Medical McCarthyism


Medical McCarthyism



The one person who terrorized the chiropractic profession the most is the infamous Morris Fishbein who actually owned the AMA for 25 years until his termination in 1950. His influence on medicine and medical education was significant, and it is surprising how few medical history books mention his influence or his questionable tactics.

One chiropractic historian calls Fishbein “the most important non-chiropractor to influence the chiropractic profession,” and it may be worthwhile to capsule how one man, in his post as executive secretary and editor for the Journal of the American Medical Association, would actually restrict the development of a competing health profession.

Fishbein was not only the foremost medical politician of his time, he understood the importance of the print and broadcast media and utilized it to the fullest. He also wrote books, newspaper, and magazine articles to further his goal of creating a medical monopoly. His anti-chiropractic message thus reached millions, as he was a frequent contributor to popular magazines such as the American Mercury, Collier’s, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, McCall’s, Reader’s Digest and the Saturday Evening Post.

Fishbein also authored 22 books between 1924 and 1947, three of which (“The Medical Follies,” “The New Medical Follies” and “Fads and Quackery in Healing”) dealt with his favorite lecture topic of “quackery.” [1]

The damage he did to chiropractic in public perception can only be estimated, but was evident in the same year he departed the AMA as the central theme in a long-running New York stage play, “Come Back Little Sheba.” Later made into a movie with Burt Lancaster playing an alcoholic chiropractor, the memorable line for this study is when “Doc” laments that had he not been forced to leave medical school “I might have become real doctor.

This man was also labeled the Medical Mussolini by his opponents for his campaign to destroy any and all non-allopathic healers, and his tactics were classic demagoguery. Shortly after he became head of the AMA in 1924, he wrote several books sharply critical of “medical quackery,” calling chiropractic a “malignant tumor,” and labeling osteopathy and homeopathy “cults.” He lumped together everything that was not taught in conventional medical schools and considered all such modalities quackery.[2]

Fishbein lived during the era when fascism was popular in Europe and in North America. Well known European political demagogues were Adolph Hitler, Joe Stalin, and the Italian tyrant, Benito Mussolini. After WWII ended, political demagoguery didn’t disappear and actually prevailed in the USA during the Red Scare of the 1940-50s popularized by Senator Joe McCarthy and become known as McCarthyism. This undoubtedly fueled the fire of Fishbein to use similar techniques upon medicine’s rivals.

According to Wikipedia, “McCarthyism is the politically motivated practice of making accusations of disloyalty, subversion, or treason without proper regard for evidence. Originally coined to criticize the anti-communist pursuits of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, ‘McCarthyism’ soon took on a broader meaning, describing the excesses of similar efforts. The term is also now used more generally to describe reckless, unsubstantiated accusations, as well as demagogic attacks on the character or patriotism of political adversaries.”

Without question the misinformation about chiropractic stemming from Fishbein and the medical cartel is clearly “reckless, unsubstantiated accusations, as well as demagogic attacks on the character or patriotism of political adversaries.”

Fishbein’s 1928 assessment of medicine’s chief competitors typifies his demagoguery and elitist attitude: “Osteopathy is essentially a method of entering the practice of medicine by the back door. Chiropractic, by contrast, is an attempt to arrive through the cellar. The man who applies at the back door at least makes himself presentable. The one who comes through the cellar is besmirched with dust and grime; he carries a crowbar and he may wear a mask.” [3]

By including a significant amount of advertising from food and tobacco companies, Fishbein was able to make the AMA and himself exceedingly rich. In fact, under his reign, the tobacco companies became the largest advertiser in JAMA and in various local medical society publications.

Fishbein was instrumental in helping the tobacco companies conduct acceptable “scientific” testing to substantiate their claims. Some of the ad claims that Fishbein approved for inclusion in JAMA were:

  • “Not a cough in a carload” (for Old Gold cigarettes),
  • “Not one single case of throat irritation due to smoking Camels,”
  • “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette,”
  • “Just what the doctor ordered” (L&M cigarettes), and
  • “For digestion’s sake, smoke Camels” (because the magical Camel cigarettes would “stimulate the flow of digestive fluids”).

By 1950, the AMA’s advertising revenue exceeded $9 million, thanks mostly to the tobacco companies.

Coincidentally, shortly after Fishbein was forced out of his position in the AMA in 1950, JAMA published research results for the first time about the harmfulness of tobacco. Medical student Ernst Wynder and surgeon Evarts Graham of Washington University in St. Louis found that 96.5 percent of lung cancer patients in their hospitals had been smokers. Very shortly after the AMA withdrew its seal of approval for Morris Fishbein, he became a high-paid consultant to one of the large tobacco companies.[4]

Fishbein’s specialty was publicity and the media, and he used the media to attack anyone who provided a real or perceived threat to conventional medicine.

Fishbein was a medical doctor who never practiced medicine. He was, however, an effective advocate for conventional medicine and a vocal critic of unconventional treatments. When one considers that the vast majority of medicine practiced in that era was inadequately tested and dangerous to varying degrees, Fishbein’s obsessive fight against certain treatments provided direct benefits to the physicians he was representing.

Fishbein’s frequent and strident attacks on “health fraud” were broadcast far and wide, in part through his own newspaper column, syndicated to more than 200 newspapers, as well as a weekly radio program heard by millions of Americans.

Fishbein called chiropractors “rabid dogs” and “killers,” but gave no proof that chiropractors were dangerous. He portrayed chiropractors as members of an “unscientific cult, caring about nothing but taking their patients’ money,” when, in fact, emerging research of case studies proved that chiropractic care was effective, and chiropractors were certainly the cheapest of all spinal doctors. Nothing Fishbein said was true, but the media and public had no idea he was lying. After all, he was the voice of the AMA for 25 years.

As the leader of the AMA, his propaganda was so embedded into the mainstream press that he was honored in 1937 on the cover of Time magazine as the AMA’s guardian of health when, in retrospect, he was simply a bigoted yellow journalist and medical demagogue out to destroy all competitors. Time magazine referred to him as “the nation’s most ubiquitous, the most widely maligned, and perhaps most influential medico.”

He was also referred to as the “Medical Mussolini” who openly attacked all alternative health care. Lest we forget that Time magazine also honored Adolph Hitler as Man of the Year in 1938 and in 1939 Joseph Stalin received this award too.

There are also numerous stories about Fishbein’s efforts to purchase the rights to various healing treatments, and whenever the owner refused to sell such rights, Fishbein would label the treatment as quackery. If the owner of the treatment or device was a doctor, this doctor would be attacked by Fishbein in his writings and placed on the AMA’s quackery list. And if the owner of the treatment or device was not a doctor, it was common for him to be arrested for practicing medicine without a license or have the product confiscated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Although Fishbein denied these allegations, he and the AMA were tried and convicted of anti-trust violations for conspiracy and restraint of trade in 1937. The Fishbein injunction was a seedbed for another generation of “quack busters” subsidized by the AMA that began in 1963 until 1976.

By 1949 Time magazine had acknowledged his influence in a cover story declaring that he had converted the AMA from a professional society “into the most terrifying trade association on earth,” and that his personal obsession involved “two absorbing hatreds: quacks and socialized medicine.”[5]


[1] Russell W. Gibbons, From “Quacks To Colleagues?” Viewing the evolution of orthodox tolerance of deviant

medical practice, Journal of Chiropractic Humanities, 1994 ;4(1):61-71.

[2] Russell W. Gibbons, From “Quacks To Colleagues?” Viewing the evolution of orthodox tolerance of deviant

medical practice, Journal of Chiropractic Humanities, 1994 ;4(1):61-71.

[3] Russell W. Gibbons, From “Quacks To Colleagues?” Viewing the evolution of orthodox tolerance of deviant

medical practice, Journal of Chiropractic Humanities, 1994 ;4(1):61-71.


[4] Dana Ullman, How the American Medical Association Got Rich, North Atlantic Books, Posted on April 10, 2008


[5] Russell W. Gibbons, From “Quacks To Colleagues?” Viewing the evolution of orthodox tolerance of deviant

medical practice, Journal of Chiropractic Humanities, 1994 ;4(1):61-71.