Melvin H. Kirschner, an 83-year old doctor with a friendly personage, took the stage for a brief lecture on medicine, entitled "All Medicines are Poison! Making Your Way through the Medical Minefield." Looking at the title, and knowing that most skeptics are well-versed in the reactionism of the anti-medicine crowd, I thought the title had to be tongue-in-cheek. It wasn't -- he meant it. Dr. Kirschner started his talk by announcing that all medicines are, indeed, poison. His only evidence for this extraordinary claim was that all medicines have side effects. True, of course, but poison? Really? Does even a somewhat dangerous drug like Ritalin measure up to arsenic? How about the relatively benign drug, aspirin? And if they don't, is it responsible to label them as toxic? After all, the woman suffering from arthritis who learns her medicine is literally poison is better off suffering through the pain rather than getting treatment for her crippling condition. But no, medicines are not all poison, as Dr. Kirschner is clearly aware. He astutely pointed out that every medicine has "benefits and burdens," and that it is the job of physicians and patients to decide which outweighs the other. This, of course, is vital information, and certainly we should all be aware of the indications, contraindications and side effects of any drugs we choose to take. But that does not make them poison.
The good doctor's age did provide some interesting reflections on changes in the medical profession. He remembered a time when a pharmaceutical representative was trying to promote a drug known to cause severe birth defects. Those whose mothers took it were prone to extremely short limbs -- "like a walrus," he explained, seemingly unaware of the bite of his words.
It is reassuring that there are doctors who are concerned with the massive power and corruption of some major pharmaceutical companies. And it is good to be reminded that every medicine has side effects, and that we should always be making very careful, calculated decisions about what to put into our bodies. But is all medicine poison? No. And it is quite dangerous to say otherwise. And with all this talk of "benefits and burdens," I walked away from Dr. Kirschner's talk, full of information on the burdens of drugs. But what of the benefits? What of our increased lifespan, advanced pain relievers, and drugs that help a person who once thought they heard the voice of Satan to lead a normal life? I, for one, am endlessly thankful for the countless benefits of this so-called "poison."