Like Coca, Weil's bestselling new book, Spontaneous Healing: How to Discover and Enhance Your Body's Natural Ability to Maintain and Heal Itself, has its roots below the equator, and it too has started a bit of a flap. Now 15 weeks on The New York Times' bestseller list, the book promotes the author's idea that herbs, plants and the power of the mind can heal. It's an old concept, but when a Harvard-trained physician like Weil, 53, pushes such alternative methods into the mainstream, critics are usually waiting with nets.
Dr. Arnold Relman, professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School, wrote a scathing review in The Wall Street Journal, which provoked a flurry of angry letters from Weil's fans. "People get mad at me because I represent the arrogant, elite establishment," says nephrologist Relman, 72, but "it's a tragedy if, in believing this sort of thing, you avoid seeking help at a time when you really could be helped by the medical system."
Weil's view is that while traditional medicine can be helpful, alternative methods shouldn't be discounted. His goal, he says, is "to integrate these different worlds." He praises high-tech medicine for the treatment of trauma and severe bacterial infections, and for immunizations and reconstructive surgery. But he feels it has been less effective with allergies, stress-related ailments, lupus, arthritis and many cancers. When his daughter Diana, 3, developed a corneal infection this summer, she was treated effectively with an antiviral drug. But when she has a sore throat, "she's the only 3-year-old I know who asks for garlic pills," says her mother, Sabine.
The only child of parents who owned a Philadelphia hat shop, Weil had what he feels was an out-of-body experience during an allergy treatment gone awry at the age of 14. He arrived at Harvard in 1960 already fascinated with the relationship of mind and body. "That interest goes back as long as I can remember," he says. Finding his first classes in linguistics and psychology "unbelievably stuffy," he switched to biology.
After earning a bachelor's degree in ethnobotany in 1964, Weil graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1968, then spent a year volunteering at the renowned Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic in San Francisco. In 1972 he published his first book, The Natural Mind, written during the four years that he spent traveling through Mexico, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia studying shamanism, medicinal plants and belief-based healing. The latter, Weil explains, is the upside of the placebo effect. Rubbing a raw potato on a wart can help, he says, because both the healer and the patient believe it will, stimulating the body's immune system to make the wart fall off.
Returning to the U.S. in 1975, Weil landed in Arizona ("my car broke down here"), wrote four more books on alternative medicine and, in 1983, joined the faculty of the University of Arizona Medical School as a lecturer. Next year he will become the director of the school's new center for integrated healing, the nation's first postgraduate program training doctors in alternative medicine.
Away from campus, Weil lives with Sabine Kremp, 44, a former divorce mediator and massage therapist, who works as his business manager. Married in 1990, the couple share a rambling, Pueblo-style home 40 minutes outside Tucson with daughter Diana and Kremp's three children from a first marriage, Robin, 14, Martin, 12, and Logan, 9. On their 41 acres of land, Weil writes, meditates half an hour daily and keeps an organic garden where he grows the fresh fruits and vegetables he eats in abundance. He also sees patients one or two afternoons a week.
Despite the success of his latest book, he is not optimistic about transforming modern doctors into good shamans, whom he describes as "master psychotherapists who can intuitively manipulate the situation to promote healing." Says Weil: "Medical practice is an art, not a science. There's a great inability in medicine to recognize that and teach that."
MICHAEL HAEDERLE in Tucson