Research Intelligence - Alternative outcomes
By Paul Jump
As the first professor of complementary medicine retires, he recalls a rough ride. Paul Jump reports
Edzard Ernst admits he is pleased to be retiring as professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter - although his departure will be welcomed even more avidly by the numerous enemies he has made during his 18 years of subjecting complementary and alternative medicine (Cam) to scientific scrutiny.
The 63-year-old officially retired at the end of last month after producing well over 1,000 papers assessing the evidence for the efficacy of alternative treatments.
But although his outspoken conclusion is that only about 5 per cent of such treatments are "solidly based on positive evidence", he admitted in an interview with Times Higher Education that he had started out as a "friend" of Cam.
His first job after graduating from medical school was in Germany's only homeopathic hospital, the Hospital for Natural Healing in Munich, where he was so impressed by the efficacy of some treatments that he continued to practise them "on and off" during his subsequent rise through the medical establishment.
That rise culminated with his appointment in 1990 as chair of the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Vienna, where he had 120 people working under him. But his abiding interest in Cam convinced him to apply to become the world's first professor of complementary medicine when he saw the Exeter position advertised in 1993.
The £1.5 million to fund the position had been donated by construction magnate and Cam supporter Sir Maurice Laing. But although the philanthropist, with whom Professor Ernst became "good friends" before his death in 2008, was happy for him to subject Cam to rigorous analysis, practitioners remained opposed to his sceptical approach - despite the 700 invited lectures Professor Ernst gave on the scientific method.
"It looks to them as if we are always trying to disprove their beliefs. And in a way we are, because we are scientists. They understand alternative medicine as alternative to science, so to apply science to their field is quite upsetting for most of them," he said.