David Payne: Homoeopathy and the Royals

David Payne At a recent BMJ planning meeting we talked of commissioning an article  about how the Murdoch family business had shaped public policy in  countries where its newspapers and broadcast channels are major players. But after reading Edzard Ernst’s interview in Saturday’s Guardian newspaper, which recounts a well publicised disagreement with  Prince Charles over homoeopathy, I wonder if we should turn our attentions to another famous dynasty.

Ernst, the son of a German doctor who prescribed homoeopathic remedies  and the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, has retired  early from Exeter University. According to his interview with Guardian reporter Susanna Rustin, the  watershed came five years ago when a complaint from Charles’ private  secretary Sir Michael Peat, written in his capacity as chair of the  prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health, almost cost him his job.

Ernst was subsequently cleared of violating a confidentiality  agreement, but claims the clash with Clarence House triggered a crisis of confidence in  his department’s work.

At a press conference to mark his departure last week he concurred with a Daily Mail reporter who labelled the prince a “snake oil  salesman” for his Duchy Herbals’ dandelion and artichoke detox remedy.

Ernst told Rustin the prince faces a conflict of interest. He makes money  from Duchy Herbals. He is the king in waiting, and should not “mingle  in health, politics, or anything else.”

The fact is, he does mingle. Very much. In 1984 the prince famously labelled a planned modernist extension to London’s National Gallery a  “monstrous carbuncle.” The scheme was rethought. More recently he successfully intervened in a planning application to build a glass and steel housing development at Chelsea barracks. It got shelved. He has expressed similar forthright views on farming and education, many of them contained in handwritten letters to government ministers.

Charles’ interest in homoeopathy is certainly shared by many of his royal relatives and forebears, dating back, in fact, to Queen Adelaide (1792-1849). It seems that commoners who marry into “the royal firm” quickly become devotees. It was one thing Diana, Princess of Wales, shared with her former husband, according to Dominic Lawson, whose wife was a friend of Diana.

William Shawcross’s 1100 page authorised biography of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, the prince’s beloved late grandmother, charts her gradual conversion after marrying the Duke of York in 1923. (The duke even named a racehorse after a homoeopathic remedy).

In December 1930, after the Duke was kicked in the leg while out hunting, she was suspicious of his reliance on homoeopath Sir John Weir’s little powders and pills, and asked Dr Varley of Cadogan Place to examine him also. (Weir,  was physician royal to the current queen, another fan of homoeopathy, until his death in 1968).

The book quotes from her letter: “If it is alright, my husband thought that [Dr Weir] might look on while you are looking at the leg, and then he can swallow down his powders with joy.” She thought that “the idea of these little doses will make him feel more cheerful.”

Before long she was a convert. Shawcross notes: “Throughout her life she would hand out arnica tablets to anyone with a bruise or worse,” adding that for her, homoeopathy was an intelligent approach to illness where “each individual is treated as a person and not only as an interesting case of so and so. If it comes off, the treatment seems very successful, but or course it can be rather slow.”

By the time she reached her 60s, according to Shawcross, she was a fan of both homoeopathy and conventional medicine, but  “thought that a tiny homeopathic tablet or power would  cure her of any complaint – and she tended to think most complaints were imagined anyway.”

Her daughter the queen is a patron of the NHS-run Royal London Homoeopathic Hospital, which changed its name last year to the Royal London Hospital for Integrative Medicine.

Would homoeopathy have sunk without trace if it had not enjoyed royal patronage for the last few hundred years? Maybe it would. In the Daily Telegraph this week, the author Nicholas Evans was interviewed about poisoning his family with mushrooms he wrongly thought were edible ceps when he picked them in Scotland. He almost died, until his daughter donated a kidney.

He told the paper: “I used to be quite open to the idea of homeopathy and alternative medicine. I realise now it’s a luxury. It’s OK when you’re basically healthy but when your life is on the line, as ours were, it’s potentially fatal.” Perhaps the royal family, blessed with wealth and good health, feel they can afford to take homoeopathic treatments, although if their faith in it was truly blind they wouldn’t combine it with conventional medicine.

A few years back one Daily Telegraph blogger described  the royals’ interest as “a national joke.” But if it is such a joke, why did intervention from Clarence House leave Professor Ernst  “angry and depressed,” as he told the Guardian, result in his department facing closure, and ultimately lead to him taking early retirement?

David Payne is editor, bmj.com