Beyond Fauci: When Physicians are Victims Persecution of physicians and scientists in history
New York César Chelala
Persecution of physicians, scientists and all those that go against the accepted knowledge or norms of the times is an ancient practice.
One of the most famous cases concerns Galileo Galilei, the Italian astronomer, physicist and engineer. He was persecuted by the Catholic Church because his concept of the universe was in disagreement with the theological thinking of the times. He was tried by the Inquisition, found "vehemently suspect of heresy", and forced to recant. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest.
So far, Anthony Fauci has been luckier than that. Despite repeated attacks by the former U.S. President and his Republican allies, Fauci continues to have the full support of President Joe Biden and of the American scientific community.
When the time comes for another attack by Donald Trump or his surrogates, Fauci may be well-advised to point to the proud tradition of doctors as whistleblowers. One particular case comes to mind.
In 1865, Rudolf Virchow, a German physician, writer, scientist and politician, criticized the government for investing in the military instead of on education and the elimination of poverty. Virchow is credited with the creation of Germany’s first public health programs.
According to legend, after a particularly severe attack by Virchow, prime minister Otto von Bismarck felt personally affronted, and sent seconds to Virchow’s laboratory to challenge him to a duel. Bismarck’s officials found him working on Trichinella spiralis, the smallest nematode parasite of humans and one of the most clinically important parasites in the world. The parasite is responsible for the disease Trichinosis, which was ravaging Germany, and Virchow was working on the best way to control it.
“Oh,” said Virchow, “a challenge from Prince Bismarck, eh? Well, since I am the challenged party, I suppose I have the choice of weapons. Here they are!” He showed his visitors two large sausages which seemed to be exactly alike. “One of these sausages,” said Virchow, “is filled with Trichinella spiralis —it is deadly. The other is perfectly wholesome. Externally, they cannot be told apart. Let his Excellency do me the honor to choose whichever he wishes and eat it, and I will eat the other one.” The duel was quickly cancelled. The incident is informally known as The Great Sausage Duel of 1865.
But the persecution of doctors and scientists in history doesn’t just concern men. One famous case is that of British doctor Judith Mackay, who in the 1960s spoke against tobacco companies when she studied the impact of smoking on people’s health in Hong Kong.
When she asked the government to adopt stricter regulations, she received death threats, was insulted, and the tobacco multinational companies tried to discredit her research. She is one of medicine’s modern heroes.
Dr. Anthony Fauci is a national treasure
In the United States, while citizens lined their windows to applaud the work of health workers nationwide, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has become the target of an online conspiracy theory criticizing his actions. At the same time, some Republican lawmakers constantly try to question his credibility.
One of the most rabid Fauci attackers is Sen. Rand Paul, R-KY., whose training as an ophthalmologist obviously didn’t give him the vision to assess the tremendous threat of the coronavirus pandemic to the health of all Americans. Paul’s false accusations against Fauci have sparked death threats against him and his family. While Fauci accused him for his nefarious deeds, Paul remained unmoved, the typical response of the self-centered, ignorant person.
In the meantime, while the coronavirus continues to ravage the lives and threaten the survival of the American population, no other medical person is more respected than Dr. Fauci by the public at large. Biting the hands of doctors who, against all odds, try to control the spread of the infection is a path to self-destruction.
Dr. César Chelala is an international public health consultant.