An Interview with Dr. Harry Brown
I first met Harry Brown by mistake. While trying to track down a physician with a similar name, I foolishly trusted my friend L.D. to get me the contact info. Five seconds into the conversation, I knew I had the wrong guy. Little did I know, I was lucky beyond belief. If you buy the notion that laughter is the best medicine, Harry Brown’s warped, bitter brain may well be a panacea.
Harry was a World War II veteran and he completed an engineering degree after his service. He went on to complete medical school as well. He combined these fields and became heavily involved in the research that led to the development of “robotic surgery.”
Harry practiced several other medical specialties, survived several marriages, and tried his hand at several businesses. He was a vocal critic of the culture that has grown up around the medical field, particularly the insurance and medical device industries.
I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with Harry before he passed away, and I am pleased to be able to share his thoughts with you here.
Thanks for agreeing to this interview. So our readers understand that I’m not treating you disrespectfully, you’ve specifically forbade my calling you “Doctor”. Can you tell our readers why?
I don’t care. I always thought of calling someone “Doctor” was silly. “Doctor” is an honorific, bestowed on me by people who give a shit about me graduating medical school. There are tons of ways to get that honorific, and, at this point in my life, having graduated from medical school has less to do with who I am than what I do every day. If there is an honorific for calling it like I see it, not harming other folks, and paying my way, I’ll take that. When I practiced medicine, I told my patients to call me Harry. Some of them didn’t like that, but I think most of them did.
Over the years, you’ve been involved in a variety of advancements in medical technology. What would you be willing to tell us about that part of your life?
When I was young, I talked about all sorts of ideas with other hotshot guys who wanted to save the world, get rich, and get laid. Some of those ideas panned out, some of them didn’t. I’d like to think that I had something to do with robotic surgery—we’ve been talking about how to do that since the 60’s. A bunch of guys over in Europe took off with the ideas, pretty much because they were able to get funding, and, face it; the rest of the world has very different ideas about research from us. They get more support, and can get away with a lot of shit that’d get us shot here.
I assume you mean that figuratively.
Assuming will get you in deep. No, I don’t mean shot, but if I’d have tried some of the stuff they did over there, I’d be called all sorts of names, and scandal will get your funding yanked pretty quick. The Europeans weren’t evil pricks like those guys at Tuskegee (referring to the infamous Public Health Service Syphilis study, where a branch of the U.S. Government allowed a group of men, all of African ancestry and infected with syphilis, to go untreated for forty years), but they were allowed to break a few eggs, if you get my meaning. It takes a long time to develop new equipment and new techniques here. Companies spend a ton of money on development, and then a ton of money to sell their product. Yeah, they invest a lot, and then they use that as an excuse to rape the government, or whomever they can get to pay—and of course that’s usually not the patient.
What can you tell us about the early prototypes for robotic surgery that you worked with?
Well, a lot of people were excited about waldoes. People had been working with such things since before the depression, and a lot of people give Heinlein credit for coming up with the idea for using them for doing things remotely. Well, the idea for doing surgery on some poor sap a hundred miles away sounded great. I’m talking about the fifties, and if you lived in a small town, you didn’t have shit by way of surgeons. I figured that I’d live the high life in Chicago, and we’d have huge academies of surgery, operating on folks all over the Midwest, without having to go get cowshit on our shoes. In those days, you didn’t want to live in a small town, let me tell you. My big idea was taking waldoes and “gearing down” the movements of my hands, making incisions beyond the precision of human skill. Well, we never came up with a way to do it, but a bunch of guys overseas did. Now urologic surgery has been completely re-designed, by this technology.
Did you make much progress in your own research?
Hell no. In those days, you couldn’t get money for that kind of research, unless you were a lucky bastard at a big University. In the Midwest, if you had no connections and no impressive resume, you didn’t get funding. Nowadays, they throw money around, and most of the so-called research that gets done is bullshit. Research has become a business of its own, and most programs care more about maintaining their bureaucracies than changing the world.
Please share with our readers your thoughts about health insurance.
I was practicing medicine when private insurance was making it’s rise, and when Medicaid and Medicare were introduced. I believe that anything that separates a patient from their medical decision-making leads to outcomes the patient doesn’t want, waste, and inefficiency. Private insurance was brought about because of the government meddling with wage laws. Private insurance led to an increase in the cost of delivering care and disproportionate access to medical care. This led to Medicare and Medicaid, which really fucked everything up. It’s a political reality that we’ll have to have some sort of centrally controlled healthcare system, and, as much as I hate it, I don’t really see a way around it. Of course, in the meantime, the insurers will keep making huge profits, will keep buying elected officials, and will keep interfering in the relationship between a patient and his physician.
Another thing that is wrecking our healthcare system is the stupidity and ignorance of the average American. If you don’t know anything about how your body works, you are at the mercy of people who do know. And those folks that do know are at the mercy of the people who control the system, and they often have no idea as to what’s going, medically. Combine that with poorly set expectations and a lack of understanding of how to maintain your own body, and you have the script for a bad tragic comedy.
Medical care will continue to get more specialized, more complex, and more expensive, and the money to fund it will get scarcer and scarcer. I’m curious to see what happens.
You mentioned Robert Heinlein’s influence earlier, was there other science fiction that influenced your career?
During my early medical career, I didn’t really have time for that sort of thing. As a kid though, I read all of the pulp magazines that I could get my hands on, and I loved listening to Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon on the radio. I probably would have done better in high school and college if I hadn’t been reading so many Sci-Fi paperbacks. My group of friends was passionate about science fiction and, this probably led us to be more interested in science, in general. We all wanted to be space pilots or research scientists. I ended up being neither, but being so wrapped up in Sci-Fi probably made me more interested in my physics and math than I would have been otherwise.
After I quit practicing medicine in the 70’s, I tried a lot of different jobs, wives, and ways of living. I moved to California, and I was seeing more movies than reading then, and “Blade Runner” really made me look at big city life in a different way. Star Trek, which I also loved, and watched with my kids, was a clean, optimistic future. Blade Runner is probably a lot closer to what we’re moving towards. Sprawl, filth, big corporations and the government taking control of most everything. Technology will get to the point that most people can’t understand it, and then it’ll be like religion or magic, or something. People will just be organic parts in a big machine-like society. Hell, we’re pretty much there, now. I go into an electronics store, and I don’t know what half the shit in there is, what it’s for, or how to use it. What’s worse is, I don’t understand how it does what it does. If you can’t understand the equipment of your society, you aren’t really a part of it. I built my own radios when I was a kid. In highschool, I could tell you how everything from a telephone to a cable car worked. Today’s technology has totally passed me by, though. But it’s passed by a lot of you young people, too.
So, SF has led you to predict a grim future?
Hell, I’m old. Everything is grim. But yes, the science fiction that I think of as being the most accurate is probably the most pessimistic. I hadn’t really thought about it much until I saw Blade Runner, but yeah…that sort of dystopia makes more sense to me, than all the happy dipshits running around in pajamas with ray guns.
What would you most want to see changed in our society’s interaction with science and technology?
We need to catch up to the goddamn Asians. I think that we probably train a small percentage of our people really well, and that most of our kids are shuffled through school without much benefit to society or to them. We need to train our kids in how to use the current technology, but we also need to educate and inspire them so that they can be the ones creating whatever crazy-ass new technology that’s going to be changing the world. Otherwise, we’ll be reduced to servicing the Asians in twenty years. I have no more hatred of Asians than anybody else who served in WWII, but I think that what we think of as the American way of life will go down the toilet once we become servants for the Chinese or Indians. I’m just glad that it won’t be the Japanese.
Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?
Hell, I should write a book. Tell them to quit being suckers for the big corporations, and for the biggest corporation of all—Uncle Sam. And tell them to learn a little bit about their own bodies. Most physicians are just as lazy and crazy as me.
Thanks for talking with me, Harry.
Thanks for paying for dinner.