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Though he would become a household name in holistic medicine, during his time at the College, Dr. Andrew T. Weil ’63-’64, like many of his peers, was still deciding between concentrations. He would go on to graduate from Harvard Medical School, but as a first-year student he admitted he “had no idea” what he wanted to do with himself.
While Weil thought he might be a writer or a journalist, he changed his concentration from psychology to linguistics before finally settling on biology with a focus on botany.
“He looked like a doctor then,” said Hendrik Hertzberg ’65, Weil’s Lowell roommate and former managing editor of The Crimson.
Hertzberg described Weil as having been portly and balding early, but as looking the same now as he did then, save for the beard. “When he put a white coat on, he...could wander freely through any hospital,” Hertzberg said.
However, Weil’s successful career in promoting integrative medicine, a field he helped found, would come later. At the College, Weil enjoyed the camaraderie, creativity, and hijinks of extracurricular activity.
Beyond his academic interests, Weil was well-known among classmates for his sense of humor and practical jokes.
While already an editor for The Crimson, Weil joined the Harvard Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine. Holding positions on both publications proved to be “fun and a bit tricky,” according to Weil.
“Andy was a wizard and a trickster and he essentially convinced both The Crimson and the Lampoon that he was a double agent for the other side,” Hertzberg said.
According to Hertzberg, Weil orchestrated the theft of the Lampoon’s rooftop ibis statue. He went so far as to publish a series of stories about the ibis statue’s travels around the globe, which ran on the frontpage of The Crimson. The series was printed along with photos that had in fact been staged in front of large posters of the exotic locations, which ranged from Japan to Switzerland.
In another elaborate prank, in his dorm in Claverly Hall, Weil rigged a radio to play classical music and then suddenly cut to an announcement of imminent nuclear war.
“I remember that the then-managing editor of The Crimson immediately called into the The Crimson and started yelling, and one of the richer boys immediately called his family who arranged a private jet to take him to the fallout structure that they had built in the North,” Hertzberg recalled.
Weil’s sense of humor fit in with other members of the Lampoon during his time who went on to expand their comic brand outside of Harvard.
“[Weil] was an extremely funny person,” Hertzberg said. “[He was] a part of a group of people who went on to create the National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live, making American humor as we know it.”
MEDICINE AND A MELDING OF INTERESTS
During his time as an undergraduate, Weil was exposed to the polarizing debate over the use of psychedelic drugs at Harvard. In 1962, the controversial research of Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, who administered drugs such as LSD and psilocybin to Harvard students in the Harvard Psilocybin Project, was uncovered.
Though Weil was influenced by psychedelic culture, he ultimately chose to combine his interest in alternative medicine with traditional medicine. Weil said he had an intuition that a degree in medicine would prove useful to him.
“I wanted a medical education as a better way of understanding human beings,” he said.
Weil’s choice of medicine was also motivated by a desire to field questions about his post-graduation plans and, amidst growing anti-war sentiment, a way to avoid the draft.
After completing his medical degree, Weil moved to Washington, D.C. to work at the National Institute of Mental Health for one year, but his interests broadened and he became increasingly interested in therapeutic plants and natural medicine.
From 1971-1975, Weil traveled extensively in North America, South America, and Africa to study the use of plants as medicine and alternative forms of healing in other cultures. He also served on the staff of the Harvard Botanical Museum from 1971-1984, furthering his study of medicinal plants.
Nearly a decade out of college, in 1973, Weil and a few friends convened in Bogota to see a solar eclipse. According to Jay M. Pasachoff ’63, who traveled with Weil, his friends came away from that trip with a better understanding of his interests in botany and medicinal plants, which he was willing to try, and about his controversial beliefs about the body’s ability to heal itself. They learned there that he wanted to start a movement in medicine.
Weil went on to establish the field of integrative medicine, which one author on Drweil.com defined as “healing-oriented medicine that takes account of the whole person (body, mind, and spirit), including all aspects of lifestyle. It emphasizes the therapeutic relationship and makes use of all appropriate therapies, both conventional and alternative.”
Though Weil never became a practicing physician, he used his medical background to pursue its convergence with alternative methods.
“It just happened as a result of following my own truth,” Weil said.
CHANGE THROUGH CELEBRITY
Weil built a brand for himself, selling scores of books, launching a website, and creating his own line of health supplements, all bearing the recognizable image of his white-bearded face. He also continues to serve as the director of the Center for Integrative Medicine, which he founded in 1994, at the University of Arizona’s college of medicine.
The publication of Weil’s first international bestseller “Spontaneous Healing” in 1995 made him a household name and was the beginning of his renown as a proponent of holistic medicine.
Indeed, Pasachoff recalled walking down Broadway in New York City and seeing a large picture of Weil in the display window at Barnes & Noble.
Hertzberg has a similarly memory, “I remember walking around Whole Foods in Santa Fe with Andy…ten years ago… [it was] like going to a rock concert with Mick Jagger. People kept coming up to him and telling him how much he changed their lives for the better.”
Despite reservations about the societal power of celebrity, Weil said the proliferation of the practice of integrative medicine satisfies his wish to start a movement in healthcare.
“I have mixed feelings about [it], but believe I’ve been able to leverage my celebrity to change medicine and medical education…the field of integrative medicine that I founded is becoming mainstream and will shape the future of medicine and healthcare,” Weil explained. “This is what I am supposed to be doing.”
In the career he has established for himself, Weil draws upon a variety of skills beyond medicine.
Hertzberg described him as a writer, a journalist, a reporter, a public speaker whose talks are filled with humor, and a wildly successful businessman. But most of all, “a lot of people have benefitted from what he has done,” Hertzberg said.
—Staff writer Joanna R. Schacter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaSchacter.
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