Disease, medical practice, and public health have long been subjects of conspiratorial allegations. Historians of earlier centuries typically link such suspicions to the vulnerability of a social order threatened by instability or war, and to the mysteriousness of illness prior to the age of “scientific medicine.”
At the turn of the twenty-first century, key discoveries and treatments have transformed medicine, and the public is bombarded with a constant stream of health-related information carried by the media. But despite these advances in knowledge and access to information, health-related conspiracy theories proliferated in the second half of the twentieth century.
It may be that, in a culture saturated with medical information, the body’s uncertainties and vulnerabilities are pervasive and prominent. Medical conspiracy theories also reflect rising suspicion toward and resentment of the medical establishment, which, since the mid-nineteenth century, is increasingly prestigious, powerful, and rich.
Contagion was recognized long before microbes were identified. Notable conspiracy theories of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries blamed disease on infection by foreign enemies or domestic aliens. During the Salem witchcraft scare that culminated in the trials of 1692–1693, routine forms of disease and death were said to be the work of witches, but far more fearsome than familiar diseases were the special “afflictions” caused by demonic possession— screaming fits, visions, pains—which were considered highly contagious.
Historians stress that the witch-hunt was preceded by a series of disrupting calamities, including drought, floods, smallpox, and Indian wars, and that it took place during a hiatus in governmental and legal authority.
The Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic of 1793 occurred during the vulnerable early republican period, which was characterized by fear of a French invasion. Faced with the epidemic, Philadelphia doctors speculated that the recent flood of Caribbean immigrants into the city had brought a French contagion with them, possibly as part of a deliberate French plot.
A foreign enemy also figured in a prominent conspiracy theory about the Great Flu pandemic that coincided with World War I. Spurred by media stories revealing a German conspiracy to spread contagion through Bayer aspirin tablets, public health authorities formally investigated the imported medicine.
The Growth of the Medical-Industrial-Governmental Complex
A decisive step in the formation of the modern medical establishment was the founding of the American Medical Association (AMA) in 1847, which capped decades of struggle to transform a diverse, unregulated array of practices and practitioners into an exclusive, credentialed profession. Resistance to professionalizatin, which was widespread in the nineteenth century, was collectively known as the Popular Health Movement (PHM).
Like its post-1970 descendant, the Alternative Health Movement, the PHM comprised a diverse array of supporters who shared distrust or outright paranoia toward legitimate medical authority. Today, the split between the profession and the public is more pronounced than ever: the AMA is reputedly the strongest and richest lobby in Washington, while the Alternative Health Movement has grown into an institution in its own right.
The growth of “scientific medicine” in the early twentieth century decisively divided the layperson from the expert. Scientific medicine based medical practice on laboratory research and credentialed expertise acquired through long, costly years of training at a shrinking number of medical schools that were selectively endowed by the Rockefeller and Carnegie Trusts.
In the mid-twentieth century, the growth of related chemical, pharmaceutical, technological, and service industries brought an everincreasing involvement of private interests and funding into academic, research, and clinical medicine.
Beginning with the Pure Food Act of 1906, the U.S. government has formally intertwined itself with healthcare and health policy. Since 1970, Washington has spun out a vast web of healthrelated agencies and centers, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the agencies that operate within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which include the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institutes of Health. Through these organizations, the government has become involved in all aspects of healthrelated delivery, licensing, regulation, funding, policy, research, education, and publicity.
The healthcare sector absorbs a vast amount of the national economy, having accounted for 14 percent of the gross domestic product in 2001. Although more money goes into healthcare, the systems that deliver it are breaking down. Doctors blame unregulated, price-fixing insurance companies; insurance companies blame price-fixing by consolidating hospitals and the steep rises in drug and technology costs. The healthcare consumer, meanwhile, faces enormous cost spikes and decreasing access to quality care.
At the turn of the twenty-first century, government, business, and universities share funding, research projects, clinical facilities, and oversight personnel; industry and giant philanthropic trusts support education and research; and public relations firms work with industry-supported scientific experts to feed information to the media.
Although medicine has always been political in the broad sense—a source and use of power—by the end of the twentieth century medicine was a major facet of the power structure. Faced with this conglomerate of intersecting interests, many healthcare consumers voice the perception that individual and collective bodily wellbeing calls for a power struggle against fraud, exploitation, manipulation, and coercion.
Big Medicine and Overarching Conspiracy Theories
Some conspiracy theories posit seamless collusion among the intersecting interests involved in medicine. The Rockefeller conspiracy theory, which was promulgated in the mid-twentieth century (Bealle), alleges that in the 1930s Rockefeller petroleum and financial interests merged with the infamous Nazitainted German chemical company I.
G. Farben to form an international drug trust, which went on to control many banks and industries and to direct education, policy, and research through gifts to agencies and universities. This theory, because of its emphasis on Rothschild funding and media monopoly, is usually considered antisemitic.
A later elaboration asserts that Rockefeller interests financed the “green revolution” to develop super-profitable “superwheat” hybrids that require large amounts of fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides (commodities controlled by Rockefeller), enabling Rockefeller drug and medical interests to profit from resulting increases in environmental and diet-related illness (Ruesch).
The “hidden cure” genre of overarching conspiracy theories alleges that the public is denied effective cures and treatments that the medical-pharmaceutical complex does not consider sufficiently profitable. A prominent example is the belief that, although the cure for cancer has been discovered, doctors, researchers, drug companies, the media, and the FDA have conspired to suppress the cure in order to continue generating profits from cancer patients.
There is no plausible evidence for the Rockefeller and hidden cure theories, which imagine an improbable degree of collusion across a vast array of institutions and professions. But it is not surprising that such theories are popular, given the very real and profitable collusion of government, industry, and research institutions at the expense of consumers.
For example, in a pharmaceuticals market controlled by the FDA, the U.S. pharmaceutical industry enjoys monopoly-like power; and in 2001, U.S. prescription drug costs—already much higher than in other countries—spiked 16 percent in a single year.
Many conspiracy theories grow by citing a legitimate disclosure, linking it to a troubling public health situation, and explaining it all as a large conspiracy—sometimes very plausibly. Patient safety studies released in the 1990s cited data indicating that 1 in 500 hospital patients is gravely injured or killed by mistake.
Since a professional code of secrecy is traditional in medicine, the safety researchers conducted their own direct studies, finding that the vast majority of iatrogenic (doctor-caused) disabilities and deaths are never reported, even within secret internal hospital reviews. They concluded that the true percentage of hospital patients killed by a “medical mistake” is 1 in 50 (Institute of Medicine).
Disclosures of damage caused by prescription drugs often give rise to theories about prior knowledge and cover-ups, or even about deliberate plots to induce illness in order to profit by its treatment. There are parallels in the area of surgery: for example, responses to well-publicized questions about heart bypass surgery’s efficacy and dangers have included allegations of unnecessary surgery as well as an overarching theory that the production and treatment of heart disease is a large industry in which agribusiness and fast-food chains profitably induce the obesity and heart blockage from which medical and drug interests, cardiac surgeons, hospitals, and device makers profit.
Some conspiracy theories respond to striking trends in new diagnoses; examples include behavioral disorders such as attention deficit disorder, mood disorders such as depression and anxiety states, and so-called hormone deficiencies.
Profit is generally the ascribed motive for the conspiracy to diagnose and medicate, but some theorists posit more sinister aims, describing plots to debilitate the population with mind-numbing drugs such as Prozac and Ritalin; to pacify women through “addicting” hormone replacement; to reduce the population by impairing fertility; and, in a period of economic instability, to keep the lower classes in their place by making them fat with fast food.
Fraud and Addiction
Tobacco is a compelling context and paradigm for the perception of disease-related conspiracies involving profit, public relations, government collusion, and scientific fraud. Broadly publicized exposés have shown not only that industry and government leaders knew tobacco was both addictive and deadly, but that tobacco companies, guided by their public relations consultants, influenced research and even directly paid scientists to sign their names to favorable reports in prestigious medical journals (Rampton and Stauber).
A number of conspiracy theories accuse industry and marketing interests, in collusion with government, of addicting the population to, in addition to tobacco: street drugs, alcohol, hormones, Ritalin, Prozac, fatty food, starchy food, television, the Internet, violent films, sugar, shopping, pornography, and gambling.
Some theories describe significant collusion, for example, that the meat, dairy, and grain industries work hand in hand with chains like McDonald’s, whose “supersize” meals help increase rates of diabetes so that Eli Lilly can reap greater profits from insulin.
The “food disparagement” laws passed by many states in the 1990s, which attempt to suppress speculative criticism of food safety, have helped fuel the perception that agribusiness intimidates the media and buys off politicians.
New laboratory techniques and inventions have given rise to a number of conspiracy-tinged scenarios, including the charge that the human genome project is being used to develop pathogens that target racially specific populations. There is fearful speculation about novel pathogens created in the laboratory, including animal pathogens that cross over to humans and superpathogens produced through gene-splicing.
Outbreaks of Hanta virus, Legionnaire’s disease, and some of the rarer hepatitis strains have been followed by speculations that dangerous new agents bred in the laboratory have been accidentally or deliberately released.
These fears grow from an anxiety about the breaching of boundaries between species, between nature and science, and between genetically distinct individuals. Some large-scale disease conspiracy theories often harmonize this boundary anxiety with an anxiety over geographic and demographic boundaries.
In an age of globalization, boundaries no longer separate populations and nations, nor do they sequester diseases. Popular press books published in the 1990s describe impending epidemics facilitated by laboratory experimentation, jet-setting doctors, negligently unchecked urban overcrowding, mass migration, and international travel (Garrett).
One of the richest popular veins of conspiratorial theorizing focuses, not surprisingly, on vaccination programs. Although parents are free to refuse to immunize their children, state, federal, and school authorities exert considerable pressure.
Immunization programs developed by the government in league with vaccine manufacturers (who profit greatly), and aiming to include every child, represent in an immediate form the combined powers of government, education, and commerce expressed through medical intervention.
The fact that serious adverse outcomes and even death occur from a small percentage of vaccinations is widely publicized and fuels complaints about medicalized coercion and speculations about more far-reaching damage.
Elaborate theories about intent and damage related to vaccination are widely discussed, especially on the Internet. New vaccines are constantly being tested, and covert experimentation is sometimes alleged: for example, there is a theory that a health maintenance organization (HMO) in California secretly tested a new measles vaccine on 700 minority children (the use of minorities as guinea pigs resonates with the infamous Tuskeegee medical experiment of the 1930s).
Officially reported “adverse events” tend to be immediately apparent, but questioners of immunization programs speculate about long-term harm, including developmental problems, chronic fatigue syndrome, autoimmune and neurological problems, and behavioral and learning disorders.
Since vaccines are modified pathogens, some antiimmunization protesters use a rhetoric of purity, complaining that the “pure” bodies of children are invaded, polluted, and disordered by this literalized form of governmental intrusion.
The public revelation that at least one common, mandated vaccine serum contained a mercury-based preservative called thimerosol was followed by charges of outright poisoning and cover-ups. Acting on the theory that autism is caused by unsafe vaccines in general, and thimerosol in particular, organizations of parents of autistic children were successful in getting the thimerosol-containing vaccine pulled and the issue brought before a congressional hearing, where a representative called for criminal penalties for any government agency that had covered up the thimerosol danger.
Immunization packs together several paranoiainducing aspects of medicine: coercion by power, population-wide inclusion, the invasion of the body and the family system, and novel tinkerings that forever change the body’s functioning.
Immunization sometimes serves as the warp into which other conspiracy theories are woven. For example, a theory about biochip implants for tracking and controlling the populace converges with smallpox vaccination phobia in a theory that smallpox vaccinations will be used to implant tiny ID microchips useful for detecting foes during periods of social unrest.
Another theory uses immunization to link chemtrails and West Nile virus. Chemtrails, or contrails, are the visible condensation streaks left by aircraft exhaust; conspiracy theorists suspect they are toxic and represent secret mind-control or weapons testing programs.
Citing outbreaks of West Nile virus and Legionnaire’s disease, and noting that authorities responded to West Nile by spraying New York with questionable pesticides, one theorist posits that the outbreaks resulted from pathogens and toxins released as chemtrails in a covert experiment in mass immunization.
Conspiracy theories constantly emerge in response to ever-recurring alarms about environmental contamination. The dangers discussed include exposure to nuclear, microwave, and electromagnetic radiation; poisoning by toxins, pathogens, and pollutants in the environment; and contaminants in food and water.
A number of well-publicized incidents since 1970 have fueled suspicions of widespread industrial fraud and negligence. These include several nuclear plant neardisasters in the 1970s and the Kerr-McGee plutonium plant mystery, which involved the 1974 death in a one-car crash of whistle-blower Karen Silkwood (the subject of a 1984 movie).
Discoveries of disease clusters in sites contaminated by industry gave rise, in the 1990s, to the mass media book and film dramas A Civil Action and Erin Brockovich, in which poisoned families with sick or dying children are pitted against corporate bullies propped up by governmental and legal authority. Many cancer fears revolve around suspicions of covered-up exposure and suppressed knowledge of toxicity.
Some environmental alarmists have set out to emulate Rachel Carson, whose 1962 exposé of pesticide dangers turned public awareness toward environmental pollution. One self-proclaimed follow-up is the 1996 book Our Stolen Future, whose authors look beyond cancer to the reproductive and developmental damages threatening future generations caused, they write, by hormonally active pollutants, particularly organochlorines.
A red flag, according to the endocrine disrupter thesis, is the alleged drop in human sperm levels—a broadly publicized finding that led to much speculation about the future of humanity, but which follow-up studies have repeatedly shown to be unsubstantiated. Governmental responses to the endocrine disrupter scare illustrate the ineffectual oversight that helps nurture conspiracy-tinged suspicions.
Although Congress, spurred by scientific testimony about emasculated wildlife, has undertaken a vast Environmental Protection Agency program to test 80,000 chemicals for estrogenic agency, the United States is one of the few developed nations in which chlorine pollution by the paper and chemical industries continues unchecked.
The 1990s saw the publication of plausible, detailed reports and books exposing chemical industry malfeasance pulled off with the collusion of the government and media. Behind Closed Doors and Toxic Deception trace machinations to prevent the regulation of dangerous pollutants including dioxin (a potent organochlorine and a known carcinogen). PBS aired “Trade Secrets,” exposing how chemical companies concealed the toxic by-products of vinyl chloride, particularly dioxin pollution.
The corporate push for genetically modified food arouses great suspicion. Critics charge that GM food (“Frankenfood”) is profitable to industry not only because it can be patented, but because crop uniformity will eventually drive up pesticide demand.
The charge that big food interests take advantage of poverty to open new markets for GM food is restated by conspiracy theorists, who describe a deliberate macroeconomic creation of food shortages in impoverished nations in order to open the door to GM food. The food industry’s opposition to GM food labeling and precautionary measures fuels such suspicions.