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Persecution in medicine

By Arpan Banerjee

Recently I had the good fortune to see an excellent production of Bertolt Brecht’s play The Life of Galileo at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Brecht has a tenuous connection with the medical profession; he registered in 1917 to attend a medical course in Munich and found himself drafted into the army, serving in a military VD clinic for a short while before the end of the war. Brecht’s main interest, however, was drama (in 1918 he wrote his first play Baal) and it was in this field that he made his lasting contribution.

Galileo Galilei

Galileo was persecuted by the Church and the established authorities for his scientific research. His major crime was using his telescope to confirm the Copernican model of the Sun being at the centre of the solar system with the earth revolving around it. This challenged the cultural consensus and the leaders of the day were not prepared to listen to scientific evidence which challenged old dogmas. Galileo was interrogated in the Vatican, tortured, and forced to retract his theories.

The medical profession has also seen more than its fair share of persecution. I will illustrate with two examples in the relatively new speciality of radiology. The people concerned were not radiologists as such but were conducting pioneering research in imaging. Wilhelm Rötgen, the German physicist who first discovered x-rays in 1895, did himself meet relatively few obstacles regarding the dissemination of his thoughts and findings. But Werner Forssmann, a physician from the small town of Eberswalde in Germany, was not so lucky. In 1929, it is claimed, Forsmann performed the procedure of catheterisation of the heart upon himself and incurred the wrath of his boss as a result. He was sacked and had to switch from a career in cardiology to urology.

Forssmann was to have the last laugh a quarter century later when he shared the 1956 Nobel Prize for his contribution to cardiac catheterisation. This is now a commonplace procedure worldwide.

Werner Forssmann
Werner Forssmann

The next case concerns the plight of Moses Swick, an American urology intern who went to Germany in 1928 to work with Professor Lichtenberg in Berlin. Swick performed scientific studies of a new intravenous contrast agent which would enable visualisation of the renal tract. He and Professor Lichtenberg fell out about who should be given the accolade for the discovery; Lichtenberg stole the limelight and was invited to talk about intravenous urography at the American Urological Association Scientific meeting. For 35 years Swick worked as an urologist in New York until in 1966 it was realised that he had been the victim of injustice and his role in the discovery was belatedly recognised.

These stories are examples where justice prevailed in the end. There are several others which did not and still do not realise fair outcomes.

Arpan K Banerjee qualified in medicine from St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School in London, UK and trained in Radiology at Westminster Hospital and Guys and St Thomas’s Hospital. In 2012 he was appointed Chairman of the British Society for the History of Radiology of which he is a founder member and council member. In 2011 he was appointed to the scientific programme committee of the Royal College Of Radiologists, London. He is the author/co-author of six books including the recent The History of Radiology. Read his previous blog posts.

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Image credits: (1) Galileo, public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Wilhelm Röntgen, by NFejza, CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Werner Forssmann nobel, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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