The refusal to accept Barker the Bone-setter

Herbert Barker, called Barker the Bone-setter, successfully reduced a dislocated elbow of a fellow voyager while on a boat trip to Canada. Realising he had special skills, he apprenticed himself to a fashionable practitioner, and subsequently acquired a fashionable practice himself. Had he merely continued his profession, nothing more would have been heard of him, but he openly challenged the medical profession in the newspaper The Daily Express, and in the trial successfully cured 7 out of 8 patients, of whom the medical profession said that nothing more could be done for them.

This did not win him popularity with the doctors, who persuaded a patient of his to sue him. Even against the medical evidence, and a biased summing up from the judge, Mr Justice Barker, the jury who found for the patient awarded derogatory damages. However, Barker had to pay the heavy costs. This may well have ruined his reputation, but the medical profession took further action of striking off the doctor who assisted Barker in his operations. This outraged the country.

When Doctor F W Axham was struck off the press rallied to Barker's support Even the conservative Times reported that he had 'effected perfect cures where regular surgeons had failed'. According George Bernard Shaw, the medical profession was trying to ban an effective treatment, while they were supporting disastrous methods themselves. They had only just hastily withdrawn Koch's tuberculin, and other disasters. They wanted Christian Scientists prosecuted while the medical profession advocated the use of anti-toxins, such as diphtheria anti-toxin, which nearly doubled the death rate of children form diphtheria from a previous average of 169 per million to 272 per million after the 'cure' had been introduced!

During the War, Barker had offered to treat injured soldiers, but was told by the Ministry that King's Regulations forbade the use of unqualified medical practitioners. Barker did in fact treat some privately without charging them a fee. Concerned about the soldiers being deprived of help, Shaw suggested some alternatives.

He suggested that some university might award Barker a medical degree. The medical profession suggested there was no reason why Barker should not take the degree in the normal way, and take the normal examinations.

Shaw responded that the profession was protecting itself with the examination system that: 'annually lets loose the most disastrous duffers into the sick rooms of the nation'. If the same principles operated in another field, 'Brahms, and Joachim would have been refused their honorary degrees as doctors of music unless they had stopped composing and playing for five years to pass an Arts examination; do exercises in counterpoint to the satisfaction of professors incapable of writing three bearable bars of original music; and qualify themselves to name, on demand, the age at which Bach's fourth son was christened'

Shaw then suggested that the Archbishop of Canterbury should under the powers retained under the 1858 Act for him to grant medical degrees should grant one to Barker. Three hundred past and sitting members of the British Parliament urged him to do so. The Archbishop said that while he sympathised, he did not want to create a precedent, and hoped Barker would gain recognition some other way.

In 1920 King George V knighted Barker. Lord Dawson of Penn, the king's physician, publicly recommended the reinstatement of Barker's anaesthetist, Axham, on the medical register. All this was to no avail. The medical authorities would not yield, and even though Barker had the support of many eminent doctors, they did not command a majority on the General Medical Council, which is responsible for the enrolment and discipline of doctors in the UK. The GMC claimed that to award the Lambeth degree to Barker was the thin end of the wedge, and this would lead to an avalanche of bone-setters. and even other practitioners, seeking recognition. Like religion, the scientific community has its fixed beliefs, which in spite of its claim to be empirical, it will not change its beliefs in the face of contra-evidence. Even when the attitude deprives the sick of the best treatment available.

The next article is about the philosopher John Locke, 1632-1704, whose liberal open minded beliefs seem to be a counter to the dogma in the last few articles.

John Locke


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