulge on the back of my knee. As far as I could tell it was either a cyst (no big deal) or it was a swollen lymph node reacting to an infected cut on my knee. Infections that begin in Africa can be nasty so I wanted to see a doctor to make sure I didn’t need antibiotics to kill Lake Victoria parasites that may have entered my bloody soccer-wounded knee. (Thank you Google for making me crazy, but not crazy enough to call a homeopath.)

Anyway, I needed to see a doctor to ease my mind. I felt fine. But I’d feel stupid if I didn’t see a doctor and it turned out that I had microbes or worms or some other awesome parasite. I’d never had a bulge on the back of my knee and coming home from Western Kenya with a bulge where there are lymph nodes was too much of a coincidence to ignore.

(Yes, secretly I wanted to have a parasite. It’s complicated.)

I found a General Practitioner with offices in the same building as my gynecologist. I booked an appointment, explaining my knee, and it seemed normal like all appointments I’ve made with doctors before.

But when I arrived at the office I could tell something was different from everything before. There were quotes on the walls about the soul and the spirit (not Jesus, God, or the Holy Spirit) and there was a dream catcher hanging in one of the corners, but what tipped me off that I wasn’t exactly in Medical Kansas anymore was the tiny TV pointed at the waiting room chairs.

The volume was so high that I couldn’t concentrate on filling out the paperwork. I asked the receptionist to please turn it off, but she only turned it down. The speaker on the TV was weaving a story about a patient of his. This man had experienced decades of mysterious illnesses and after seeing a plethora of doctors who could not diagnose, relieve, or cure anything, he was cured when he came to see the speaker, an osteopathic doctor. Now the man can walk again. After this story, the speaker/doctor stood over a different patient, felt around his liver, and diagnosed his immune disease.

At this point I was sure I did not want to be there and was pretty angry that I got lured into this scene from my medical insurance’s website. So I stood up and asked the receptionist about the last question on the forms, hoping to get out of this appointment on technical grounds rather than potentially embarrassing merit ones. “I thought this was covered by my insurance. Why does it say that it may not be? I can’t be here if it’s not covered.”

She didn’t know the answer so she pulled the doctor out of her appointment with a double amputee who I’d seen go back there earlier. The doctor, a friendly hippie, assured me that she wouldn’t do anything that wouldn’t be covered by my insurance.

At this point, since she’d seen me, I couldn’t run away. So I signed the waiver and waited. Just before I worked up the courage to slip out the door, they called my name and I was led to the cluttered examination room.

The doc made small talk. She seemed nervous like a rookie would be, not like the 55+ woman that she was. She glared at me head to toe and then complimented my eyes. She weighed me, got my height, then asked me what was wrong. I told her about my knee. Usually when I say, “...and since I just got back from Africa…” the doc’s eyebrows arch and s/he gets excited or worried or both. But she didn’t flinch a bit and Africa was never spoken of again. So I’m thinking, okay, I’m a hypochondriac – it must be a common cyst. I guess I was still thinking she’d do real medicine since they give osteopathic medicine degrees from prestigious and accredited universities all over this country. I thought she must be okay.

I laid down face-down on the bed so she could feel the back of my knee where it was swollen. She asked me if, “you’ve ever had your teeth braced”. Although I thought the wording was odd I replied, “yes” and noted this as professional jargon. She continued, “Because that means that you have some inherent asymmetries,” and apparently the ones in the teeth indicate asymmetries are throughout the body and these cause problems. She then linked this to my knee problem. No mention of a cyst even as she felt the bulge.

I understand how asymmetries can cause biomechanical issues, etc… but the guy on the video in the waiting room linked asymmetries to cancer. I was very uncomfortable by now, but all of this was too weird and wild to miss. This was the single most bizarre medical experience I’d ever had so I went gleefully along for the ride and pretended to be a cultural anthropologist (but a bad one who didn’t practice disclosure) or an undercover journalist. But I didn't have to pretend that I was anything because I was an actual Science Spy.

She asked if I’d ever had any operations or surgeries in my life. Obviously this has nothing to do with diagnosing and treating a cyst. I told her about my tonsillectomy. I added, “And knee surgery,” but on the other knee, as I pointed out, and not on the knee in question. This, she loved. See? My asymmetries were playing out all over the place. Her story was coming together beautifully. Her case for giving me her special treatment was building, evidence was mounting.

“Well,” she asked, “do you mind if I check something? Can you lay down face-up please?” She twisted my feet so that my legs twisted all the way from my hips. The right one with the cyst didn't twist as far as the left one. Hmmm. Something’s up. This little gumshoe medical mystery was getting exciting. So I fed the bear some more.

When she asked me if I’ve had any back troubles, I told her all about the slipped discs in my neck. She ate it right up. This is exactly what she wanted to hear. The picture was getting clearer and clearer. It was all making sense now.

“Do you mind?” As I was still lying down, she held my head in her hands and twisted my head to the right and to the left. She noticed that she couldn’t twist it as far to the right side. There was that darn asymmetry again.

“Okay," she said, "can I do something else?” This is when she put her right hand over my right hemisphere and her left over my left and then she pulsed her hands in concert with the energy pulses emanating from my brain.

The problem was... my brain's hemispheres weren't pulsing in sync.

So naturally the next thing you’d want to do in this situation is rub my hip with a vibrator. And that’s what she did. Both hips. For about 10 minutes on each side while we chit-chatted about all kinds of fun stuff. She was a really nice woman. It felt marvelous.

Then she re-checked my legs. Both twisted just fine now. She re-checked my brain waves. Both sides pulsed in sync now. She re-measured my height. I was taller now!

No mention of what could cause the bulge in my knee or how to deal with it. Just, “It was great to meet you and let’s do a follow-up soon to see how that knee is doing. Maybe do another treatment in a couple days. Let’s put you down on the calendar.”

We made a follow-up appointment. I knew it was all a lie and that I was going to cancel it, but after she’d used a vibrator on me, I felt like I had to make a second date.

I called back that afternoon and told the receptionist, that aw shucks I actually can’t make that appointment. The doctor called me back each day for the next three days and in her messages she asked how my knee was doing and she acted hurt and concerned that I’d canceled our follow-up. Her last message was pretty prickly.

As Google informed me, swollen lymph nodes take 12 days to shrink back to their normal size and by day 12 the bulge on the back of my right knee- whether it was a cyst or a swollen lymph node - was gone and the infected cut on my knee was healed as well. This was just 4 days after my vibration treatment.

Osteopathy worked!


Holly Dunsworth said...

P.S. remember when I vowed to make my next post about sex because of the post on bats? (

Well, I tried... hope you can tell...

Ken Weiss said...

You're too, too much--and wonderful!
Some stories are so good they couldn't possibly be fiction!

The sad side of this is the desperation that leads many people (perhaps any of us are vulnerable) to seek whatever promise there may be for a desperate problem.

That is why mountebanks will always be around. Snake oil for whatever ails you, your children or other loved ones--even your pet. And, perhaps, why science and its industries should be more responsibly constrained.

Yet, apparently leeches, which would seem to be in the desperately strange category, work. Which fact can drive the credibility of the most bizarre promises. And they all can be seen, felt, or believed to work because they sometimes do in the way you say.

Or to bring it back to your promised topic, sex, as one might put it, why monkey glands were viewed as the Viagra of longer life....

Holly Dunsworth said...

Thanks Ken! And, of course, this has huge implications for our broken health insurance system: My insurance covered this visit in exactly the same way it would cover my visit to a normal doctor.

Holly Dunsworth said...

I FORGOT TO MENTION!!! my height change! I will insert into the story...

Anne Buchanan said...

Were you asymmetrically taller?

Great post, Holly!!

Jennifer said...

that'll teach you unbelievers!!! too much science just can't be good...... probably wouldn't have had the problem if she was just drinking raw goat milk every day.

Unknown said...

I've heard this story before, but reading it still made me laugh my chakras off.

Ken Weiss said...

This reminds me of two things.
Not that many years ago a paper was published in Nature by investigators claiming that aqueous solutions of antibody could be diluted so that no actual antibody molecules were present but the water retained its immunological properties--as if the water molecules had been somehow impressed (physically, maybe spiritually too?) by the antibody molecules.

There is also the recurring theory of radiation hormesis, in which low doses of radiation are helpful. The idea is that low doses stimulate cells' DNA repair mechanisms, whereas high doses just damage DNA and hence cause cancer etc. This idea keeps arising because estimating low dose effects is so very difficult. It is in the interests of various groups to foster such a theory, such as those who want to have lenient exposure limits for radiation workers, like those in uranium mines, nuclear reactors, etc.

And then there's cold fusion....

Julia said...

This is a great story, so funny. Thanks for enduring the weird visit so you had the opportunity to tell this!

Holly Dunsworth said...

Julia, you may have experienced this phenomenon now that you too are a blogger... I find myself enduring and/or getting into situations that I never did before JUST SO THAT I can write a story about it. Thank you blogging for spicing up my life. And thank you Kevin ;).

Holly Dunsworth said...

Ken, what you're referring to was actually published in Nature? That's what James Randi is talking about in the video I link (which took place at Princeton, but it's the same talk he gave at Penn State a few years back too... "amazing" ;)).

Ken Weiss said...

Darwin was an example of the pathos of desperate searches. He 'took the cure' not only for his own recurring miseries, but in his truly heart-wrenching vain attempt to save his favorite daughter from an early death.

I don't know what he may have said in letters, but I doubt this was a rejection of science. Doctors prescribed spa & mineral water treatments, I think.

Like most things (including your experience) the cure seems to work! When it doesn't, like many of our 'scientific' treatments today, we say we just don't know why (i.e., the method does work, but not in this case), or we invent a reason, until research can actually find one.

Arjun said...

Ha! I really enjoyed reading this, Holly! This post reminds me of my own brush with alternative medicine looking for validation. I used to be part of Penn State's Yan Xin Qigong Club.

(I'll get to how this relates to the post after a short introduction for those unfamiliar with the practice.)

Qigong is perhaps most famous in the west for China's publicized attempt to ban large-scale gatherings of practitioners (in particular Falun Gong) out of fear that they might be precursors to large-scale protest.

'Qi' refers to an amalgamated concept of air, breath, spirit, and life force, and 'gong' means 'work.' Indeed, to give a crude summary, qigong is a system of physical breathing exercises practiced in order to facilitate proper distribution of the qi throughout the body (the fount of qi in our bodies is regarded as being located just below our navels).

Nowadays, many practitioners strive to lend Qigong an air of scientific legitimacy, to the point of publishing results in scientific journals such as "Brain Research."

Strictly speaking, Qigong practitioners can manipulate two types of qi- internal (as I've described above) and external (projecting qi outside of one's body).

As part of the Yan Xin Qigong Club (Yan Xin leads one major school of qigong) I had to read a research article that showed that treating rat neuronal cultures with external qi 30 minutes prior to hydrogen peroxide exposure dramatically decreased the number of cells that underwent apoptosis.

The explanation suggested that external qi treatment up-regulated expression of Phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase (PI3K), which has been demonstrated to strongly inhibit apoptosis.

Before I stopped attending meetings, I was told that recent results indicated that external qi therapy had been shown to kill cancer cells in vitro.

Supposedly external qi therapy has entered Chinese medical textbooks and is accepted by Chinese medical authorities.

Again, I'm sorry for the over-extended comment, but it seems relevant in the light of your post and the comments that have followed.


On a somewhat-related note, do you think that the 'placebo effect' may have had a hand in your miraculous recovery? Here's a brief article from earlier this year outlining 'how placebos really work'-- (

Thanks again for sharing your experience!

Ken Weiss said...

First, let's think about the 4 humors of Galenic medicine. That lasted for close to 2000 years, being followed, often slavishly, by physicians (including in the very advanced Arab world at the time) who were intelligent and 'evidence based'.

We can laugh at that but much of what we do today in _mainstream_ medicine is similar in conceptual rigor (whether or not it has the patina of statistical or molecular rigor).

But what about the 'placebo' effect. It is considered to be a nuisance to drug trials at best, and hokum at worst. But it does seem reproducible and real; even those who knew someone was praying for their recovery did better.

Rather than treat it as an unscientific idea, or a source just of statistical noise around real science in drug trials, why not simply recognize that boosting one's confidence (whatever the mechanism, probably at least partly immunological) is a real form of therapy.

That it's too poorly understood to be more focused should not mean it is not valid or usable. That might mean trial and error, but much of medicine works that way even with high tech approaches.

One interpretation is that it is simply not in our space of empirical acceptability because we are an industrialized, reductionist society. The latter is the kind of evidence we respect, even when we know that other evidence exists, and industrialization in its various forms generates vested interests...

Anne Buchanan said...

Arjun, recovery wouldn't have to have anything to do with placebo effect (i.e., believing a treatment will help), because in many (most?) situations, people get better anyway, with or without treatment.

There is a long-running debate in pediatrics about whether to treat ear infections or not. Scandinavian doctors tend not to treat, US doctors tend to treat. Most kids in Scandinavia get better, as to most kids here.

So, it's not necessarily just alternative medicine, or Qigong, that can't readily demonstrate effectiveness. As we've discussed many times before on this blog, cause and effect can be hard to figure out!

Anne Buchanan said...

And, Jennifer, that raw goat milk better be chocolate, to keep down inflammation! (

Arjun said...

So Dr. Buchanan, do you see the 'placebo effect' as a means of lending a conceptual framework to the repeated observation of such results in clinical trials?

Anne Buchanan said...

I'm not quite sure what you are asking, Arjun, but I'll try to explain what I meant and hope that clarifies it. Placebos have been demonstrated over and over to be more effective than no treatment. This is presumed to be due to the psychological effect of receiving some treatment, any treatment. That's not the same as ignoring your wart, your sore throat, your headache, your cyst and it going away on its own. Apparently even some tumors disappear without treatment. Our bodies have healing abilities that can take care of quite a lot on their own. Thus, it can be difficult to know what effect to attribute to treatment, as opposed to the passage of time. And, it's also hard to predict which issues will resolve themselves, thus, medicine (in our litigious society) generally errs on the side of caution.

Anonymous said...
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EllenQ said...

Holly, all I have to say is that it is a darn good thing that this blog isn't based in the UK or you could be sued for libel like Simon Singh.

The fundamental issue to me is that in medicine, public policy, and far too many other facets of of our lives, we don't make decisions based on evidence. This is fine when there isn't any evidence either way, but when rigorous scientific evidence is disregarded, and the people who disregard it are legitimized by insurance companies, governments, and the media, we are encouraging further denegration of science and learning in general.

On a totally unrelated note, anyone read Sarah Palin's new memoirs? ;)

Holly Dunsworth said...

Ellen,... if you care... I'd love for you to please elaborate on your first paragraph???