I don’t know if it’s confirmation bias or not, but it seems that every time I go away on a trip, some juicy bit of blog fodder pops up. So, right here, right now, while I’m at the AACR meeting soaking up the latest and greatest in cancer science, inevitably someone posts something that normally would provoke–nay, demand–an Orac-ian deconstruction full of the usual Insolence. So what is it this time?
Yes, everybody’s favorite homeopath for whom no science is too settled to twist and homeopathy and homeopathic “thinking” are in fact responsible for much of medical science, including vaccines, is at it again, and he’s at it at–where else?–that wretched hive of scum and quackery, The Huffington Post. He’s doing better this time at being topical, though. The last time around, when he tried to capitalize on Oscar nomination and then victory for Best Picture of The King’s Speech, he was months late. This time around, he’s a bit more topical in Homeopathy For Radiation Poisoning, in which he (among other inanities) tries to convince you that the entire basis of radiation therapy for cancer is homeopathic. I kid you not. Behold:
A homeopath by the name of Emil Grubbe, M.D. (1875-1960) was the first person to use radiation to treat a person with cancer (Dearborn, 2005).
In January 1896, Grubbe was a student at the Hahnemann Medical College (of Chicago, a famous homeopathic medical school). He gave radiation treatment to Mrs. Rose Lee, a woman with breast cancer.
Grubbe got the idea of using radiation as a treatment for Lee’s breast cancer from Reuben Ludlam, M.D., a professor at the homeopathic medical school. Ludlam knew that Grubbe had previously experimented with X-ray as a diagnostic procedure so much that he developed blisters and tumors on his hand and neck as a result of overexposure to this new technology.
Because one of the basic premises of homeopathic medicine is that small doses of a treatment can help to heal those symptoms that large doses are known to cause, Ludlam suggested to Grubbe that radiation may be a treatment for conditions such as tumors because it also causes them.
This incident is but one more example from history in which an insight from a homeopathic perspective has provided an important breakthrough in medical treatment.
First off, even if this were true, it would be more of an example of the proverbial stopped watch having the right time twice a day, except for homeopathy it would be more like being right twice a century. Even if it were right about something like this, it would also be a massive case of being right for the wrong reason. The reason radiation therapy works for cancer is because it damages DNA, and rapidly proliferating cells (like cancer cells) are in generally more sensitive to DNA damage than quiescent, non-proliferating cells. Consequently, cancer tends to be more sensitive to radiation than surrounding normal tissue. Second, back in 1896 scientists didn’t know any of this. All they knew is that radiation burned. Hypotheses popular around that time for the cause of cancer were chronic irritation (Rudolph Virchow) and trauma.
But what about the rest of Ullman’s claims about Grubbe? Here’s a more sober history of the man:
It was not uncommon for youngsters of 15 or 16 years of age to enter medical school in those days, but Grubbe’s formal education was so limited that he could not obtain admission to any of the not overly selective 15 or more medical schools then existing in Chicago. He enrolled, therefore, in Northern Indiana Normal School at Valparaiso and by hard work as a night watchman he was able to complete his formal premedical education and entered Hahnemann Medical College of Chicago in 1895. His talent for scientific study and teaching led to his appointment as an instructor in physics and chemistry at the medical college while he was also an undergraduate student. At that time, Roentgen’s discovery in November of 1895 so impressed young Grubbe that he obtained a vacuum discharge tube and began his mutilation and disfigurement.
He conducted an investigation of the fluoroscopic capabilities of the “‘new ray” and, along with Edison and many other pioneers, some of the original investigations into the applications of the roentgen ray. It was at this time that he began to suffer from radiation-dermatitis of the hands and neck. The relationship of these lesions to radiation was clear to him, and at the suggestion of one of his colleagues he began to experiment with the use of this apparatus in the treatment of carcinoma. Success was almost instantaneous. In February of 1896, he founded the first radiation therapy facility in Chicago, at South Cottage Grove Avenue in Chicago.
All of this was accomplished before he graduated from medical school in 1898. He remained a member of the faculty and occupied the professorial chair in electrotherapeutics and radiography until 1919.
So, basically, Grubbe was a curious, brilliant man who practiced according to the standards of the time. As for Hahnemann Medical College, it wasn’t so outside the mainstream as homeopathy is today:
In addition to these “regular” medical colleges, several institutions trained practitioners in alternative medical practices. The most popular alternative, especially among well-educated segments of society, was homeopathy. Homeopathic theory held that drugs should be tested to determine their effects, that a drug which causes specific symptoms in a well person is the drug which should be used to cure those same symptoms in an unwell person (like cures like), and that a drug’s potency is enhanced by a series of dilutions (the law of infinitesimals). The Hahnemann Medical College opened in 1860 and became coeducational in 1871. Except for the emphasis upon homeopathic therapeutics, instruction resembled that in Chicago’s “regular” medical schools.
Oddly enough, Grubbe had to have his hand amputated due to complications and burns suffered from radiation, which hardly sounds homeopathic to me. Of course, any time any conventional medicine can cause the problem it treats, Ullman is quick to jump on it as evidence that the homeopathic principle of “like cures like” is generally true and that homeopathy informed how modern science-based medicine is practiced.
I don’t have time to undertake the rest of Ullman’s article; so I’m going to do something that (I hope) is better than another lame open thread. I’m going to leave the deconstruction of the rest of Ullman’s paean to homeopathy as a treatment for radiation poisoning to you, the reader. Do me proud. Analyze his claims and the “evidence” that Ullman presents. And don’t cheat. Try to do it without consulting the work of other skeptical bloggers who very well might, fired up by Ullman’s nonsense, have had a go at his latest HuffPo excretion. Above all, have fun, as I hope to. I’m off to spend a day learning about some real science about cancer. It’ll cleanse the palate after a dose of Dana Ullman’s homeopathic blather.