In appreciation of Senator Arlen Specter

This week, the nation lost a great legislator. And Congress sadly lost a great legal mind and expert on the U.S. Constitution. Not to mention a much-needed, often independent voice.  

I had the benefit to work with and know Arlen Specter for over 20 years. I also worked with his wife Joan as a member of the Philadelphia City Council. As well as his son, Shanin, at his law firm as a consultant. Arlen sent a picture of the whole family on his holiday card every year.

I remember him running for various elective offices in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania during the time I was a medical and graduate student at Penn. In 1980, he was elected to the Senate as part of the Reagan Revolution. He went on to become the longest-serving senator in Pennsylvania history. Everyone is talking about his service on the Senate Judiciary Committee. And, indeed, he served for 30 years through the nomination processes for virtually all of our modern Supreme Court Justices.

But I worked with him in connection with his service as ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Health and Education. He succeeded to this position upon the retirement of another friend, Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-OR). And he continued as a strong supporter of medical research. But he never gave cart blanche to the “Mandarins of Medicine” at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). And he was often skeptical of medical research and medical care.

He was too smart and sharp to think otherwise.

While not as public about it, Arlen was also a friend of complementary/alternative  medicine (CAM) and was quick to grasp its potential to help solve the costs and crises of modern healthcare.

I remember flying back from a meeting of the Canadian FDA in Vancouver, British Columbia, on approving alternative treatments for cancer in 1996 (way ahead of the U.S.). Sen. Specter tracked me down across a continent and two countries and found me in an airport between connections. His question: “Is the ‘gamma-knife’ a form of alternative medicine?”

I explained that, no, it was a high-tech, laser-like surgical device for precise neurosurgical procedures. But he correctly thought of CAM as “innovative medicine” and thought that perhaps it was a new biophysical or bio-energetic device. (With his fine legal mind, he was concerned that we get the terminology correct.) Soon thereafter I learned he had called me from a hospital bed where he had a brain tumor removed (successfully) using gamma knife surgery. He beat that one.

Speaking of his interest in potential biophysical devices and bio-energy, he once asked NIH if they were doing research on bioenergy. He said that NIH patiently and condescendingly instructed him that there is no such thing as “bioenergy.” I then suggested that Sen. Specter ask the Department of Energy to study bioenergy. They certainly couldn’t say they don’t believe in energy over there. (In fact, the Department of Energy has had an “alternative” medical research program on electro-magnetic radiation and energy ever since its start as the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission after WWII.) 

Another time, in the mid-1990’s, I told Arlen that NIH was doing virtually nothing about CAM despite the widespread and growing popularity of these approaches. Again, always wanting the facts first, at my behest, he asked the NIH to document everything they were doing to research CAM.

After many months (and way past the deadline he had given), a nearly 300-page document came back. They listed everything under the sun, and everything but the kitchen sink, that could possibly be considered “natural” medicine. Very little of which the NIH was actually researching.  

This was a bureaucratic, bungling attempt to try to convince a powerful Senator that they were actually doing the work. The only real work they did was to keep a bunch of bureaucrats busy pushing papers around, creating a long, useless report. 

But Arlen Specter was one who tried. And his constituents trusted him, and elected (and re-elected) him to serve in the Senate almost as long as the herd of unelected lifetime bureaucrats stay in government. And did more good for his state and his country than all of them put together.

Rest in peace, my friend.