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Christiane Northrup, M.D., '75: A state of mind
Eventually, she says, she felt she was living a "professional double life. One part of me told patients what I really believe, in the privacy of my personal office, and the other part, the 'official' me, held back a bit, or a lot, in the hospital and around many of my colleagues." For example, in 1980, when she was featured in a cover story about holistic women's health in EastWest Journal (now Natural Health), she bought all the copies that were in stock at a local store in the hope that no one she worked with would see that issue of the journal.
In 1985, she finally broke away from conventional medicine and cofounded Women to Women, a small gynecological practice in Yarmouth, Maine, run solely by women and incorporating natural and preventive approaches to care. The benefits of the practice were twofold: she would have a less hectic schedule—and therefore more time for her children—and she would be able to practice medicine the way she wanted to. She's been dispensing her own brand of medicine ever since.
In addition to Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom, she has written The Wisdom of Menopause and Mother-Daughter Wisdom; hosted six public television specials; and appeared on Oprah 10 times. Her next book, The Secret Pleasures of Menopause, is due out in October of 2008. Although Northrup left Women to Women and stopped seeing patients in 1999, she believes she's now having as much, if not more, of an impact on women's health. "At a book signing, you can steer a hundred women in the right direction in an hour," she says, "and I don't need to worry about being sued." (Obstetrics and gynecology is one of the most heavily litigated specialties.)
"My heart goes out to my profession," Northrup adds. "When you open your heart to somebody and you tell them the best thing that you know, and then they
Grew up: Ellicottville, N.Y.
Education: Case Western Reserve '71 (B.A. in biology); Dartmouth Medical School '75 (M.D.)
Training: Tufts New England Medical Center Affiliated Hospitals (obstetrics and gynecology)
TV appearances: The Oprah Winfrey Show, Today, NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, The View, Good Morning America, Rachael Ray, and more
Little-known fact: Played the harp in the Dartmouth Symphony Orchestra
Newest pastime: Ballroom dancing
Favorite recent read: Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
"By the way," she adds, "hope is a biochemical state in the body that promotes healing."
come back and sue you, it's like a knife in the heart. And I have been there far more times than I would like to admit."
She has plenty of naysayers, even among adherents of holistic health. One former patient hosts a website in which she berates Northrup for not being holistic enough. And her books spark praise and criticism in equally passionate terms. For example, one reviewer on Amazon.com calls Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom "a bible for women's health," while another says that it "combines sound advice with utter claptrap." Many women take issue with Northrup's contention that a woman's negative thoughts and emotions about herself may cause physical illness. "For generations, women had to suffer through male doctors telling them that their real physical problems were 'all in their head,'" continued the "claptrap" reviewer. "Now we have a female doctor ready to tell us that our cramps or infertility are just manifestations of our unconscious."
Northrup's books and presentations do
include standard, evidence-based medical information, together with more theoretical ideas about energy and mind-body connections. Her aim, she explains, is to combine "the best of conventional [medicine]—which is what I learned at Dartmouth," with alternative therapies—from qigong, yoga, meditation, and acupuncture to herbal and vitamin supplementation and good nutrition.
However harsh the criticism she draws—from conventional and alternative quarters alike—she seems to brush it off. "You get to the point where you know what you know, you've seen what you've seen," she says. She feels it's her duty to share what she believes, no matter how "out there," as she puts it, the advice may be.
For example, she mentions the teachings of Bruno Groening to the mother of a child who is profoundly deaf. A German doctor who died in 1959, Groening believed that healing energy surrounds all people and they need only to absorb that energy to cure any illness. "For me, talking about something like Bruno Groening, telling a mother of a deaf child that there is hope, that nothing is incurable, that's why I took the Hippocratic oath," says Northrup. "It's malpractice to me to not [say] this. If I as a physician have this kind of information, if I have done my due diligence, if I have checked the healings, talked to the physicians, met . . . some of the people to whom this has happened, then as a physician how can I not offer this information to as many people as possible so that they can choose?"
As offbeat as some of her ideas may sound, Northrup sees a tie between conventional medicine and the kind she practices. Both, she says, "are helping people and offering them hope. By the way," she adds, "hope is a biochemical state in the body that promotes healing." She's found yet another way to put "energy follows thought."
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Jennifer Durgin is Dartmouth Medicine magazine's senior writer.
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