Physician as politician: Discussion of a medical professional in politics

Jun 01, 2010

Author discusses finer points of ophthalmologists who dabbled in politics.

Columnist Clarence Page criticized Dr. Paul for being an amateur: "As a budding politician, [he] obviously is a work in progress. . . . For the anti-tax, anti-big government tea party movement that has embraced him as a champion, [his] amateurism reveals a big challenge. It's easy to complain about incumbents. It's not so easy to come up with workable alternative ideas that won't make voters gag."1

But a large number of countries around the world have, or have had, successful and prominent politicians who also were ophthalmologists.

Svyatoslav Nikolaevich Fyodorov is known to many American ophthalmologists for popularizing radial keratotomy for the correction of myopia. In 1960, he performed the first IOL implantation in the Soviet Union. He was a member of the Congress of People's Deputies from 1989 to 1991, was elected to the Duma (lower house of the Russian Parliament) in 1993, and ran an unsuccessful campaign for president in 1996.

To my knowledge, the only ophthalmologist who currently is a head of state is Bashar al-Assad, president of the Syrian Arab Republic and son of former president Hafez al-Assad. Media reports from his country describe him as a promoter of peace and protector of his people, while the organization Human Rights Watch reports that his "Supreme State Security Court 'consistently ignores claims by defendants that their confessions were extracted under torture and frequently convicts them on vague and overbroad offenses that essentially criminalize freedom of expression and association.' "2

In our own hemisphere, Ramón Emeterio Betances y Alacán was a Puerto Rican nationalist considered to be the father of the Puerto Rican independence movement and "El Padre de la Patria" (Father of the Puerto Rican Nation). Because of his many donations and help to people in need, he also became known as "The Father of the Poor." The most renowned medical doctor of his time in Puerto Rico, he had a successful ophthalmology practice and also was a diplomat, public health administrator, poet, and novelist.3

Salvador Nava Martinez was a Mexican ophthalmologist who died in 1992. According to The New York Times, his "gritty political battles against Mexico's long-ruling party made him a symbol of opposition demands for greater democracy. The short, balding physician [had been jailed] for his political activities . . . where he was held, beaten and tortured. Although Mexican officials had in the past denounced him as a violent subversive, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari flew to visit [the dying] Dr. Nava at his home, lavishing praise on him. 'He is a man committed to the advance of democracy in our country without violence,' Mr. Salinas said."4

In my experience, most physicians do not seem to think highly of politicians or the political process. But clearly there are ophthalmologists around the world who have been successful in the world of politics, and even some who seem to have championed freedom and democracy.

By Peter J. McDonnell, MD director of the Wilmer Eye Institute, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and chief medical editor of Ophthalmology Times.

He can be reached at 727 Maumenee Building 600 N. Wolfe St. Baltimore, MD 21287-9278 Phone: 443/287-1511 Fax: 443/287-1514 E-mail: pmcdonn1@jhmi.edu

References

1: http://www.mercedsunstar.com/2010/05/22/1431842/clarence-page-rand-paul-radical.html#ixzz0olIkoUHi

2. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/24/AR2009022403426.html

3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ram%C3%B3n_Emeterio_Betances

4. http://www.nytimes.com/1992/05/20/world/salvador-nava-mexico-politician-and-ophthalmologist-dies-at-78.html

x