Claim: Thomas Edison said that "The doctor of the future will give no medicine but will interest his patients in the care of the human frame, in diet and in the cause and prevention of disease."
Origins: The original notion claimed for the health maintenance organization (HMO) concept that has come to dominate the U.S. medical care industry over the last few decades was that by providing patients with prepaid medical service for a set fee they would be encouraged to seek preventive or early care, thus saving money in the long run by helping to head off the hefty costs of treatment and hospitalization associated with serious and chronic illnesses. Although the HMO concept was not widely put into practice until the 1970s, prepaid health plans existed (on a small scale) before the beginning of the
Indeed, this quote has been widely reproduced and distributed by chiropractors (a group of practitioners who have often been criticized as being outside the realm of "real" medical science) for many years, as evidenced by this 1964 newspaper advertisement:
But did Edison ever really say such a thing? Beyond the invocation of Thomas Edison's name, the "doctor of the future" statement typically appears unaccompanied by any other details, such as when, where, and in what context Edison supposedly spoke these words. And the authors of the 1989 book They Never Said It maintained that no one had yet been able to trace the quote back to Edison himself:
We gleaned two important leads from that advertisement:
- Since the ad appeared well within Edison's lifetime (the famous inventor passed away in 1931), the quote could not easily be dismissed as words that had been put into Edison's mouth after his death (when he was no longer around to deny having said them).
- The original statement, if it existed, might be worded in a significantly different fashion than the form in which it was now commonly circulated.
"The doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will instruct his patient in the care of the human frame, in diet and in the cause and prevention of disease.
"They may even discover the germ of old age. I don't predict it, but it might be by the sacrifice of animal life human life could be prolonged.
"Surgery, diet, antiseptics — these three are the vital things of the future in preserving the health of humanity. There were never so many able, active minds at work on the problems of diseases as now, and all their discoveries are tending to the simple truth — that you can't improve on nature."
However, one should keep in mind the context in which Edison made this statement. He was speaking at a time when very little effective "medicine" existed: the drugs used for alleviating illness in his era consisted primarily of useless (and often harmful) "snake oil" concoctions, toxic bromides, and "patent medicines" based on narcotics such as heroin, opium, morphine, and cocaine. Aspirin, which might be considered the very first safe, effective, non-addictive drug to be widely used, had been introduced only a few years prior to Edison's remarks, and the development of antibiotics was still several decades away. In retrospect, therefore, it's hardly surprising that a scientist speaking at the dawn of the
Last updated: 25 January 2015
Boller. Paul F., Jr., and John George. They Never Said It. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1989 ISBN 0-19-506469-0 (p. 23-24). The Fort Wayne Sentinel. "Edison Hails Era of Speed." 31 December 1902 (p. 49). The Newark Advocate. "Wizard Edison." 2 January 1903 (p. 1). The Phrenological Journal and Science of Health. "Edison." February 1903 (p. 49). The Washington Post. "Future of the Doctors." 10 December 1908 (p. 6).