By Josh Katzowitz, WCI Content Director
The midterm elections are coming on Tuesday, and there’s so much at stake. Can the Republicans take over Congress to stall President Biden’s agenda? Can the Democrats somehow beat the historical odds against them and keep both the House of Representatives and the Senate in their hands? Will the legislative bodies get split, thereby ensuring that not much of anything will get done in the next two years?
And what role, if any, will doctors-turned-politicians play in what will probably end up becoming a huge mess?
Several months ago, I wrote about how heart-surgeon-turned-TV-star-turned-controversial-product-slinger-turned-Senate-Republican-candidate Dr. Oz had made so much money. Now, he seems to be closing in on his Democratic opponent, and it appears Mehmet Oz, whether you love him or hate him (and most of WCI readers seem to despise him), has a real shot at getting elected as a US Senator. If that happens, Oz would join a long list of doctors-turned-politicians who have used their medical credentials to become policy-makers.
In celebration of the 18 physicians who currently have a decent-paying side gig as a Congressperson (they earn $174,000 per year, which is still well below what the average doctor makes), let’s take a look at some of my favorite docs who dove into the swamps of Washington and see what they accomplished.
Note: In this column, “favorite” is a subjective word. I’m not saying I actually like or support any of the physicians below. I’m not saying I’m a liberal or a conservative. In this case, you can interchange “favorite” with “interesting” or “historical.”
Note No. 2: I’m not going to write about current doctor politicians like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) or Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kansas). For me, the history is a little more interesting and probably a little less controversial.
Doctors as Politicians
Dr. Benjamin Rush
Since the founding of the US, doctors have played a significant role in its politics. That goes back to the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 when Rush put his John Hancock on America’s statement of freedom. Rush, in fact, was one of four physicians to sign that hallowed document. According to history observers, Rush was the most eminent physician of his day, and he was so respected that he advised military leaders during the Revolutionary War and wrote “powerful” anti-slavery essays. Sure, he believed in bloodletting, but hey, not everybody can be a perfect physician.
As eoscu.com writes,
“While some of his medical beliefs were mired in the past . . . in others he was way ahead of his time. He proposed that mental illness was due to a chemical imbalance in the brain, that alcohol addiction was a disease, and that safe conditions for the mentally ill were vital to their ethical treatment. He also championed the need for cleanliness to support health and prevent disease, particularly among soldiers. His efforts to ensure hygienic conditions for those in the military (who suffered far more casualties from disease than from the enemy) did a great deal to mitigate exposure to disease.”
A native of Pennsylvania, Rush did his MD training in Scotland, and he practiced medicine for several years in Europe (he also learned French, Italian, and Spanish in the process) before returning to Philadelphia and opening a private practice and then writing the first American book on chemistry. He wasn’t always so popular, however. According to USHistory.org, Rush campaigned in secret to get George Washington removed as commander-in-chief—Washington apparently found out and confronted Rush about it—and Benjamin Franklin and John Adams were not fans of Rush. More from USHistory.org:
“He was handsome, well-spoken, a gentleman and a very attractive figure—he was also a gossip and was quick to rush to judgment about others. He was supremely confident of his own opinion and decisions, yet shallow and very unscientific in practice. His chief accomplishment as a physician was in the practice of bleeding the patient. It was said that he considered bleeding to be a cure for nearly any ailment. Even when the practice began to decline, he refused to reconsider the dangers of it.”
Sen. Jacob H. Gallinger
As noted by MSNBC, Gallinger, who served in the US Senate for more than a quarter-century as a Republican from New Hampshire, might be the highest-ranking doctor to ever serve in the federal government, since he was the Senate president pro tempore from 1912-13 (he served in the Senate from 1891-1918). He was also a huge fan of homeopathy. According to The Homeopathic Revolution, Gallinger once said, “Homeopathy was destined to be universally accepted by medical men.” That, um, obviously didn’t happen.
I’m not sure it’d be fair to call Oz, if he’s elected, a modern-day Gallinger when it comes to the promotion of homeopathy, but I also don’t think it’s a huge stretch. Oz, after all, has been roundly criticized by the medical world—including the AMA, which wrote that Oz is “a physician visibly out of step with his profession” and that he “is a dangerous rogue unfit for the office of America’s doctor.”
So, there seem to be some similarities there. But you can’t completely paint Gallinger as Dr. Villain. He advocated against experimenting on humans and animals (though some in the medical community at the time certainly didn’t agree with his anti-vivisectionist views), and he was in favor of women’s suffrage. It’s fair, however, to say that his embrace of homeopathy didn’t age well.
Delegate Donna Marie Christensen
The first female physician to be elected to Congress, Christensen represented the US Virgin Islands as a Democrat for 18 years. She was born in New Jersey, and after finishing her residency at Howard University in 1974, she relocated to the Virgin Islands, the land of her father, to practice medicine. “I began working in a small emergency room in 1975, and after being home and hearing some of the issues that were of concern to the community, I decided to become active in the community,” she said many years later. She was elected to the House of Representatives as a non-voting delegate and worked for nearly two decades to improve the economy and healthcare system in the Caribbean islands.
She said she decided to run for office after learning how much local social issues were impacting the health of her patients. She figured she could take the work she was doing at her local practice and scale it to the national level by entering politics.
“It was really hard to leave my practice, but I was really encouraged to run and my patients supported me,” she told the AMA in 2021. “And I went in figuring, I was going to serve my constituents and whatever their needs were because I had been very active in the community in and outside of health, but health was going to be my priority. That's what I promised my patients when I left.”
Gov. Howard Dean
He might be the closest a physician has actually gotten to the presidency—Dean was the frontrunner to earn the Democratic nomination in 2004. But as many tell it, he torpedoed his political career after finishing third in the Iowa primary and then emitting what is colloquially known as the Dean Scream.
Pretty hard to believe that a little over-the-top enthusiasm was enough to end his presidential run, especially when compared to modern-day politics. Quite honestly, I hadn’t seen the above clip in years, but I don’t remember it being so, I don’t know, tame.
Dean practiced medicine as a family doctor in Vermont, but he slowly worked his way into politics, helping on President Jimmy Carter’s reelection campaign in 1980 and getting elected to the state legislature two years later. By 1991, he was the lieutenant governor and still running his private practice.
From the Baltimore Sun:
“He was seeing a patient in August 1991 when he got a call that Gov. Richard Snelling had died of a heart attack. Dean finished the physical he was doing, asked his wife to see the rest of his patients that day, made some calls, and headed to the statehouse. He may have put away his stethoscope, prescription pad, and lab coat but not his title and all that goes with it.”
He continued to wear his white medical coat as a badge of honor, especially early in his career when he was trying to build up his political cache and his credibility. When he was a three-term Vermont governor and when he ran for president, he referred to himself in his official statements as Gov. Howard Dean, MD., and the Sun noted that his campaign signs read “The Doctor Is In.”
Not long before his scream, he told Modern Physician magazine the following about working as a doctor, obviously not knowing that it foreshadowed what would be his downfall. Said Dean then: “We do have this extraordinary sense of the power we've been given, and sometimes that makes us a little more overbearing than we should be.”
Rep. Phil Gingrey
Though Gingrey didn’t make an enormous impact in Congress when he was there from 2003-15, the Georgia Republican had a major impact on my life. As a former OB-GYN, Gingrey was the one who brought me into this world. Literally. He was my mother’s doctor and the one who delivered me. So, yeah, I’ll probably always have a soft spot for him. Of course, this is all based on my mother’s testimony. I don’t remember who delivered me from my mother’s womb, and I’m not sure where my birth certificate is. I’m assuming Gingrey delivered me, and then after that experience, he determined that his work as a doctor was done and he could safely move on to the world of politics.
Despite the good that some physicians have made in the world of politics, it’s probably impossible to enter that toxic atmosphere and emerge without at least a little bit of slime embedded in your soul. Yet doctors continue to run for office, whether it’s for the power or the fame or because they think they can do good. But even more than a century ago, some believed physicians shouldn’t bother getting involved in that world.
As Dr. Chas J. Whalen wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1899: “There exists a class in the medical profession who believe medicine and politics entirely incompatible, and consider politics so corrupt that no honest man can have anything to do with it without being contaminated thereby . . .”
Money Song of the Week
One of the greatest concert experiences of my life occurred when I was in high school, watching Pink Floyd play its final tour at a stadium in Atlanta and fill the night sky with timeless rock and an intoxicating laser show that has never fully left my brain. Twenty-eight years later on what I’m almost certain will be his last tour, I watched Nick Mason, the only member of Pink Floyd to play on every single album, bring his new band, Saucerful of Secrets, to town to play Pink Floyd deep cuts that it created before it got world famous.
It was amazing.
Mason didn’t play “Money,” one of the best-known Pink Floyd songs that I’ve vowed I would never feature in my column (it’s just too obvious to use for a section titled “Money Song of the Week), and he didn’t play 1972’s “Wot’s … Uh the Deal” either. The latter is what we’ll be listening to today.
Though Pink Floyd wouldn’t strike international stardom until it released its Dark Side of the Moon album in 1973, the band had already focused its attention on the rat race and how, even with a life filled with monetary success, you might be filled only with loneliness.
Witness these lyrics,
“Flash the readies/
What's, uh, the deal?/
Got to make it to the next meal/
Try to keep up with the turning of the wheel/
Mile after mile (mile after mile)/
Stone after stone (stone after stone)/
you turn to speak but you're alone/
Million miles from home, you're on your own.
So let me in from the cold/
Turn my lead into gold/
‘Cause there's a chill wind blowing in my soul/
And I think I'm growing old.”
According to genius.com, “Flash the readies” is a British phrase used by one of the band’s roadies that basically means, “Show your money.” That theme of pulling or pushing the stone as a metaphor for never-ending work shows up in the band’s later work, as does the concept of aging before you even realize that time has been flying by you unnoticed.
The singing and guitar playing of David Gilmour is gorgeous, and the lyrics written by Roger Waters are brilliant and depressing. Not exactly uncommon for a Pink Floyd tune.
Tweet of the Week
This a good message of support for those who enter some of the most time-intensive specialties in the medical field.
The year I had my baby, we had a record 7 babies born in my surgery residency. Excited to find out there’s at least 8 (that I’ve heard of!) arriving this year 🥰🥰🥰#MedStudents, don’t let anybody tell you you have to put your life on hold or can’t have a family in surgery
— Savvy MD (@thesavvymd) October 27, 2022
Can you trust a physician that goes into politics? Or do you think they can do some good by bringing medical credentials to a long-toxic world? Comment below!
[Editor's Note: For comments, complaints, suggestions, or plaudits, email Josh Katzowitz at [email protected].]