Blog | Tuesday, June 26, 2012


The story about Dr. Spitzer's late-life recanting of the 'gay cure' got me to thinking.

First I imagined all the jobs that the steady progress of innovation and technology have eliminated:

Ice men, telegraph operators, lamplighters, copy boys, milkmen, typesetters. These are only a few.

Travel agents have become an endangered species, too, as people can book their own trips online through dozens of different websites. [Though a recent article claims a comeback of sorts for travel agents.]

I guess now we can add therapists practicing the 'gay cure' to the list of outmoded professions. No doubt there will be holdouts for a while.

Dr. Spitzer was a giant in his field. He was a main contributor to the third and fourth revisions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible of psychiatry.

Ironically, as a young academic, he had been instrumental in de-listing homosexuality as a disorder (1973), seeing psychopathy related to sexual orientation as mere "sexual orientation disturbance," i.e. anxiety caused by issues of orientation, gay or straight.

As an iconoclast, Dr. Spitzer was always looking to speak truth to power. Yet he became the power. So when he decided to study a group of former gays claiming to have been 'cured,' he was swimming in dangerous waters. His poorly-conceived study gave validity to a pseudoscience that mainstream psychiatry and psychology viewed with disdain.

And now, with homosexuality again big news, Dr. Spitzer realized that it was time to publicly acknowledge his mistake and recant. He typed a letter to the journal that had published his 2001 study. Here's the final paragraph:

"I believe I owe the gay community an apology for my study making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy ['gay cure' therapy--ed.] I also apologize to any gay person who wasted time and energy undergoing some form of reparative therapy because they believed that I had proven that reparative therapy works with some 'highly motivated' individuals."

Commentary about Dr. Spitzer's letter was voluminous. Many appreciated his courage and honesty. Others angrily wrote him off as a sick old man [he suffers from Parkinson's and is near 80] trying to curry favor or seek the spotlight again.

My own view is that as a man of principle he did what he felt he had to do to promote truth in a contentious world. His apology reads sincerely to me, and he acknowledges that he caused harm, something no honest physician ever desires.

It's quite a story.

Dr. Spitzer caused me to think about other famous 'recantations.' Galileo immediately sprang to mind. In 1633 he was found by an Inquisition of the Church to be "vehemently suspect of heresy."

Talk about harsh. He was required to "abjure, curse, and detest" his written opinions that the Sun, and not Earth, was at the center of our solar system [heliocentrism]. He lived under house arrest for the remainder of his life.

Popular legend holds that at the end of his trial he muttered "and yet it moves," referring to Earth.

There the comparison ends. Dr. Spitzer won't be muttering anything of the sort.

This post by John H. Schumann, MD, FACP, originally appeared at GlassHospital. Dr. Schumann is a general internist. His blog, GlassHospital, seeks to bring transparency to medical practice and to improve the patient experience.