'Arbitrary negative conclusions’? Determining psychiatric knowledge during the 1970s – the case of the Feingold diet
CHMD Research Seminar. Sponsored by the Northern Centre for the History of Medicine supported by the Wellcome Trust The talk is to commence at 12.30 and lunch will be provided in the Seminar Room at 12.00
In 1973 American allergist Ben Feingold made the controversial claim that hyperactivity, by then the most common childhood psychiatric disorder, was caused by food additives and was best treated with an additive-free diet, subsequently dubbed the Feingold diet. Although the media and parents found Feingold’s theory intriguing, the medical community was suspicious and designed double-blind trials to test his theory. The majority of physicians claimed that the findings of these trials disproved Feingold’s hypothesis, and were reluctant to recommend his diet. As a result, the Feingold diet was marginalised to the fringes of medical practice. Today, most physicians concur that the Feingold diet never came close to becoming established as psychiatric knowledge and consider it a regrettable, yet persistent, aberration in the progression of treatment for hyperactivity. In this paper I examine these tests and how they were conducted and interpreted. I argue that complex methodological problems rendered the results of the trials misleading and confusing. Despite these shortcomings, researchers and reviewers made bold statements about Feingold’s theory based on the trial results, suggesting that their preconceptions clouded their interpretations. The possibility that the fate of a potentially beneficial treatment for hyperactive children was discredited on such interpretations raises numerous issues about the manner in which novel psychiatric ideas have been assessed. I conclude by suggesting that psychiatric knowledge should not be based solely on the results of clinical trials, but also upon the experiences and observations of patients, their families and clinicians.
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