Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

A Scientist in Wonderland

By Loretta Marron

A review of Edzard Ernst's autobiography.

Edzard Ernst is the world expert in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), but this accolade did not come easily, neither personally nor professionally. Passion emerges from his book, "A Scientist in Wonderland: a memoir of looking for truth and finding trouble" – in his love for his wife, friends and family, music, living a full life, and dedication to the pursuit of scientific inquiry.

This is juxtaposed with his hatred for the Nazis and shame for the past of his own people.
Moving through the stages of his life, we see a shy, introverted, insecure and rebellious youth, overcoming enormous difficulties as he navigates his way to become a determined, dedicated and highly accomplished university academic and scientist. Along the way, while writing numerous scientific papers, he exposes corruption and the exploitation of human frailties.

Born in post-war Germany into a family of generations of physicians, and despite enjoying life as a musician, he eventually surrenders himself to this profession, which would eventually define, stretch, challenge and intellectually nourish him.

He describes the impact of World War II on his loving, but emotional and financially war-damaged parents, their eventual break-up and their struggles to re-establish themselves back into society – and their success at doing so. Time in a Russian POW camp had left his father ill. Etched into Ernst’s childhood memories was the dream that he would one day become a doctor to cure him.

Being related to a member of the SS Waffen also prompted him to research the history of medicine under the Nazis.

Early in life, Ernst had difficulty accepting authority and responsibility. This changed when he was admitted to medical school. The years that followed, and the variety of hospitals he worked in and the types of work he immersed himself with, saw him become a Professor within 10 years of graduating in 1978.

In 1993, at 46, he was appointed to the world’s first Chair of Complementary Medicine, at Exeter University, UK – a position supported by Prince Charles. He brought an open mind and considerable experience in administration, politics, clinical work and scientific research and an appreciation of the importance of the human side of the patient/doctor relationship.

During two decades at Exeter University, he was exposed, because he demonstrated that so many popular CAM therapies failed when tested, to constant, savage, and sometimes humiliating attacks from his own university chancellery, Government representatives, alternative health practitioners and Prince Charles. Despite these battles, he and his team were able to publish over 1,000 high quality papers.

The latter part of his story is a ‘tell all’, where he describes the challenges he faced in testing CAMs – the rigorous, inter-disciplinary and international collaborative research into the efficacy, safety and cost of CAMs and the forces which led to the closure of his unit in 2011.

Edzard Ernst is a living legend. Unique in his field of medicine as the one (and only) academic, who is not a ‘true believer’, working in CAM, he exposed the corruption of standards of scientific research which remains endemic in today's CAM courses located world-wide – even in in our Australian universities.

The book is easy to read and hard to put down. I would particularly recommend it to anyone, with an open mind, who is interested in the truth or otherwise of CAM.

Loretta Marron is the chief executive officer of Friends of Science in Medicine.