Fact Check: John D. Rockefeller Was NOT Responsible For Widespread Arrests Of Alternative Medicine Supporters

Fact Check

  • by: Lead Stories Staff
Fact Check: John D. Rockefeller Was NOT Responsible For Widespread Arrests Of Alternative Medicine Supporters No Arrests

Did oil tycoon and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller act as a driving force behind arrests of those who supported alternative medicine? No, that's not true: Although Rockefeller's foundation financially backed medical education changes in the U.S., there is no evidence that Rockefeller's contributions led to the arrest of those who encouraged alternative medicine.

The claim appeared in a post (archived here) on Facebook on July 31, 2023, with text reading "Why Natural/Holistic Healing Methods are Considered 'Alternative.'" The audio of the video opened:

When it was discovered that drugs could be produced from petroleum, medicines used for thousands of years were suddenly classified as alternative.

The audio says a member of the Rockefeller family influenced the prevalence of alternative medicine and that those who publicly championed alternative medicine were "arrested and jailed."

This fact check will primarily focus on the "arrested and jailed" claim.

This is what the post looked like on Facebook at the time of writing:

Screenshot 2023-08-15 11.30.56 AM.png

(Source: Facebook screenshot taken on Tue Aug 15 15:30:56 2023 UTC)

John D. Rockefeller: Business and philanthropy

Although the video does not provide the first name of the Rockefeller behind the widespread transformation of medicine, historical clues point to John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil who chartered The Rockefeller Foundation with his son and other associates. The foundation was created in 1913 after Rockefeller established other philanthropic organizations that contributed to medical research, including the General Education Board (GEB). Rockefeller's immense wealth primarily funded these organizations.

Other parts of the claim point to Rockefeller as the person in question, such as the video's reference to that person "buying a German pharmaceutical company that manufactured chemicals of war for Adolf Hitler." In the claim, the implication is that the company is I.G. Farben. The German pharmaceutical conglomerate had close ties with Nazi leadership, exploited concentration camp victims for labor and had subsidiaries responsible for producing chemical warfare agents. However, Rockefeller died in 1937, before the start of World War II. Even if he hadn't, there appears to be no credible information supporting the idea that Rockefeller actually bought the conglomerate or a similar company before the war.

Another part of the video claims that the person in question had "political influence" and that he "took control of the American Medical Association and begin offering massive grants to top medical schools under the mandate that only his approved curriculum be taught." The "Medical Education in the United States and Canada" report, informally known as the Flexner Report, was published in 1910 and sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the American Medical Association (AMA). The report, written by educator Abraham Flexner, is often considered responsible for the emphasis on scientific medical school training and the closure of many of the nation's medical schools, especially schools that trained Black medical students. Following the release of the report, Rockefeller's GEB (of which Flexner was secretary) provided funding toward medical education based on Flexner's recommendations.

No evidence of widespread arrests or jail time

Lynn Miller is a professor emerita of the School of Business at La Salle University who has studied the medical school closures that occurred during the era of the Flexner Report. In an email sent on August 16, 2023, she provided Lead Stories with insight into the medical landscape during the time the claim references. In the early 19th century, nonsectarian physicians (who we now consider regular doctors) often relied on painful treatments for their patients while sectarian physicians (who we now consider alternative medicine doctors) often used natural treatments to fight ailments. These alternative medicine practices, however, were often ineffective. In 1847, a group of nonsectarian doctors founded the AMA and, with public support over the years, was able to set standards within medical education and practice that relied on science. Still, some alternative medicine doctors were represented in the medical field after pushback.

The Flexner Report, Miller said, was the boost that regular doctors needed to truly transform medical care:

The public was enraged by Flexner's descriptions of 'wretched' and 'filthy' conditions, lack of equipment, and routinely ignored admission standards at a large number of the schools he visited. Flexner was highly critical of sectarian schools, which he saw as generally under-resourced and starting with a foundation in dogma rather than science.

It seemed that Flexner was also able to convince Rockefeller that while he was funding medical schools that embraced scientific methods, he should also support Howard University College of Medicine and Meharry Medical College, an action that apparently went against the AMA's wishes. Miller went on:

But, aside from Rockefeller apparently rankling the AMA at times, there is little evidence that he was able to control them or school curricula. And there was no need for him to target sectarian medicine, as other forces - licensing laws, the AMA's ratings, and Flexner's recommendations - had resulted in the virtual extinction of sectarian schools by 1930.

As for the arrests of supporters of alternative medicine, Miller told us:

The history of medicine certainly includes reports of arrests of scoundrels who sold medical diplomas or adulterated medicines, or made wildly fraudulent claims about the myriad illnesses that their patent medicine would cure. But in my study of the history of medicine and medical education, I have never come across stories of physicians being stripped of licenses or arrested for merely speaking out against Rockefeller, the AMA, or anyone else regarding the direction that medicine should take.

Lead Stories has reached out to other medical historians about the claim and will update this story with their responses.

Alternative medicine still exists

"Alternative medicine" is still used today in place of standard medicine to treat conditions. Some advocacy groups like the American Cancer Society caution patients against using alternative medicine treatments without guidance from a health care team. Still, Pew Research Center found that based on data collected in 2016, one-fifth of Americans have tried alternative medicine in the place of standard medicine.

In her email to Lead Stories, Miller also addressed the idea that alternative medicine was, as the claim said, "erased from most medical textbooks." She called the claim "not at all true":

While botanic and other sectarian medical schools were largely extinct by 1930, the scientific study of medicinal plants has long contributed to the development of our pharmacopoeia. For example, Schmidt et al. observed in 2008 that nearly three quarters of the anticancer drugs developed since the 1940s were either natural products or traceable to natural products. Similarly, modern medicine has long regarded diet and nutrition as vital to good health. Nutrition had a consistent presence in medical school curricula until at least the 1950s, after which schools have varied in the emphasis placed on that topic versus other developments in medicine.

Osteopathy, a branch of alternative medicine that focuses on a "whole-person approach" to medical care, is also a recognized field of medicine. According to an article from the AMA, one out of four medical students in the U.S. is enrolled in an osteopathic medical program. The students who complete their programs become doctors of osteopathic medicine.

Alternative medicine differs from complementary and integrative treatments. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, "complementary" treatments combine a nonconventional approach with standard medicine, and "integrative" treatments bring complementary and standard medical approaches together. Alternative, complementary and integrative treatments may all involve "natural" ingredients that may not be proven as effective in standard medical practices.

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  Lead Stories Staff

Lead Stories is a fact checking website that is always looking for the latest false, deceptive or inaccurate stories (or media) making the rounds on the internet.

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