Monday 26 December 2016


The thing about Christmas is that we all eat too much, and we don't do it mindfully. We're gabbing on to Cousin Betty about the funeral she missed and at the same time forking in another rissole. Uncle Arthur cracks a joke and everyone laughs and suddenly the rissole has gone down the wrong way and you're making the universal sign of choking as you turn blue. If you're lucky, someone in the room will recognise this and do the Heimlich manoeuvre and half a rissole will pop out onto your plate before everyone has finished laughing.

Dr Heimlich died in the week before Christmas at a good age and not from choking. He has shown people how to do the eponymous manoeuvre many times but it wasn't until this last Spring that he had occasion to save someone's life. He did this by manoeuvring a fellow resident in his retirement home. He probably saved a diner in a similar incident a few year earlier. He was rather chuffed that all the theory he'd been spouting did actually have practical utility. We're also grateful to Heimlich for spreading the word. In the 80s when we lived in Newcastle upon Tyne and The Boy was in primary school , our pal P was visiting from Boston. We had an unavoidable date one evening during her stay, so she offered to babysit the young feller. We set them up with money to pay for a an Indian take-out and went wherever we had to go. We missed the drama! The Boy, who got take-out but rarely, was golloping down his portion of rogan josh and managed to inhale a chunk of lamb. P popped it out. At the time, we weren't as fulsome in our thanks as we might have been - it was a little unreal - but we are eternally grateful to P . . . and to Henry Heimlich, of course. He's famous enough to have 10637 Heimlich a main-belt asteroid named after him. And the manoeuvre is 'sexy' enough to have been the subject of a priority dispute with Dr Edward Patrick and a faux priority dispute in a short story by Woody Allen.

In the 1980s, Heimlich was an advocate of malariotherapy as a cure for a rake of diseases due to 'weakness' in the immune system including cancer and AIDS. It is injecting 'benign' Plasmodium parasites into sick people to make them better. we've been there before with Linus Pauling, an expert on the structure of proteins, using his fame [2x Nobel Prize etc.] to over-push the efficacy of vitamin C to cure the common cold, cancer etc.  That's aggravating because people listen to Nobel Prize winners even if they are spouting nonsense. Superficially malariotherapy sounds plausible. Cancer doesn't happen to most of us most of the time because our white blood cells are constantly surveilling the nooks and crannies of our body looking for, and nobbling, cells that are uncontrollably dividing. If there is a tumor big enough to detect, it could be that the immune system is acting a bit dopey. A dose of malaria is claimed by malariotherapists to gee it up generally and the extra ooomph of vitality might take out the tumor as collateral damage. Except that it doesn't work: there is no evidence that cancer patients are better off from having a gratuitous extra assault on their immune system. This may remind you of Muizelaar & Schrot infecting their patients with Enterobacter aerogenes: they were so sure they were correct that they by-passed the Ethics Committee of their institution. And we saw Paolo Macchiarini convincing himself beyond the evidence that stem cells would make new tracheas.

ANNyway, Heimlich bought into this idea and invested time, money and his credibility. There is no scientific evidence that malariotherapy works but Heimlich pursued his certainty with a passion unworthy of a scientist with a functional crap-detector. Then again, then again, before we get all judgmental you've got have a to reflect on Edison's theory that "To have a great idea, have a lot of them". If scientists didn't invest in their creative ideas, we'd make very little progress. Barry Marshall's key auto-experiment on the causes of stomach ulcers probably wouldn't have been approved by his Ethics Committee.

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