Atlanta, Georgia, United States
|Morris Fishbein. Harris & Ewing, photographer. [ca. 1938]. Via Library of Congress|
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, on July 22, 1889, and raised in Indianapolis, Morris Fishbein emerged from his humble origins as the second eldest of eight children born to a Jewish immigrant tin peddler (Benjamin Fishbein) and his wife (Fannie Fishbein) to become the preeminent physician of his generation. After graduating from Rush Medical School in 1912, Fishbein worked as a resident physician at the Durand Hospital for Infectious Diseases. During that time, he interned for the renowned cancer pathologist Ludvig Hektoen, who was a frequent contributor to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).1 At Dr. Hektoen’s encouraging, Fishbein began writing editorials for JAMA, which led to a position as assistant editor and then editor in chief, where he served from 1924 to 1949. It was in his role as editor in chief that Fishbein became one of the most influential medical voices in the country, ironically without having much experience treating patients. However, Fishbein took to heart his Hippocratic Oath to first, do no harm (“Primum non nocere”), working throughout his career to protect patients.
During his tenure as assistant editor and editor in chief of JAMA, Fishbein elevated JAMA to the most influential medical journal of the day. He read all the manuscripts submitted to the journal and then selected those he wanted to publish, paying the authors for their work. He was also a prolific editorialist and diarist, publishing opinion pieces in various journals and magazines on potentially incendiary topics, such as marijuana2 and tobacco3 use, the chiropractic profession,4 and socialized medicine.5 He regularly wrote a column called “Dr. Pepys’ Diary,”6 which detailed his daily activities from 1919 to 1975. He started a public health magazine called Hygeia, published by the American Medical Association (AMA) from 1923 to 1950, that focused on educating the public about medical science.7 However, of all his activities, the one he was most passionate about was the repudiation and prosecution of dishonest medical practitioners—in another word, quacks.
Fishbein spent his entire career, both during and after his JAMA tenure, lecturing about, writing on, and, in some cases, physically chasing down medical quacks. The list of fraudulent “physicians” he unmasked includes Henry Junius Schireson, a self-proclaimed plastic surgeon with an impressive client list that included comedienne Fanny Brice and actress and tabloid darling “Peaches” Browning;8 Percival Lemon Clark, author of Sanatology: The Science of Health: be Your Own Doctor,9 which details the use of a sanatology blower to dry clean the internal system, much to the enthusiasm of client Henry Ford; Painless Parker, a dentist who legally changed his name to Painless so he could use the word in advertisements;10 John Paul Fernel, inventor of the sleeping brassiere that supposedly shrank oversized busts;11 and Asa Brunson, who used menthol eucalyptol and turpentine to treat pulmonary tuberculosis.12 Of all the hucksters, the one who most inspired Fishbein’s seemingly unquenchable quack-quashing quest was John R. Brinkley, “the goat-gland doctor.”
A Midwestern con man, Brinkley “pioneered” the procedure of transplanting goat testicles into men as a cure for impotence. Eventually, he expanded his practice of the procedure, proclaiming it a cure-all for everything from influenza to insomnia to insanity. When Brinkley performed the operation on a woman as a cure for a spinal cord tumor, the AMA and Fishbein got involved. Fishbein published a two-part article in Hygeia in 1938 entitled “Modern Medical Charlatans” refuting the effectiveness of the goat gland procedure and questioning the ethics of Brinkley.13
Brinkley sued Fishbein for libel. However, the judge ruled that Brinkley “should be considered a charlatan and quack in the ordinary, well-understood meaning of those words.”14 The ruling paved the way for malpractice suits against Brinkley, who died penniless in 1942.
After Brinkley’s death, Fishbein would continue to lead JAMA for another seven years, but his bombastic style and unrestrained power were wearing thin on some at the AMA. When Fishbein readjusted his focus from rooting out quackery to railing against socialized medicine, the AMA leadership had had enough. In June 1949, the AMA Board of Trustees stripped Fishbein of his official forums, mandating that he only publish on scientific subjects.1 In December of the same year, he handed in his resignation.
Although his time at JAMA was over, his time in the spotlight shined on. In 1961, Fishbein founded Medical World News, a magazine for medical professionals published until 1994. In 1970, he endowed the Morris Fishbein Center for the History of Science and Medicine at the University of Chicago. And in 1977 (after Fishbein’s death), JAMA created the Morris Fishbein Fellowship in Medical Editing.15
Morris Fishbein died on September 27, 1976, in Chicago, Illinois,16 but what he left behind is a standard of medical professionalism and journalistic integrity. As Pope Brock writes in his book Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam,17 “Bringing this deathmonger [John R. Brinkley] to heel the only way he could, Fishbein did more than just stop one quack. He won for the AMA the undisputed authority to set licensing standards for doctors nationwide. The case marked the boundary line between the unregulated melee that was American medicine going back two or three centuries, and the sober centralization that has defined it since.” For Fishbein, “Primum non nocere” was not just an oath, it was a crusade.
- Thomas RM Jr. Dr. Morris Fishbein Dead at 87; Former Editor of A.M.A. Journal. New York Times. September 28, 1976. https://www.nytimes.com/1976/09/28/archives/dr-morris-fishbein-dead-at-87-former-editor-of-ama-journal.html
- Clay C. JAMA Editor: “Marihuana should be prohibited and condemned” (1938). https://warmlandcentre.ca/2016/12/jama-editor-marihuana-should-be-prohibited-and-condemned-1938/
- Fishbein M. Consumer beliefs and behavior with respect to cigarette smoking: a critical analysis of the public literature: a report prepared for the Federal Trade Commission. University of Illinois at Champaign Urbana; May 1977.
- Donahue JH. Morris Fishbein, M.D.: the “medical Mussolini” and chiropractic. Chiropr Hist. 1996;16(1):39-49.
- McLaughlin N. Bane of Fishbein’s legacy: Fearing ‘socialized medicine,’ those who could benefit from reform fight it instead. Modern Healthcare. August 17, 2009. https://www.modernhealthcare.com/article/20090817/MAGAZINE/308179977/bane-of-fishbein-s-legacy
- Fishbein M. Dr. Pepys’ Pages. Postgrad Med. 1962;32:5, A-160-A-162.
- Hygeia: a journal of individuals and community health. JAMA. 1922;79(23):1932.
- Schireson—The Disgrace of Illinois. JAMA. 1928;90(5):387-388.
- Clark PL. Sanatology: The Science of Health: be Your Own Doctor. Health School Club; 1929.
- DROPS FISHBEIN SUIT.; Dr. Painless Parker, Dentist Ends Action for Slander. July 11, 1935. https://www.nytimes.com/1935/07/11/archives/drops-fishbein-suit-dr-painless-parker-dentist-ends-action-for.html
- Fernel v. Board of Medical Examiners, 91 Cal. App. 712 (1928). May 11, 1928. District Court of Appeal of the State of California · Civ. No. 588. 91 Cal. App. 712. https://cite.case.law/cal-app/91/712/
- Austin RT. A fake of the most dangerous kind’: the case of Brunson versus Fishbein. J R Soc Med. 1999;92;429-430.
- Fishbein M. Modern medical charlatans. Hygeia. Chicago, IL: American Medical Association; 1938.
- Brinkley v. Fishbein. https://casetext.com/case/brinkley-v-fishbein
- Goodman DM. The legacy of the Fishbein Fellowship. Science Editor. September 30, 2013. https://www.csescienceeditor.org/article/the-legacy-of-the-fishbein-fellowship/
- Barclay WR. Morris Fishbein, MD—1889-1976: Editor of JAMA—1924-1950. JAMA. 1976;236(19):2212.
- Brock P. Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam. Crown Publishers; 2008.
LAURA KING is a full-time freelance medical writer and editor. She previously served as the director of copyediting for JAMA and continues to edit for the JAMA Network journals. She currently teaches in the Medical Writing and Editing Program at the University of Chicago Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies. Her articles have appeared in the Journal of Public Health and Emergency, Clinical Cancer Research, Journal of Urology, Journal of Clinical Oncology, Urology, Science Editor, and JAMA.