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Br J Gen Pract. 2007 April 1; 57(537): 333.
PMCID: PMC2043343

Schadenfreude

English has many imports. Many of our words have evolved from or are related to words in other languages, especially from Latin via French, or from German and Old Norse. Some, though, are more or less direct imports. One of my favourite words is serendipity, which comes from the old name for Sri Lanka. It's such a jolly word, and means such a jolly thing: something nice that happens by accident. Which, until we understood the exact structure of drug receptors, is how many of our drugs were discovered. Pethidine was intended as an atropine-like compound, until someone noticed that it made mice's tails stick up in the air—the Straub tail response, indicative of what we now call opioids.

Other imports are darker. Schadenfreude sounds dark, and it is. My dictionary defines it as ‘the malicious enjoyment of another's misfortunes’. The Barefoot Doctor sullied the pages of the Observer for some years with his mixture of touchy-feely psychobabble, which was annoying but harmless, and irrational explanations of medical problems, which was infuriating and possibly dangerous. My correspondence with Barefoot was unsatisfactory, and soon ignored. The Observer was concerned only with his popularity which, judging from the books and potions sold under his name, was considerable.

Imagine my malicious enjoyment then, on reading a front page story in the Observer (the very same) titled ‘Crackdown on the therapists who abuse vulnerable’, and discovering that Barefoot was the subject of allegations of sexual misconduct, highlighted by an investigation by the Observer (the very same). The allegations are not without foundation: Barefoot has admitted to having sex with ex-patients, and now no longer practises.

So I was looking in the wrong direction. It was his nonsensical explanation of physical illness (‘the ears are the flowers of the kidney’) that most perturbed me, but it was the touchy-feely stuff that got him into trouble, when vulnerable women came to him for help. On his website, he wrote that his relationship with one woman whom he had met at a healing workshop was ‘not as a healer … but as a man in great need of solace’.

His columns — more correctly, that his columns appeared in a serious newspaper — annoyed me. But I cannot help feeling a little sad. In my first piece about Barefoot (January 2001) I said that, judging from his general statements about health, he wrote sensibly, had a good sense of humour, and probably helped many people. It turns out that he did indeed know, first hand, about the weaknesses of human flesh.


Articles from The British Journal of General Practice are provided here courtesy of Royal College of General Practitioners