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Big Pharma Has Been Controlling Medicine in America Since 1910

Matt Weeks
Medical Rod and Staff Hand Drawn

John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie manipulated the system to favor chemical medicine that could hold patents and generate high revenue.

The roots of Big Pharma stretch deep into America’s oligarchic past, first taking hold in the same soil that nourished the growth of Big Oil and Big Railroad. John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, the era’s titans of industry, followed a well-known playbook of acquiring near monopolies to push their fortunes ever higher. But, after cornering the markets in steel and oil, their desire for more wealth drove them toward new markets, such as medicine.

Cartoon man being force fed pills

Image Credit: Lightspring

Before the early 1900s, American medicine was an amalgamation of holistic and scientific practices. Myriad different kinds of medical schools handed out all sorts of diplomas, certifying future physicians based on whatever the school deemed solid practice. Many institutions touted the benefits of plants and natural remedies, keeping the hard-won ideals of pioneer-era medical practices alive, while others promoted the early scientific progress that marked steam age’s rapid path toward modern medicine.

Steam Train running down tracks

Image Credit: Arcansel

But, where others saw a healthy and robust marketplace of ideas, Rockefeller saw an opportunity. Once he discovered petrochemicals, he seized upon the idea of synthetic medication.

Just a few years earlier, in 1847, the American Medical Association was founded in New York by two physicians hoping to collect and endorse the most effective and ethical practices of medicine. The AMA puttered along for a few years, creating a still-famous scientific journal as well as a judicial council to deal with medical ethics. It wasn’t until 1910 that the institution truly changed from an organ that reflected the state of medical science in America into a tool that sought to re-shape it.

AMA Website home page

Image Credit: Chris Dorney

That year, the AMA published a booklet called “Medical Education in the United State and Canada” that was funded by the Carnegie Foundation. The report called for a complete reworking of American medical schools under the guise of uniting all medical practices under one nationally endorsed umbrella. In essence, the report sought to force all medical schools to submit to one system of education—the kind that was most profitable.

The booklet is now commonly referred to as “The Flexner Report” after its author, Alexander Flexner, who was neither a physician nor scientist, but a wealthy owner and operator of a for-profit college in Kentucky.

1915 Well Baby Clinic

Image Credit: Everett Historical

The full report is still available online and comes to five main conclusions:

  1. There are too many poorly trained physicians in the U.S.
  2. There are too many commercial medical schools.
  3. The last 25 years (before 1910) have seen the creation and advancement of medical labs, which many schools do not yet have.
  4. Many medical schools do not have stringent enough entrance criteria.
  5. Every medical school needs a teaching hospital or it cannot function.
Medical Students

Image Credit: Africa Studio

At its heart, the report called for a scientific revamping of medical education and a move away from traditional remedies. It balked at the old ways of traditional medicine, and put all of its stock in chemically created treatments. These were based off natural therapies, but had one important difference: the chemical makeup of a synthetic drug could be copyrighted, and that meant profit. While willow trees, which for centuries had been used to treat pain and headaches, could not be copyrighted, the formula for Aspirin, which copies the willow’s chemical imprint almost identically, was a moneymaker for whomever owned the patent.

Willow Tree Bent Toward Water

Image Credit: Predrag Lukic

Thanks to the outsized influence of the Carnegie Foundation, the fledging AMA embraced the recommendations on the Flexner Report and began to blackball institutions and individuals who did not live up to the neo-scientific ideals the report championed. At the same time, Rockefeller (who had his own chemical business he was eager to grow) created a nonprofit that donated big money to medical schools that followed Flexner’s advice.

The result was a carrot-and-stick approach that put many of the 150 medical schools surveyed in the report out of business straight away. The rest soon fell in line, and a new, homogenized version of American medical education was born—one that did not spend its time on studying nutrition or natural remedies, but instead championed the “a pill for everything” attitude of the Modern age.

Medical Rod and Staff Hand Drawn

Image Credit: Pasever

And thus Big Pharma was born. More than a century later, the roots that Rockefeller planted have blossomed into our dysfunctional healthcare system, which still eyes natural remedies suspiciously and strives for profit maximization.

So next time you wonder why our country is so pill obsessed, know that it hasn’t always been this way. But it has made a few people very, very rich.


Matt Weeks

A writer living and working in Athens, GA, Matt's work has appeared in various newspapers, books, magazines and online publications over the last 15 years. When he's not writing, he hosts bar trivia, plays in local bands, and makes a mean guacamole. He holds an undergraduate degree in journalism and a master's degree in organizational theory. His favorite movie is "Fletch."

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