Twelve years ago, at a conference in St James’s Palace, Prince Charles mused to an audience that he "felt proud" of having once been called "the enemy of the Enlightenment".
Revisiting traditional thinking before around 1650 clearly appealed to the heir to the throne – rolling back to a time before the likes of Locke, Voltaire, Descartes, and Hume espoused reason over traditional practices.
During that speech, Charles spoke of his philosophy of "being a part of nature, understanding the need to blend the best of the ancient with the best of the modern".
A belief that 'nature's order' should be trusted above science and evidence underlines the Prince of Wales' foray into the world of medicine, argues Prof Edzard Ernst MD, in a new book, "Charles, The Alternative Prince – An Unauthorised Biography".
As the world's first professor of complementary and alternative medicine, based at the University of Exeter, Ernst has earned the credentials to assess what he calls "Charles' 'love affair' with alternative medicine".
Ernst explained to Medscape UK: "I have dedicated my professional life for the last 30 years to researching alternative medicine. Prince Charles is probably worldwide the strongest advocate for this part of health care, so it was for me a very obvious choice."
The author argues that, instead of building on his privileged position and realising a personal vision of integrating conventional and alternative medicine, the Prince, "pursued a largely anti-science agenda and promoted the uncritical integration of unproven treatments into the NHS", with the result that "he became an obstacle to progress in healthcare and generated more harm than good".
Upsetting the Medical Establishment
The omens were not good when, newly elected as a fleeting president of the British Medical Association for its 150th anniversary, the Prince of Wales came not to praise the assembled medical luminaries with "customary niceties", but to launch "an all-out frontal attack", Ernst says, in which he lectured them that, "the whole imposing edifice of modern medicine, for all its breath-taking success, is like the celebrated Tower of Pisa, out of balance".
Rather than persuading his audience of the benefits of integrating alternative and modern medicine, his speech had the opposite effect. "Getting lectured like first-year medical students by a young man who evidently was ill-informed can hardly have amused the seasoned physicians," Ernst comments.
"Charles' outburst, therefore, risked a counterproductive step backwards reinforcing barriers that had all but vanished," he writes. "The affront prompted a reluctance of the UK medical establishment to look benevolently at alternative medicine."
Public Disagreement With Charles
It should be noted that the author of "Charles, The Alternative Prince", has a long history of publicly disagreeing with the Prince's views on integrative medicine. In fact, he holds Charles responsible for undermining his position at Exeter, leading to his early retirement.
The spat dated back to 2005 when Charles personally commissioned Christopher Smallwood, a former chief economics adviser to Barclays Bank, to examine the effectiveness of some complementary therapies with the aim of persuading the Government to offer more of them on the NHS.
The report, which was never peer-reviewed, concluded that there was sufficient evidence that some complementary therapies could be more effective than conventional approaches in treating certain conditions, and called for an assessment by NICE.
Ernst had sight of the draft document which he said contained "many serious errors". He later argued that Charles "might have been over-stepping the boundaries of his constitutional role by trying to influence UK health politics".
Writing in the British Journal of General Practice in 2006, Ernst said of the Smallwood report: "One gets the impression that its conclusions were written before the authors had searched for evidence that might match them."
An official complaint by Charles' first private secretary to Exeter University "alleging that I had violated the rules of confidentiality, led to the closure of my research unit", according to Ernst.
Is Ernst's book payback time for Charles and his circle? "No, this is this is one of the main reasons why I hesitated for years to write this book, that it might be seen as an act of revenge for what happened then," he says. "I think anybody who reads the book will realise that I mention these two or three disagreeable encounters with Prince Charles and his supporters for the sake of completeness."
Ernst was by no means the only critic of the Smallwood report. In a letter to The Guardian, Dr Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, wrote: "We are losing our grip on a rational scientific medicine that has brought benefits to millions, and which is now being eroded by the complicity of doctors who should know better and a prince who seems to know nothing at all."
Royal Intuition vs The Rational Brain
The book delves into how the Prince of Wales developed his views on alternative medicine, focusing on the influential role played by the South African-born writer Sir Laurens van der Post.
Ernst tells us that "as a young man he fell under the spell of van der Post who introduced him to very odd ideas: mystical thinking, Jung, and psychoanalysis, etc, etc, and that set him on a path to follow his intuition, rather than his rational brain".
In the book, he writes: "Charles was looking for the meaning of life and Laurens was skilled at offering him a 'missing dimension'. Ernst argues that "Charles' degree in arts left him ill-equipped to comprehend science or medicine, so Laurens convinced him that his royal intuitions came 'from a far deeper source than conscious thought'".
The author points out that van der Post's reputation imploded after his death. His biographer, JDF Jones, described him as a "compulsive fantasist" whose "capacity to present a false image to others was coupled with a tendency to overestimate his own abilities".
We also learn that the royal family had a long history of believing in homeopathy dating back to the 1830s, culminating in Prince Charles being appointed patron of the Faculty of Homeopathy in 2019.
A report by the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee in 2010, concluded that homeopathic remedies performed no better than placebos.
In 2017, NHS England said it would no longer fund homeopathy on the NHS as the lack of any evidence for its effectiveness did not justify the cost. The decision was backed by a High Court judgement in 2018.
For Prof Ernst the move was further evidence that success in promoting alternative medicine has evaded him. "When Charles first sided with homeopathy, the UK had five homeopathic NHS hospitals; today, there are none that carry the name", he says. While the Prince's attempts at achieving statutory regulatory status for UK homeopaths, herbalists, and acupuncturists came to nought, as did as his vision for a model hospital of integrated medicine.
Among other themes in the book, he analyses Charles' promotion of osteopathy and chiropractic, herbal medicine, Gerson therapy, and the Foundation for Integrated Health, set up to promote the Prince's views, and which was replaced by the College of Medicine.
For Ernst, "Charles acts on his intuition, his beliefs, his convictions" and "seems entirely immune to evidence that does not confirm his creed. In that, he can become a true enemy of the age of reason.
"He has no competence in science or medicine and takes advice only from people who are of his opinion in the first place".
He concludes: "When Charles contradicts the consensus, when he uses his influence to interfere with our healthcare, and when he pretends his opinion amounts to evidence, he stands in the way of progress."
What might happen when the longest-serving Prince of Wales becomes King?
"He has answered that question himself," Ernst tells us. "He was asked whether he would continue lobbying, and he said, 'certainly not, I'm not that stupid'."
He adds: "I suspect that visibly it will stop, and covertly it will continue."
"Charles, The Alternative Prince" is published February 1, 2022, by Imprint Academic.
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Image 1: Prof Edzard Ernst
Image 2: Prof Edzard Ernst
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Cite this: Peter Russell. Prince Charles and Alternative Medicine – A Royal Lost Cause? - Medscape - Feb 01, 2022.