Abraham Flexner – Good News – Bad News – New News

April 14th, 2015 by Nick Jacobs Leave a reply »

Having spent nearly thirty years as a non-clinical, healthcare insider, the treasure trove of knowledge that I’ve accumulated has been both fascinating and frustrating.  It is very clear that the overall goal of those individuals who have chosen health care as a career path have done so with one very real goal in mind, to help their fellow man.  What is also clear to me is that there is no absolute singular pathway to that end.

When exploring the history of Western medicine, we see numerous influences:  the discovery of antibiotics, the progression of military medicine, hand washing, vaccines, and attention to drug interactions.  But there has been one other major milestone that has had a key influence on modern medicine that is not as well-known.   This was a report by Abraham Flexner produced in 1910 on “Medical Education in the United States and Canada” (The Flexner Report) for the Carnegie Foundation.

When Flexner did his research for this extensive report, traditional medicine was being challenged by several competing modalities, including: homeopathy, chiropractic medicine, naturopathy, and osteopathic medicine. Flexner noticeably mistrusted the scientific validity of all forms of medicine other than that based on pure scientific research.

As a result of his personal beliefs he endorsed only the scientifically based practices of medicine.  Any other medicine that did not promote the use of scientifically documented treatments to avoid or cure disease and illness was assumed to be synonymous with trickery and deception. Medical schools that offered training in other world health modalities were required to drop these courses or fail to receive their accreditation and financial backing. Eventually all of the schools either conformed to the Report or ceased to exist.

The complete irony of the Flexner Report was that, in spite of its faults and blemishes, it accomplished some incredible things for which we should all give thanks.  The quacks were driven from the profession, the curriculum became standardized, and the quality of physicians rose as the standards for admission became more stringent.

On the other side of that proverbial coin, virtually every other type of care that had been practiced internationally for hundreds and even thousands of years was eliminated from medicine in the United States and Canada. ( As an aside he also recommended negative admission standards toward African Americans and women.)

It has been my very unique and distinct pleasure to first be an observer, then a participant, and now an advocate for several of those evidence based modalities that were thrown out with the proverbial bath water all those many years ago.  We now know from definitive, scientific research that many of these banished treatments are not only effective, they are also amazing supplements to or work exceedingly well when integrated with standard Western Medicine and they are now evidence based as well.   Energy medicine, acupuncture, chiropractic, traditional Chinese medicine, homeopathy, and osteopathy all have a role to play in the healing arts.

In my writing and speaking engagements over the years, I’ve often referred to a poem by Samuel Walter Foss entitled The Calf Path in which he describes a journey made by a primeval calf that resulted in a path that a dog, a bell-wether sheep, and eventually men on horseback followed until it was turned into a road that bent and curved and bent again, but was blindly followed by all of those who ventured on it.  This path that was made some 200 years before and was never re-examined.   We’ve all traveled those roads.

Well, the work of Abraham Flexner created a calf path that we still follow today.  Yes, it helped to get us to a destination, but now we are so locked into the heal to the pill mentality, that we have become complacent in our exploration of wellness and prevention.

Diet, exercise, stress management, group support, unconditional love, and a dozen other things can help keep us well.  Open your minds, and open your hearts.




  1. Wilhelm says:

    Great post. During medical school it always surprised me that our curriculum was based on a report written over 100 years ago. Much has changed in the last century and medical schools are slowly starting to adapt to interpretations of health that go beyond the traditional Western view.

    Rigorous science is being performed in the alternative health professions and, insofar as they are shown to be effective, medicine must coexist if not incorporate nontraditional approaches to health.

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