Common Sense About Health, recently published by Dr. Peter Mansfield, is far ahead of its time, just like a previous Mansfield book, Chemical Children, which he co-authored with Dr. Jean Munro in the 1980s – it was one of the first publications to expose the devastating impact of food additives and agrochemical pollution on child health.

His latest book, is no ordinary diet or lifestyle book; it distills the wisdom that Mansfield has gained through decades of medical practice focused on the idea of maintaining good health, rather than simply treating illness. He takes forward the work of Dr. Walter Yellowlees, a founder of the McCarrison Society, and of Sir Robert McCarrision himself.

After qualifying at Cambridge and University College Hospital, London, he went into general practice and quickly became a pioneer in a number of areas, all linked to human health and well-being. He was an early champion of the re-introduction of home birth and encouraged it in his practice; he also campaigned to stop aerial pesticide spraying in Lincolnshire where he had his practice; and he challenged a range of issues which he felt impacted on health including the use of food additives, the fluoridation of drinking water and UK public health policy in relation to routine childhood immunisation.

His main mission has been to encourage people to take care of their health through diet and nutrition. The methodology he applied in his general practice in East London and then in Louth, Lincolnshire, formed the foundation for the Good Healthkeeping service he introduced in 1979. This was a membership-based scheme in his local community which provided personalised advice and support for maintaining health.

In a direct challenge to what remains the prevailing approach to medicine in the UK, this family doctor believes “Our NHS is a medical service; it is not about health. It is staffed by people who understand what goes wrong with the body, but not why, nor how, it goes right.” The new book provides a wide range of examples to support this belief: scientific studies funded by drug manufacturers that are still in use, the encouragement of doctors to see the worst rather than the best in a diagnosis, the increased use of medicines to treat high blood pressure and cholesterol instead of more holistic approaches, the continued use of child development charts based on studies over fifty years old with bottle-fed babies, the lack of credence given to herbal remedies, among other things. Many of these examples were first explained in detail in a paper, entitled Counting the cost of the way we choose to live. In this, he argues that the way many people live – or are effectively forced to live – “undermines the natural foundations of health.” He argues that this happens in a variety of ways, and he places emphasis on the role of food in health and – most notably – the need to farm for food quality rather than quantity.

One of the key themes of Common Sense about Health, is that of ‘vitality’. Mansfield defines this as the vividness, power or strength behind the ‘essence’ of a person, or indeed any other living thing – plants most notably. Much of his advice centres on the need to nurture this vitality and he provides some very specific guidelines on what to eat, when to eat and even how to eat. He touches on a diverse range of alternative approaches for supporting health, from holistic healing to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and from hydrotherapy to osteopathy. He also recommends Kirlian photography as a means of determining the ‘vitality’ of foods. This technique of contact photography purportedly captures the ‘corona discharge’ of an organism or object, an ‘aura’ as it has been called.

In Mansfield’s opinion one of the problems with the approach to nutrition in mainstream medicine is that the conventional analysis of foods for their component parts is not meaningful. He argues that as soon as you purify and simplify a food into its components it loses its vitality. A food, in his opinion, is not just a combination of chemical ingredients but has an essence over and above its constituent parts. There are interesting parallels here with specialisation and monocultures in agriculture, where intensive farming breaks down the food production system to focus on a single part and thereby ignores the vitality of the system as a whole.

While many may justifiably question the grounds of Mansfield’s recommendations – he’s just a doctor, not a scientist – he is a notable pioneer and a longstanding exponent of the view that preserving health is at least as important as treating illness. Food has a significant role to play in this respect – one we are really only just starting to take seriously. Mansfield is a long-time proponent of organic food and in his ideal world, we would all grow our own fresh produce in healthy organic soil, rich with microbial life, getting all the nutrients we require for optimal health.

Mansfield is rich in ideas and thinking outside the proverbial box. He repeatedly outlines the ways that our management of health has become trapped in a mindset that fails to take account of the whole person. It is clear that, to really appreciate his thinking, we need to move on to a new paradigm in modern medicine, but what exactly does that mean?

Thomas Kuhn, an early 20th century physicist and philosopher of science outlined what, at the time, was a radical viewpoint of how progress is made in scientific knowledge. His work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions explained that, rather than being a steady, cumulative progress towards greater understanding, science actually comprises a series of normal and revolutionary phases. According to Kuhn the strength of scientific work can only be understood within the conceptual framework of the day.

An existing paradigm will only be seriously questioned when a significant level of anomalies in it, become apparent. When this occurs, the paradigm is thrown into a state of crisis and alternative theories are seriously considered. Eventually, out of this, a new paradigm is formed. However, the new paradigm is usually so radically different from the old one, that the two share no common ground, no compatible world view, and thus no possibility of direct comparison.

Thus, while it might appear that there is a need for more robust evidence to support Mansfield’s varied arguments, that may be the case only because we are attempting to understand it within the current paradigm of what constitutes scientific knowledge. This certainly appears to be Mansfield’s viewpoint.

When asked what a paradigm shift in health would look like, Mansfield explained that medicine, as we know it today, would only treat acute illnesses such as an appendicitis or abscesses. Hip and knee replacements, for example, would be a thing of the past, as proper self-care throughout life would render them unnecessary. Similarly, kidney stones would become a condition relegated to the history books, as this could be managed by diet.

On a macro level, this paradigm shift would see a more localised economy: farm-gate shopping, community health care and a reduction in pharmaceutical drug use. Power would become devolved to the individual and the local community, both of which would be more self-sufficient.

Never one to sit still for long, Mansfield already has his next step planned, an article that maps where we would be now, had we chosen to focus on health, instead of illness and disease, and also on organic farming practices instead of conventional ones that are damaging to health. The conclusions may provide interesting reading about what a new paradigm for health could look like.

Photograph: Marco Verch

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