Intended for healthcare professionals

Editor's Choice

Lessons from medicine's shameful past

BMJ 2004; 328 doi: (Published 19 February 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;328:0-g
  1. Rhona MacDonald, editor (rmacdonald{at}
  1. Career Focus

    In a week when we look to the future of human cloning, (pp 415,421)we also look back at the lessons that medicine should learn from its past.

    Almost 30 years ago, in Limits to Medicine, Ivan Illich wrote: “Medicine undermines health not only through direct aggression against individuals but also through the impact ofits social organisation against the total milieu.” He referred to this as social iatrogenesis, andtwo papers in this week's BMJ illustrate this phenomenon uncomfortably well (pp 427,429

    “I felt totally bewildered that my entire emotional life was being written up in the papers as utter filth and perversity,” confesses Male 1, one of 29 people in the United Kingdom who received “treatment” to change their sexual orientation in the 1960s and 1970s. People received treatmentbetween 13 and 40 years of age, mostly in NHS hospitals. The most common treatment was behaviouralaversion therapy with electric shocks. Male 4 states, “A psychologist was the man who administeredthe jolts to me,” and Male 5 summarises the pointlessness of such treatment: “She [the psychiatrist] said, ‘I don't think we are going to get anywhere. To be quite honest, I never expected we would in the first place. You're going to have to go home and tell your wife that you're gay and start a new life.’ Boom!” With statements like this, it is unsurprising that the authors are so gravein their conclusions: “[Our study] serves as a warning against the use of mental health services to change aspects of human behaviour that are disapproved of on social, political, moral, or religious grounds.”

    Perhaps more chilling is the second paper (p 429), which examines the experiences of the professionals who “administered and evaluated treatments for homosexuality.” While one clinical psychologist confesses, “I feel a lot of shame,” another says, “I thought they [homosexuals] were people who were disordered and needed treatment and psychiatric help. I still do.”

    So much for Judd Marmor's victory in declassifying homosexuality as an illness (p 466) and with suchbigoted attitudes it is not difficult to see why services like the BMJ Careers discrimination matching scheme and the Advice Zone are needed. The former is a peer support systemfor doctors and medical students who have faced discrimination and the latter is a web based careerrelated question and answer service covering over 80 topics, including discrimination. We have recently launched a dedicated Career Focus website which has a range of different search options (on Career Focus content), services, and links (see for more details).

    We hope that these features will help support doctors and medical students in their career decisions and their working lives, whoever, whatever, and wherever they are.


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