Lucas Richert on the relationship between superhero Dr. Strange and his newly released book called Strange Trips: Science, Culture, and the Regulation of Drugs.
In 2016, the film Doctor Strange was released to moderate acclaim but much fanfare. It was considered Marvel’s trippiest film to date. Critics praised the hypnotic visuals (for being next level Inception) and its mind-bending, time-twisting ending. They also praised Benedict Cumberbatch’s full-on arrogance, and Tilda Swinton’s performance as the bald Ancient One.
One critic argued that the film provided “a thrilling existential dilemma in which its flawed hero’s personal search for purpose dovetails beautifully with forays into the occult New Age realm of magic and sorcery where Doctor Strange ultimately finds his calling.” Another critic noted that the movie was “basically a reboot of Iron Man, only with a lot more prettier things to look at while you’re stoned.” A third and final reviewer noted how the film was grounded in “the mind-expanding tenets of Eastern mysticism” but was “different enough to establish a solid niche alongside the blockbuster combine’s established money machines.”
In 1963, when comic book readers were first exposed to Dr. Stephen Strange, he wasn’t terribly likable. Serious and with silver-streaked hair, Strange was middle-aged and aloof. He was a different kind of hero. There was no super strength nor a billion-dollar trust fund to draw from; he had no callow jokes and there was certainly no unadulterated patriotism. Alex Pappademas has done a great job in writing about him for the website Grantland (when it still existed, that is).
Strange wasn’t a puncher. He solved problems and defeated villains by entering dreams, jettisoning his physical body, and studying (yes, studying) his library full of ancient magic books for hours upon hours upon hours.
As he once put it, “I have truly gained the greatest power of all. That which the fountainhead of all other power…I have gained the gift of knowledge.” His rise to become the Sorcerer Supreme, the sole protector of the earthly realm, was predicated on learning and revising – occasionally cramming the night before – magical and mystical techniques.
So how does Dr. Strange relate to my new book, Strange Trips?
Prior to becoming a thoughtful and magical superhero, Stephen Strange was at one time the finest surgeon in the United States, as obnoxiously arrogant and money-driven as he was brilliant. He was a personification of free-enterprise medicine and the biomedical model in action.
When a fellow physician told Strange that a patient wished to thank him for performing an operation successfully, his response was: “I can’t be bothered!” Lighting a cigarette coolly, Strange added, “Just be sure he pays his bill!” And worse still, Strange refused services to anyone without resources to cover the costs. “Sorry,” Strange heartlessly told a potential patient as he examined X-Rays, “if you won’t pay my price, I can’t help you! Find another doctor!” Whoa.
However, Strange’s life was irrevocably altered after a single-vehicle collision and the resulting nerve damage in his all-important hands. Everything went downhill. His career was over; he would never perform surgery again.
Yet, Strange was unwilling to give up. Having heard whispers of a miracle physician, a mystical being who could cure any health problem, Strange travelled abroad. In a state of desperation and anxiety, he ventured to India to seek out the Ancient One, even though it was clear he was doing so for greedy and selfish reasons. Only after a period of introspection and a series of trials (including saving the Ancient One’s life) does Strange realize the error of his ways and begin his spiritual conversion; essentially, his transition from a Western-trained doctor to a different kind entirely.
Dr. Strange’s first appearance in the comic book world was in December 1963 and other real-life doctors were contemplating mysticism and the medical model.
In November of that same year, Harvard divinity-school grad Walter Pahnke published the results of his “Good Friday Experiment,” in which volunteers were dosed with psilocybin in Boston University’s Marsh Chapel. Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, who both held doctorates in psychology and supervised the experiment, were dismissed from Harvard that same year. Not without some irony, it was Andrew Weil, the future alternative-health celebrity doctor, that told The Harvard Crimson about the nature of Pahnke’s research.
(I was lucky enough to learn more about Leary and Pahnke at the Psychoactive Substances Collection at Purdue University. You can read about it here.)
By the beginning of the 1960s, LSD and other hallucinogens had become well-known substances within bio-medical research circles, but had yet to influence mainstream society in any significant way. And as the 1960s wore on, the capacity of researchers to establish quantifiable and verifiable results became ever more puzzling.
(Of course, there’s tremendous discussion now about the return of these types of medicines. See below.)
While counterclaims – that LSD produced madness, for example – were perhaps over the top, medical researchers still found themselves caught in a moral panic over the value of LSD.
Sandoz, undoubtedly worried about its reputation, temporarily suspended production of its LSD supplies in 1963. Richard Alpert, for his part, set off for India in 1967, and there he found the conditions for his own spiritual conversion. After training under Hindu holy man Neem Karoli Baba in India, Alpert was renamed Ram Dass. By 1970, he was trying to influence medicine and society more broadly through his promotion of psychedelics and, bizarrely, in 1970 he told an audience of health professionals that they could learn much about caring for the sick from Dr. Strange and the comic book Strange Tales in which he featured!!
Dr. Strange embodies several important lessons about medicine and health – many of which play out in the pages of my book.
Most obviously, he blends science and culture.
Beyond that, he captures, firstly, the economics of American medicine. Strange was once all about the money, whereas many physicians were adopting a more activist role in society, intensifying their participation in such social practices as parenthood, early childhood education, poverty, and the wider economy. In 1964, for instance, the Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR) was founded after an enhanced “medical presence” was requested by activist organizations in Mississippi following the murder of three civil rights volunteers. MCHR’s national membership had by 1971 grown to 10,000 health workers across the country, and one of the dominant principles of the group was that health activism – and not just mental health activism – was a vital national concern. These interventionist impulses represented the “therapeutic ethos” of the Great Society.
Secondly, Strange also represented the medical tourist in action. When he sought out cures for his damaged hands in India, he was by no means an innovator. The practice harkens back to ancient times when pilgrims and patient-consumers journeyed long distances to visit mineral waters or healing temples.
Yet, in recent years, international medical tourism has blossomed in Asia, India, and elsewhere, raising significant questions about patient choice, global competition, and the various costs involved; some critics maintain that medical tourism widens the gap between social classes and creates even greater health disparities, even as the quality of the health care in destination countries is challenged. By contrast, proponents suggest that such tourism exacts pressure on expensive in-country health care facilities to lower prices and foster social/economic development, while at the same time acting as a revenue stream to fund existing services. This rendering holds medical tourism as a leveler of disparity. Either way, patients have adopted medical tourism to get their hands on drugs or have their hands fixed, as in the case of Dr. Stephen Strange. (Daniel Beland writes about medical tourism here.)
Finally, Dr. Strange epitomizes the rise of alternative medicines and the contested nature of medical knowledge. Sometimes this means quackery. Sometimes not.
Strange’s career trajectory, in short, showcases the move from a biomedical model to a mystic or shamanistic one. Through Strange we may view shifting perceptions of how medical recommendations are established and codified, treatments determined, and medicines agreed upon. No longer a licensed surgeon, Strange still healed the sick, just through different means. Histories of “alternatives” to the medical mainstream, which might include traditional Chinese or Eastern medicine, faith-healing, and toe-twisting, have much in common with LSD, ecstasy, and magic mushrooms.
And the 1960s gave greater momentum to “other” or “outsider” medicines that ultimately conflicted with learned medical traditions, which were inextricably linked to scientific progress. In 1963’s AMA: Voice of American Medicine, the author proclaimed how doctors in the US had heroically fought against nostrums and quackery. Much like superheroes, physicians in the American Medical Association never “hesitated to reveal the most sordid aspects of the business” and expose the “graft and ravages of the nostrum vendors.” Published the same year as Strange Tales hit newsstands, Andrew Weil alerted Harvard authorities to the “Good Friday Experiment,” and Sandoz cut off supplies of LSD to researchers, the book failed to discuss the spectral line that separated different kinds of medicines. It was and remains a fine line demarcating legality and illegality, acceptance and demonization.
Dr. Strange did not make it into my book. Some topics make it. Others don’t. Just like Dr. Strange and you and I, books themselves go through strange journeys.
However, the topics of economics, medical tourism, and alternative medicines are all included. The context in which scientific and medical evidence is produced plays a significant role in how a drug and medicine is assessed. For Dr. Strange, this process provided “the greatest power of all…the gift of knowledge.”
Sources and a big ‘did you know?’
 Alex Stedman, “Early ‘Doctor Strange’ Reviews: What the Critics Are Saying,” Variety, October, 2, 2016, accessed November 20, 2016, http://variety.com/2016/film/news/doctor-strange-review-roundup-1201898171/.
 Alex Pappademas, “Career Arc: Doctor Strange, Marvel’s Uncastable Sorcerer Supreme,” Grantland October 24, 2014, accessed December 1, 2016, http://grantland.com/hollywood-prospectus/career-arc-doctor-strange-marvels-uncastable-sorcerer-supreme/.
 Erika Dyck, “‘Just Say Know’: Criminalizing LSD and the Politics of Psychedelic Expertise, 1961-68,” in Ed Montigny, ed., The Real Dope: Social, Legal, and Historical Perspectives on the Regulation of Drugs in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011): 169-196.
 Gerald Caplan, Principles of Preventive Psychiatry (New York: Basic Books, 1964); John A. Talbott, “Fifty Years of Psychiatric Services: Changes in Treatments of Chronically Ill Patients,” Review of Psychiatry Volume 13, John M. Oldham and Michelle B. Riba, eds. (Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press, 1994), 93-121.; Matthew Smith, Hyperactive: The Controversial History of ADHD (London: Reaktion Books, 2012), 89-91; Sandra Bloom, Creating Sanctuary: Toward the Evolution of Sane Societies (New York: Routledge, 2013), 111-117.
 Brian Balogh, “Making Pluralism ‘Great’: Beyond a Recycled History of the Great Society,” in Sidney M. Milkis and Jerome M. Mileur, eds., The Great Society and the High Tide of Liberalism (Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005), 163. For recent and authoritative works on the Great Society, see: Julian E. Zelizer, The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society (New York: Penguin Press, 2015); Gary May, Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy (New York: Basic Books, 2013). See also: John Dittmer, The Good Doctors: The Medical Committee for Human Rights and the Struggle for Social Justice in Health Care (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009).
 Hao Li and Wendy Cui, “Patients without borders: The historical changes of medical tourism,” University of Western Ontario Medical Journal (Fall 2014): 20-21. See: I. Glenn Cohen, Holly Fernandez Lynch, and Christopher T. Robertson, eds., Nudging Health: Health Law and Behavioral Economics (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016); Jill R. Hodges, Ann Marie Kimball, and Leigh Turner, eds., Risks and Challenges in Medical Tourism: Understanding the Global Market for Health Services (New York: Praeger, 2012).
 Janice Dickin, “‘Take Up Thy Bed and Walk’: Aimee Semple McPherson and Faith-Healing,” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History 17, no. 1 (2000): 137-153; Charlotte Furth, “The AMS/Paterson Lecture: Becoming Alternative? Modern Transformations of Chinese Medicine in China and in the United States,” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History 28, no. 1 (2011): 5-41; Barbara Clow, “Mahlon William Locke: ‘Toe-Twister,’” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History 9.1 (1992): 17-39.
 Charles Rosenberg, “Pathologies of Progress: The Idea of Civilization at Risk,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 72 (1998): 714-30.
 James G. Burrows, AMA: Voice of American Medicine (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1963).
Did you know that Benedict Cumberbatch was not the first actor to play Dr. Strange?