by Robin D. Everson
When people look at leaders, they admire their accomplishments, their standing amongst their peers and their vision for the future. People forget, to become a great leader, one has to be born, grow through childhood and evolve into the person they are today. One of the most recognized leaders in the health, human and animal rights movement is Dr. Neal Barnard president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. The tireless vegan advocate allowed VegWorld Magazine a look into his life.
The Early Years
Born on a summer day at a military base in Massachusetts to Dr. and Mrs. Barnard, young Neal was raised in Fargo, North Dakota where his father served as the diabetes expert for the region. Young Neal did all the things you expected a kid to do. At the age of five, young Neal was given a toy doctor medical satchel set and gave his younger sister a play “shot.”
“Starting at age six, I took piano and cello lessons, but when rock ’n’ roll hit, it was all about the guitar. Since that had no place in the school orchestra, my friends and I learned from each other, and we copied Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and the other guitarists of the day as best we could,” said Barnard reflecting on pre-teen years.
Young Neal had a paper route, shoveled snow for elderly neighbors and even earned a “D” in fourth-grade handwriting, which Barnard says confirmed his trajectory toward a medical career.
In his early teens, Neal and his older brothers went out with their father hunting. “As I look back on it, there is no animal more gentle than a duck, and the idea of blowing them out of the sky is really awful, but that is what we did. It teaches kids all the wrong things. There is no shortage aggression in this world. What is in short supply is compassion, and teaching kids not to hunt would be a real gift. We “cleaned” them [the ducks] on the basement floor, spreading out newspapers, tearing off the feathers, and removing the internal organs. It was smelly and off-putting—enough to make you a vegetarian, really. Although I liked tramping around in the woods, I can’t say I ever liked the taste of the birds we killed,” said Barnard who noted that as a teenager, his favorite food was “The jalapeno burrito at the Mexican Village on Main Street in Fargo that was made with beans and a not-quite-life-threatening dose of hot peppers, and if you left off the cheese, it was vegan.”
Neal helped his father and uncle drive cattle to East St. Louis. “My grandfather and uncles (and later, my cousins) raised cattle, although my father had quit the business.” He noted “The cattle were jostled and stressed a great deal during transport and were visibly shaken up, dirty, and scared. The stockyards hotel was $2 a night and was luxurious compared to what the cattle had. You might imagine that a cattle truck could hold 20 or 30 cattle, but typically we would cram about 80-100 into a single truck, depending on how big it was. When they come out at the end of the journey, they are scared, hot and dehydrated, and covered with each others’ feces, and sometimes a few have fallen or broken a bone.”
In high school Neal participated in his high school debate team, was junior class president and on the student council. When questioned if he was popular in school, Barnard was truthfully modest, “Popular? No, not more than anyone else, I just volunteered for these things. As a matter of fact, part of my job was to organize the prom, and so I worked that evening—making sure that the band, décor, and everything worked out right.” Neal was at the prom but didn’t actually “go to” the prom.
Neal’s eyes were opened to the cultural differences around him when he spent a summer in northern Belgium between his junior and senior years in high school as an American Field Service exchange student. While he knew French and learned some Flemish, he was also exposed to new ideas in social order. “Although living in Belgium for a couple of months does not sound like a big thing, living with a family in a different country, with a different religion, different politics, etc., and then being suddenly plunked back into life in Fargo felt a bit like having my brain taken out, swirled in ice water, and then put back into my head. Over the next year or so, I found myself abandoning many ideas I had taken for granted up until then. Social issues (The war in Vietnam, civil rights, environmental issues, and overpopulation) became all the more important,” said Barnard.
Neal’s experience in debating often found him getting “wrapped up in the issues at hand, such as criminal investigation procedures, etc., which were hot topics in the 1960s.” Neal considered becoming a lawyer. “At the end of high school, I wanted to be a lawyer working for social causes, somehow I ended up on a different path. One day I was sitting in a political science class and the other students were arguing with the instructor about what struck me as trivia. As that continued, it seemed like a waste of time, so I left the class and took up the study of psychology, because I thought that the functions of the mind were interesting,” said Barnard.
After high school graduation, before starting college, Neal spent the summer working at the local McDonalds. “I ran the cash register (burgers were 20 cents, fries were 20 cents, sodas were 15 and 20 cents), and made French fries and shakes. I didn’t work there long enough to learn the fine art of the grill.”
The College Years
As a young man, Barnard was a psychology major at Macalester College in St. Paul Minnesota. “The school was known for an excellent faculty (Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and others) and good liberal arts. It was a very liberal place, with almost no academic rules, which was vexing to the Wallace (Reader’s Digest) family which had funded it and was much more conservative in temperament. It was a good place to grow up,” said Barnard who noted that his favorite class was Existential Literature – studying Camus, Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Malraux.
“I learned how to work hard—studying for very long hours and trying to do my best. I found that psychology was often taught by ignoring humans and focusing instead on white rats in boxes and that even, otherwise kindly, professors were indifferent to the suffering of the animals under their care. A close friend had the work-study assignment of taking care of the animals in the psychology lab, and he referred to us—the psychology professors and students—in the most disparaging terms because of what we did to the rats, pigeons, and other unfortunate animals there. It took me a while to understand what he was getting at,” said Barnard.
“My friend, who was the work-study student in the psychology lab, had the job of disposing of the rats at the end of the experiments, and he did not care for his job. He told me that he was supposed to dump the rats from their shoebox-sized cages one after another into a trashcan, pour chloroform over them, and close the lid. That is what he did. After I had learned about that, a small white rat found her way into a small pocket and out of the laboratory,” said Barnard, who ended up with lab refugee companion named “Ratsky.”
What did Barnard learn from having a non-traditional pet? “Rats are fastidiously clean when they can get away from their cages and are as friendly and sociable as a puppy. It soon became clear that these small, unpopular animals do not recognize that they are supposed to be unpopular. Most importantly, when they are injured, they suffer as much as anyone. Unfortunately, Ratsky developed a mammary tumor causing terrible complications.”
Barnard had clearly understood the plight of unnecessary animal suffering. The connection between animal consumption and human health was about to be made when he worked at a Minneapolis hospital.
“Because I did not decide to go to medical school until late in my senior year, I did not apply until after I graduated. So, taking a year off, I worked at Fairview Hospital in Minneapolis, where I worked full time on the child psychiatry ward and part-time in the morgue, helping out at autopsies.” This experience was an eye-opening one for Barnard. “My job was to assist the pathologist, and it was a great education. One day, a man died in the hospital of a massive heart attack. As the pathologist cut the chest open, he handed me a large section of ribs, which I set on the table beside the body. He then showed me the coronary arteries, explaining that their name comes from the fact that they crown the heart. He sliced one open, revealing atherosclerosis inside, which was frightening to see. The same disease process was in the carotid arteries leading to the brain, and in the other major arteries, as well. At the end of the examination, he wrote up his findings and left the room. I placed the ribs back into the chest, put the body back in the cooler, and cleaned up. And then I went up to the hospital cafeteria, where, as it turned out, they were serving ribs for lunch. It was exactly like the dead body I had just examined. Between the look of it and the smell of it, I just could not eat it. I did not go vegetarian at that time, but that visceral experience stayed with me,” said Barnard.
One of the more positive experiences Barnard had was working in the child psychiatry ward. “I was one of the Psychiatric Technicians who talked with the kids and accompanied them in activities. It was a great job. The kids often did very well just being out of their homes, and even when they have emotional problems, kids have so much energy and even optimism.”
The Medical School Years
Barnard was accepted at a few different medical schools and decided that Washington would be a great place for him to be during his training. At George Washington University, “There was a mountain of information to spackle into my brain in the first two years. Then, the next two years were clinical years, in various hospitals and clinics – that meant continued learning and many sleepless nights. I focused hard on biochemistry and related subjects, but in retrospect every aspect of it was really important – the body is so complex. It was really a question of learning everything you could and being a responsible student. I never felt that one had to be the best in the class. Rather, we all had to be perfect—or as perfect as possible.”
A “movement” was started the day Barnard refused to kill a dog as part of his medical school training. “There was never a question of acceding to it. The laboratory was required, but as soon as I spoke up, another student joined me, and she said she did not want to do it either. I said jokingly that that became a “movement.” The instructor didn’t want to fight us. We both stayed out of the laboratory, wrote up what the results would have been, and passed the course. I’m on the faculty there today,” said Barnard.
Since the decision not to kill animals as part of Barnard’s medical training, the movement has picked up steam. “I made a mental note to eliminate these gratuitous experiences which are cruel to the animals and a bit like hazing for the students. We have succeeded. Only two US medical schools (Johns Hopkins and The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga) still use animal labs in teaching, and I have no doubt that we will stop them as well,” said Barnard.
What was the most valuable thing Barnard learned in medical school? “To respect the power of the body to heal, to be humble about what we physicians can do, and to be as kind and helpful to our patients as we can be.”
How did the idea of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine come about?
“I was in practice at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York, and in addition to running a psychiatric ward, I also had a consultation position in which I treated medically ill people who had psychiatric complications. I gradually began to feel that medical practice intervenes too late. We wait until the heart attack comes into the emergency room door before we do anything. I wanted to promote prevention, which really means nutrition. I wanted to do research studies, and to redirect research and education away from animal use, both because animal experiments were cruel, but also because it seemed to be a major distraction from what needs to be done to address medical conditions. At first, the idea was to be mostly a policy organization, which is where the name “Committee” came from but, very quickly it grew,” said Barnard.
One might wonder when Barnard’s focus turned from psychiatry to nutrition but according to Barnard, “Nutrition was always percolating in the background, ever since the morgue experience. Once I got into practice, it became hard to ignore.”
As Barnard grew in his life experiences and continued researching the connection between nutrition and disease, he found he was not a lone wolf in the crusade to improve the health of the world. Barnard started to publish his findings and received assistance from role models in the world of medicine.
“The first was Denis Burkitt,the scientist who discovered the power of fiber for health, who was especially generous with his time and wisdom, and he became a real inspiration—for his kindness as much as for his scientific innovation. When I was writing The Power of Your Plate, I called him in England to ask if I could interview him. It turned out that he was coming to the U.S. for a different purpose, and he re-routed his trip just to come to Washington to do the interview. He was up in years and must have been completely jetlagged, but he patiently tackled one question after another. Then, in 1991, he came to Washington again to help at our press conference unveiling the New Four Food Groups, and he gave me quite a lecture about sticking to modestly priced hotels and avoiding paying honoraria. He didn’t want money. He had a higher purpose.”
“The second was Benjamin Spock. He was a revolutionary, best known for calling for bringing up children in a sensible way and fighting for peace. He book, Baby & Child Care, was the biggest-selling book in the world, after the Bible. But after completing six editions, he realized that his meat-and-dairy-heavy diet advice was wrong. In the seventh edition, he made a strong case for plant-based diets for children. He was outspoken, honest, and not afraid to take criticism and he was always kind and soft-spoken.”
“Third, David Jenkins, at the University of Toronto. He is well known as the inventor of the Glycemic Index and the Portfolio Diet. But I have known him as a tireless mentor who has spent hours on the phone straightening out my not-so-accurate ideas about nutrition. In a world where medicine is becoming an increasingly small-minded, greedy enterprise, these three physicians have embodied wisdom, purpose, and generosity,” said Barnard.
Barnard writes health books like Danielle Steel writes romance novels. He seems to be able to churn them out with such ease and they are very easy reads. Barnard has written over 17 books. His enlightening and educational books have translated into numerous languages. “I was struck by the power that food has to protect our health and also by the broad agreement among nutrition scientists about things that the public knew nothing about: that cancer could be prevented to a great degree, that heart disease could be reversed, that common problems like varicose veins, hemorrhoids, and a hundred other conditions had their origins in choices we make at the dinner table. That led to The Power of Your Plate, which was a lot of fun to write,” said Barnard.
With his intense speaking and traveling schedule, one wonders where he finds the time to write. Barnard said, “Actually, it’s really easy to write a great book. You just write a book and throw out everything that isn’t great. OK, seriously, it’s often a slow process. Sometimes weeks of research will end up as just a paragraph of text. But a book is a tool. When we completed our National Institutes of Health trial showing the power of a plant-based diet for people with type 2 diabetes, it was important that the findings not simply gather dust in medical journals. They had to be turned into information that doctors and patients could put to use. Ditto for the recent discoveries on nutrition and Alzheimer’s disease – scientific findings have to become usable.”
To Infinity and Beyond
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine just celebrated its 30th year. Barnard speaks about the various branches of the organization. “We promote preventive medicine, which really means nutrition. Smoking was already well handled by other groups, but nutrition badly in need of advocates. Our work consists of educational programs for physicians, such as the Nutrition Guide for Clinicians which we distribute to medical students, our annual medical conference, and our continuing education for medical personnel, as well as programs for the public, including our online Kickstart programs, our Food for Life program for nutrition instructors, billboards, advertisements, litigation, and special programs for Native Americans and Latinos.”
“We conduct clinical research where we need to nail down issues that are not yet clear, as well as complex reviews and meta-analyses to summarize evidence to date. We are best known for our diabetes research, but we have done studies on cholesterol problems, weight problems, migraines, menstrual problems, and other issues.”
“Regarding research, in general, we promote a refocusing of research on human health, rather than on animals. First of all, the issues of research ethics that are raised by animal research are badly neglected. Second, attempts to “model” Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, or colon cancer in rats, mice, and other animals distract from a much more profitable direction of research, which is to focus on human biology and human behavior,” said Barnard.
How did the power plate come into existence?
“The Pyramid was an engaging shape, but it was never an adequate nutrition diagram. First of all, people do not eat from a pyramid; they eat from a plate. Second, the Pyramid included groups for meat and for dairy products, despite the fact that people who avoid these products are healthier than those who consume them. Back in 1991, before the Pyramid was introduced, we proposed the concept of the New Four Food Groups, suggesting that the key staples were vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes. Anything else—meat, dairy products, eggs, Twizzlers, etc.—was strictly optional, and best avoided. Our press conference was covered by Marion Burros in the New York Times,which enraged the meat industry. When the Pyramid came out shortly thereafter, with a meat group section slightly smaller than the vegetable section, the meat industry had had enough and descended on the USDA, which pulled the diagram. About a year later, everyone had calmed down and USDA re-released the Pyramid.
“In 2009, we petitioned the USDA to accept the Power Plate, which was and is a much better diagram. The USDA simply ignored our request, so in 2011, we filed suit to compel the USDA to respond. Shortly after that, USDA released “My Plate”which bears a striking resemblance to what we had submitted 2 years earlier. “My Plate” features vegetables, fruits, and grains. It has a “protein” group instead of a legume group, and that could mean meat, but it could also mean beans, nuts, tofu, or other protein-rich plant foods. The meat group is gone. There is a dairy group, but it includes soymilk, which is a step forward. So while “My Plate” is not perfect, it is a major step in the right direction.”
If you had a magic megaphone that when you turned it on and spoke into it, everyone would hear you (it would be automatically translated into other languages), what would you say the world?
“Surprisingly, hearing the truth—even very loudly—has little effect on human behavior. Culture, not truth, dictates most people’s actions. And that’s understandable. If a sheep had to decide whether a low growl really was a wolf, calculate the likelihood of an attack and estimate the wolf’s running speed, he’d be eaten before he could figure out what to do. Instead, he follows the fleeing herd. People are much the same. If a doctor points out that this Stone Age habit of meat-eating causes heart disease, colon cancer, and many other problems, people are not likely to look up the research studies, consider the evidence, or take any action whatsoever. They are likely to do what they see their friends and family doing because their brains are hardwired to find safety in what numbers of people do. But the situation is not hopeless. It means that we have to work to change our culture in all its facets: we need to show scientific evidence, get celebrities and thought-leaders involved, make movies, and do everything else to show that our culture now embraces plant-based diets. That’s what happened with smoking, and eventually we reached the tipping point. We’ll get there with food, too.”
If you woke up tomorrow to find the world had gone vegan, what would you do?
“Celebrate heartily then, get to work on the other things that need fixing.”
What would be the next thing you would want to fix?
“The research enterprise is badly in need of an overhaul. It is too focused on treatment rather than prevention; on pharmaceuticals rather than nutrition; and on animal “models” rather than human biology and human needs. Medical practice, similarly, needs to remember that human beings are more than insurance cards and disposal systems for drugs,” said Barnard.
Just a Regular Guy
While Barnard has many things on his plate, he does not eat, sleep, walk and talk in a white doctor’s coat. He has hobbies. He once dabbled in gardening, which he found therapeutic. “A few years ago, a planted a Three Sisters garden. It combined corn, beans, and squash in a special way that is a Native American tradition. It was wonderful to see the plants explode from the earth and express themselves.” What fuels Barnard to do his work is not the diet of his youth of roast beef, baked potatoes, corn or peas. A peak into Barnard’s refrigerator and freezer reveals, “Lots of frozen vegetables, for when I’ve been on the road and my fresh ones have wilted – so, broccoli, kale, spinach, and all their friends.” Barnard said never met a vegetable he didn’t like and his favorites are “all the green ones, plus sweet potatoes and carrots.” In regards to cooking at home Barnard said that he is, “Much too impatient. I just steam up some veggies, boil beans or prepare rice – very simple things. Canned beans are really handy in a pinch, but I found that preparing them from scratch and freezing them really takes no time. A frozen vegan pizza—yes, they are actually very good, and I’ll have one once in a while. Nuts, hmmm. They are all good—almonds, pine nuts, and all the rest—but in small doses. When I write books, I bring in recipe developers because it’s important that the foods be attractive and tasty, not to mention easy to prepare. I’m too much of a Type A personality to really dig into recipes. His favorite meal, “Bean burritos or sweet potatoes and greens for lunch, veggie sushi for dinner. At a restaurant, there are a zillion good choices: Italian, Mexican, Japanese, Ethiopian, and many others.”
Barnard is a life-long learner and enjoys studying languages. He is currently studying French and Spanish. “You just start with textbooks, CDs, newspapers, and broadcasts, and you gradually improve. There is a service, called French By Phone, where you can speak with a native speaker and really develop confidence. When I travel, I try not to be “the ugly American” who insists that everyone else speak English. It helps to learn at least the basics of a language, even if you forget them later on.”
Barnard is also an accomplished musician. “On my last CD, I included “Song to a Sparrow,” which you can hear at www.VerdunMusic.com. I wrote it for a Vietnamese friend and, to me, it has a great deal of meaning. When my brother asked if he could sing it at his son’s wedding, I thought it was the nicest thing he’d ever said to me. My version of the country-western classic “Stand By Your Man”—I thought it was ironic and clever. Performing? —No. It’s so fun—eternal adolescence—but there’s no time. When I have a musical project, it’s my friends and me in the studio. It’s been 11 years since my last one, and I have one almost finished. The upcoming CD has some pieces that I think people will like. But even the most beautiful music—a Beethoven symphony or a searing guitar solo, as transporting as they can be—will not feed a child in a Mumbai slum, save a deer from a hunter’s sights, or open a sadist’s heart. That’s what our work is about. I work because it is critically important, and I do music when I can steal away a little time. We have active programs in clinical research, nutrition education, and alternatives to animal research and the Barnard Medical Center is now opening. So, it’s an exciting time for us,” said Barnard.
What has been the most valuable thing you have learned in life (so far)?
“I’m still working on that. I’m hoping that a vegan lifestyle will give me more time to learn. I have a long way to go,” said Barnard.
Dr. Neal Barnard has a great vision for the world and wants to share that with others. To become involved in supporting the work of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine go to www.pcrm.org.