Andrew Weil: I decided on medical school by default. I never saw myself being a physician. I wanted a medical education. I had an intuitive sense that a medical degree would be useful to me. I have always been a generalist and have really resisted being put in boxes and making decisions. And people were always pressing me to say what I was going to be when I grew up and I didn't know. And in a way, going to medical school was a way of putting off a decision for four years, even though that may seem like a strange way to do it.
I felt that medical school was a continuation of my general education. I wanted to know about human beings, I was interested in the relationship between human beings and nature, and the mind, and how the mind affected the body, and all those things.
Also, on a practical level, it was during the Vietnam War, and it was a way of continuing my student deferment. I told the Admissions Committee at Harvard Medical School that I didn't want to be a doctor, but that I wanted a medical education. They thought that was very cool. I think they've since learned to regret it.
That year, 1964, they took an unusually high percentage of students who weren't sure they wanted to be doctors -- people who were not science majors -- and our class gave them an enormous amount of trouble. I think that was consistent with the times, but we were a very restive, independent group.
How did this play out, among those of you who were not traditional medical students?
Andrew Weil: Some students in the class dropped out. One dropped out and became an actor in a theater company in New York, for example. A very high percentage went into psychiatry. I was a member of a group in our second year who petitioned the dean to let us out of all classes. We said we would teach ourselves better and take any exams they wanted to give at the end of the year.
That was a pretty brash move.
Andrew Weil: It was brash, and we got away with it. There was a new dean who had just came in, he granted the petition and this group of people just absconded from classes. We had great fun and we passed all the exams at the end of the year.
How did you do that?
Andrew Weil: We found the faculty advisor and we had available to us the notes from the lectures. But our contention was that we would understand things better and much more efficiently if we focused on learning general principles rather than the way we were being taught, which was to be exposed to an enormous mass of detail. We felt we could always get the detail if we needed it, if we had a sense of the structure of our field of knowledge.
Did you work as a group?
Andrew Weil: Yes. it was a small group. It ended up being five students, finally, who did this.
What effect did that have on how you've chosen to do your work since?
Andrew Weil: I have my own ways of learning. And I never liked libraries, and I would like to get out of them quickly. So I developed very good skills at being able to go in and find exactly the information that I want and get out. And I feel very much that the way that I learned best, and I think the way that's most efficient to teach, is to teach the underlying structure of a field and let students look up the details and specifics as they need them. And that's not done in medicine today. There is a teaching of just a huge amount of detail.
Along with teaching the structure, you believe in experiential teaching. When you did your first published piece on nutmeg, that was experiential, right?
Andrew Weil: That was my undergraduate thesis, on the use of nutmeg as a narcotic. Most people only knew it as a spice, but it actually has a history of use as an intoxicant. At the time that I was doing this there was a considerable use of it in prisons by people who wanted drugs and didn't have access to them. I was fascinated by the fact that a household spice could have a significant pharmacological effect, so I tried it myself. It was not very pleasant. I collected a lot of accounts by other people who had used it and researched the world's literature to see what I could find out about it.
How did you initially come across that topic?
Andrew Weil: I believe I read it in a book. It might have been in Malcolm X's autobiography, describing his use of nutmeg when he was in prison. I began asking around and I heard some other accounts of it. I asked my professors, and people in science, and nobody knew anything about it. Nobody thought that nutmeg was anything other than a spice, but it turns out to be a drug as well, and a moderately toxic one.