Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Medical Historians Agree Lourdes Cures are Unexplainable


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In an article entitled “The Lourdes Medical Cures Revisited” Bernard Francis, Ester M. Sternberg and Elizabeth Fee provide something closer to a scientific appraisal.[1] They studied 411 patents cured in 1909-14 and thoroughly reviewed 25 cures acknowledged between 1927 and 1976. By “acknowledged” they mean cures that were officially declared “Miracles” by the church. “the Lourdes Phenomena extraordinary in many respects still awaits scientific explanation.”[2] They took the 411 cures from the era known as “the golden age or Lourdes.” This is the period from 1909-14 which was the time when the popularity was at its height, the medical committee was functioning smoothly with new rules, and crowds were pouring in. In the early days right after the visions began there were many claims of miracles that went unrecorded, or that were not help up to a scrutiny of criteria or that weren’t recorded in a systematic fashion. This state of affairs evolved through the late ninetieth century with the imposition of rules and the evolution of the medical board. Since the 70’s the official miracles have stopped and the crowds are way down and these is less of sense of miracles going on. This is largely because of the great proficiency of medical diagnosis and treatment as well as the strident nature of the rules. The situation vastly improved as a fine tuned medical miracle documenting machine evolved out of the end of the ninetieth century.
            Data on the early period is found in the archives of the sanctuary of Notre Dame of Lourdes (April 1868-June 1944). Those archives provide mainly unsubstantiated and anecdotal evidence. They also used Ruth Harris’s scholarly work Lourdes, Body and Spirit in the Secular Age. For the period 1885-1914 they also used Annales of Notre Dame de Lourdes vol 17-47, George Bertirins Historie Critique Des Evenments de Lourdes,  and a host of other materials.[3] The Authors set out to determine if Lourdes cures really were cures. Their working methodology for this task was to evaluate the nature of the disease and then to assess the nature of the diagnostic criteria and evidence used for deciding that cure had occurred. The criteria improved over the years as diagnostic ability improved. They studied 411 patents cured between 1911-1914 and thoroughly reviewed 25 cures between 1947 and present. Their conclusion “the Lourdes phenomena still extraordinary in many respects still awaits scientific explanation.”[4]The nature of the cures has changed over time. The medical committee was not in place in the beginning and it had different periods of improvement. Speaking of the “golden age” around 1914, Francis and his colleagues write, “led by talented position Boissarie, and his assistant Dr. Cox,  the medical Bureau is said to have improved its method and gained a reputation for excellence, but it faced a daunting task…150,000 pilgrims a year.”[5] Yet some of the cures of that era were deemed “remarkable.” Marie Lebranchu and Marie Lemarchand cured of Pulmonary Tuberculosis. That cure was attended by the famous atheist writer Emile Zola; Grabiel Gargam cured of post traumatic paraplegia in 1901 and several others.[6] Prior to the cure patents were described as being in decline or in an “alarming state of health.” After “patients confined to bed for years would stand and walk regain their weight resume their prior activity. 96 cured patients were evaluated again one year latter...they were found healthy and as far as we now the recoveries stood he test of time.”[7] Modern researchers reading the accounts of many female patents form this period can sense the neurotic nature of some symptoms. There were obvious cases hysteria. There are also cases of anatomical abnormalities. “Scores of visiting physicians witnessed the disappearance of macroscopic lesions, easy to identify such as external tumors, urine fibromass, and open wounds and suppurative fecal fistulae.”[8]
            The cures were said to be instantaneous is 59 percent of 382 cases for which they had adequate records; this is all within the gold age period.[9] During the golden age there were strange spontaneous healings in the town in such places as breakfast table, during a procession, in the hospital ward in town.[10] Apparently it was WWI that put the Kybosh on the golden age. The committee changed leadership many times and doctors were scarce due to the war.[11] 1947-2006 was marked by improved diagnostics, new young physicians more careful attitudes. The created an international committee designed to review the work of the Bureau.[12]  There are 25 patients cured and their cures analyzed form this period. The Francis article is extremely though with sound medical and scholarly caution. They take a critical view of the subject mater and the data. The data is very thorough. They use a huge number of sources. They tally the kinds of diagnosis and which diseases were the most cured and the most reported. TB was always the leading disease and GI tract problems were very common. The authors describe a development over time from an early phase of inadequate reporting and uncritical acceptance of cure, to a modern set up which is well regarded and scientific.[13] Those standards of excellence are now outdated, the rules have been upgraded. Modern controversy stems form the declining reports due to better diagnostics and the difficulty in finding someone who hasn’t sought medical cures. There is a controversy over relaxing the rules. Thus all of this leads Francis et al to speak of “cures” rather than Miracles.

The Critical assessment of the authors:

             If skeptics seek absolute scientific proof so strong that they can’t argue and if they seek to be completely won over such that they can no longer struggle with doubt, they are no going to find that kind of absolute proof in this article, and I suspect not at Lourdes or anywhere else. On the other hand there is more than enough here to totally do away with the knee jerk bigotry that says Lourdes miracles are nonsense, just laudable stupidity and a thing of derision to be classed with UFO abductions. That sort of view is totally disproved by the article. If one takes the article as evidence of supernatural reality its not without its problems. If one allows the article shed light on the question of supernatural effects, there’s more than enough evidence to see that one can reasonably place confidence in such notions.  In their critical assessment the authors find that the word “cure” is misunderstood. It is not taken as a euphemism for “miracle.” Nor does it imply absolute knowledge of a permanent state of removal of disease. They are improvements in the state of health. “By cross checking avaible data we arrived at a rough estimate of medical events acknowledged as ‘cures’ as 4,516, in the period 1858-1976.”[14] Now most of these cures occurred before WWII and were most of them were based upon what is described as “flimsy evidence.” There was an expectation of miracles and no follow up. For that reason the authors find that it is impossible to access the number of valid cures before 1947. that’s not to say that there aren’t cases that can’t be validated individually.  There has been a decline in the number of cures for the last one hundred years, and the authors list several factors as the reason for this: increasing efficiency of modern medicine (diagnostic equipment and better definitions for the nature of a condition), moreover Lambertini’s canons that had to be acknowledged to qualify a miracle have actually stood in the way of being able to declare many cases as miracles.
            The requirements for these canons are as follows: (a) must be sever, incurable, or difficult to treat, (b) not to be in a final stage (c) no curative treatment given (d) the cure must be instantaneous (d) cure must be complete without relapse. One can see this is so strict that’s one of the major reasons there are so few official miracles. There are examples from certain periods where Lambertini canons have just been violated, but in do doing they found remarkable cures. In their series of study of twenty five cured patients six were cured of terminally ill diseases, eight were cured in a matter of days or months, or some even years, this is a sharp departure. The canons “seem to have been rescinded” in 2006. They just made it too difficult to find anyone who fills the bill.” It was obvious they no longer applied to what was observed.”[15] That’s one thing that makes for the category I’ve spoken of before of the “remarkable case.” There are only 67 official miracles but 7000 remarkable cases. Those are based upon modern study of the committee not part of this study. Miracles are not for the Catholic Church on the same level as the sacraments or the creeds so belief in them is not obligatory.[16] A parallel is drawn by the author between their work and that of Jacquelyn Douffin. The Pathetical conditions are the same the proportion of tuberculosis neurological disorders and GI diseases were distributed in similar fashion and the manner of the cures were the same.
            The authors find that the history of Lourdes unfolds like the history of medicine itself. The diseases were diverse the accuracy of diagnosis and follow up badly done in the beginning and growing in sharpness and accuracy over time. That is no disproof of miracles. One of the findings of the authors is that “the Lourdes cures have been “beyond the natural course of nature, ” not “contrary to nature” or “breaking natural law.” To give an example they use the distinction between a case of pulmonary tuberculosis considered incurable, vs. growing back an amputated limb, which is contrary to nature, breaking the law of nature.[17] That’s a problematic statement as we will find in the next chapter. If physical laws are nothing more then descriptions of our observations about how the universe behaves than nothing we find can be contrary to that law because that’s what we find happening. On the other to make such a distinction between “the course” of nature, which is based upon our observations, and “laws” assumes form the outset the understanding of a higher law. For skeptic to make use of the distinction is acknowledge the need for a higher sense of order (“law”) as opposed to just they way we observe the universe.
            Mangiapan did the only retrospective study from 1947-76. “Thirteen patients out of twenty-five (tables 3 and 4) died nineteen to fifty-seven years after the cure and without relapse of the disease. For nine subjects living in 2008, the time elapsed since the cure was ten to fifty-four years.”[18] They find that four cases of multiple sclerosis had remissions of four year duration that is equivalent to assumed cure. Four cases of tb were actually cured. The speed of the curse is without known equivalent and makes for remarkable cases. Two were taken out of the study key requirements weren’t met. Of twenty-five they have misgivings about eight. The reasons for this are: (a) all the criteria were not met, (b) lack diagnostic evidence, (c) inadequate follow-up (d) possible influence of possible treatments (e) possible diagnostic error (f) possible diagnostic error (g) relapse (h) outcome in doubt.[19] This means that while eight can be doubted and two discarded seventeen are solidly documented cures. Further findings looking back over the entire history of the phenomena the researchers suggest that about 1/3 of the cases involve cures that were not spontaneous but required days or weeks. The researchers find that there are significant mental factors present and an atmosphere conducive to healing but they don’t make any conclusion about the influence of psychosomatic cures and they don’t try to make such an excuse to “explain” it all. It might also be worth pointing out even though they can’t be studied there’s an “underside” of Lourdes cures of people who are healed in connection prayers involving Lourdes or use of the water away form the shrine who never report in but send information so that a plaque can be put up. This number has been increasing was about ninety-four in 2008. While they cant’ really be claimed as cures they can’t be studied they suggest the possibly of healing outside the domain of Lourdes.[20]


The conclusion of the authors:

Their conclusion is basically: “We don’t really know if God is working miracles at Lourdes or not, the situation is not clear enough to affirm or deny such a cliam. “ Yet they make the frank admission that the way people see it will be determined by their view on religion and belief. While that may seem like a refutation to some, it’s all we need to undermine the closed realm of discourse on the subject. This will be seen in the next chapter.


…the least that can be stated is that the exposures to Lourdes and its representations (Lourdes water, mental images…) in a context of prayer have induced an exceptional usually instantaneous, symptomatic, and at best physical cures of widely different diseases. Although what follows is regarded by some as a hackneyed concept, any and all scholars of Lourdes have come to agree with one of two equally acceptable—but seemingly conflicting and irreconcilable—points of view on the core issue, are the Lourdes cures a matter of  divine intervention or not? Faith is set against science…uncanny and wired, the cures are currently beyond our ken but still impressive, incredibly effective and awaiting scientific explanation. Creating a theoretical explanatory framework could be within reach of neurophysiologists in the next decade…We reached the same conclusion as Carrel some 80 to one hundred years ago “instead of being a simple place of miracles of interest only to the pious Lourdes presents a considerable scientific interest….although uncommon the miraculous cures are evidence of somatic and mental processes we do not know.”[21]


While the findings of Francis et al do not provide conclusive proof of miracles do not allow us state that miracles are scientifically proved, the also reject and disprove the mocking assertions of skeptics that Lourdes miracles are just laughable nonsense to be dismissed with UFO abductions and Bigfoot.
            There are those who will argue that unless the causes are all uniform and proven and pile up a huge number they can’t be miracles because surely if there was a loving God working miracles he would have to succeed every time and have to work them every time he’s asked. We can’t subject God’s will to numbers. We can’t assume we control the process or that God is obligated to heal every time. That’s we should take it case by case and not attaches numbers. Lourdes does represent “extraordinary proof” in the sense that this concept if meaningful in connection with Bayes’s theorem. That concept does not refer to bizarre way out things such as UFO abductions but to whatever stands out form the statistical norm; seventeen out of twenty-five is not bad.


[1] Bernard Francis et al, “The Lourdes Medical Cures Re-visited,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Oxford: Oxford University Press. (10.1093/jhmas/jrs041) 2012 pdf downloaded SMU page 1-28  all the page numbers given are from pdf
Bernard Francis is former professor Emeritus of medicine, Unversite Claude Bernard Lyon. Elisabeth Sternberg taught at National Institute of Mental Health and The National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland. Elisabeth Fee was at National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland.
[2] ibid
[3] ibid
[4] ibid, abstract.
[5] Ibid, pdf page 8
[6] ibid
[7] ibid 9
[8] ibid 10
[9] ibid, 12
[10] ibid
[11] ibid
[12] ibid, 13
[13] ibid 21
[14] ibid 19
[15] ibid 20
[16] ibid they sight Catechism of the Catholic Chruch part 3 section 1 chapter 3 article 2, grace 2003.The Catholic believer may reject all ecclesiastical miracles as pious fables and he may reject modern miracles as imagination.
[17] Ibid 21
[18i] ibid 23 Mangiapan  was president of the medical bureau
[19] ibid 24
[20] ibid, 25-27
[21] ibid 27

4 comments:

Eric Sotnak said...

There are multiple questions here, but let’s start with a basic point I am sure everyone should agree on:

Before seeking an explanation for X, it must first be ascertained whether X in fact occurred, and also whether X occurred in the manner described.

So let’s consider one of the cases described in the article:
“An interesting example is the very unusual two-step cure of Pierre Terrier, living in Laréole near Toulouse, a sixty-six-year-old man whose horse-drawn cart overturned in February 1873. One of the wheels crushed his leg, the soft tissue was torn to pieces, the tibia was fractured, and soon gangrene set in. The patient's wife resolved to wash the wound with Lourdes water. The next day, the gangrene had disappeared, but the fracture did not heal and the twisted leg made walking very difficult, even with the aid of a stick. Nine years later, on August 29, 1882, the patient went to Lourdes and was surprised to be able to follow the evening procession. On August 30, as soon as Mr. Terrier was plunged into the Lourdes baths of spring water (“piscines”), he had a strange perception in his leg and noticed that his leg stood straight. From then on, walking was problem-free.”

This does, indeed, sound remarkable. But how do we know this actually occurred? Have all the details of this account been verified? How assiduously did those who originally recorded this account attempt to verify its details? Who were those recorders and how, exactly, did they attempt to verify it? How many people did they interview and who were they? Are there medical records? Etc.

This isn’t just knee-jerk skepticism. One of my favorite podcasts is Skeptoid. One thing I have learned after listening to hundreds of episodes is that MANY apparently mysterious or inexplicable events turn out to have what we might call “murky” origins. Real events have fictionalized details or exaggerations added on to them, and stories that originate as works of fiction get repeated as factual. This is why the principle I articulated above is so important. We shouldn’t even try to compare different possible explanations until we have first verified that there is something standing in need of explanation. The authors even admit that: “These accounts were still sketchy and many of the cures seem to have been recorded on the word of the patients and witnesses. Furthermore, no distinction was made between genuine cures (i.e., somatic, authentic cures), mere improvements, and functional, nervous, disorders.”

But that was a very old case, and the article mainly focusses on more recent cases where better records were surely available. Still, the inclusion of such a dramatic and not clearly verified case in the article raises what I think are legitimate concerns about the objectivity of the authors.

But let’s consider a different skeptical concern – the natures of the conditions. I suggest the following principle:

If C is an instance of a miraculous cure, then the frequency of C’s occurrence should not correlate with the frequency of non-miraculous recoveries from the malady in question.

In other words, miraculous recoveries should be just as common among people suffering from rarely cured conditions as from commonly cured conditions. This is what is behind the oft-repeated observation that one doesn’t find discarded artificial limbs at Lourdes. Where are all the people with miraculously regrown limbs? Are people as likely to be cured of diabetes after visiting Lourdes as of back pain? Huntington’s disease? Cystic fibrosis? If allegedly miraculous recovery rates from different conditions are highly variable, why?

Joe Hinman said...

Hi Eric, glad you stopped by

There are multiple questions here, but let’s start with a basic point I am sure everyone should agree on:

Before seeking an explanation for X, it must first be ascertained whether X in fact occurred, and also whether X occurred in the manner described.

the original article i summarized was written by as team of medical historians and published in peer reviewed journal, They were pretty sure the things happened, They did a full through investigation. More importantly the modern Lourde's medical research set up is impressive.,I'll link to stuff abouit it below.


So let’s consider one of the cases described in the article:
“An interesting example is the very unusual two-step cure of Pierre Terrier, living in Laréole near Toulouse, a sixty-six-year-old man whose horse-drawn cart overturned in February 1873. One of the wheels crushed his leg, the soft tissue was torn to pieces, the tibia was fractured, and soon gangrene set in. The patient's wife resolved to wash the wound with Lourdes water. The next day, the gangrene had disappeared, but the fracture did not heal and the twisted leg made walking very difficult, even with the aid of a stick. Nine years later, on August 29, 1882, the patient went to Lourdes and was surprised to be able to follow the evening procession. On August 30, as soon as Mr. Terrier was plunged into the Lourdes baths of spring water (“piscines”), he had a strange perception in his leg and noticed that his leg stood straight. From then on, walking was problem-free.”

This does, indeed, sound remarkable. But how do we know this actually occurred? Have all the details of this account been verified? How assiduously did those who originally recorded this account attempt to verify its details? Who were those recorders and how, exactly, did they attempt to verify it? How many people did they interview and who were they? Are there medical records? Etc.

First of all the only way we know anything in history happened is because people write about it in documents, These instances have been studied thoroughly long before the medical, historian tired it, there are books about them. The medical historians lived in the archives for months so with all the integrity of any peer received historical article (given scholastically caution) that is the best any historian can offer, all things can be questioned,even Trump's power,;-)

The historians in this article studied the period before the rules, that;s because the period after the rules about 1920s to present are so well documented no way to question basic facts,it's this earlier period that needed study. Did this happen was not the question they were left with at the end but how to explain it without saying "miracle,"



Joe Hinman said...

This isn’t just knee-jerk skepticism. One of my favorite podcasts is Skeptoid. One thing I have learned after listening to hundreds of episodes is that MANY apparently mysterious or inexplicable events turn out to have what we might call “murky” origins. Real events have fictionalized details or exaggerations added on to them, and stories that originate as works of fiction get repeated as factual. This is why the principle I articulated above is so important. We shouldn’t even try to compare different possible explanations until we have first verified that there is something standing in need of explanation. The authors even admit that: “These accounts were still sketchy and many of the cures seem to have been recorded on the word of the patients and witnesses. Furthermore, no distinction was made between genuine cures (i.e., somatic, authentic cures), mere improvements, and functional, nervous, disorders.”

Yes I agree but you are assume that this team of historians are not capable of being as-skeptical as you are and of demanding good documented cases. Allow me to speak for all my fellow historians, we historians are just as capable as philosophers of being skeptical and demanding rigor; read the original article.We historians also challenge the philosophers to water balloons at 2o paces,

But that was a very old case, and the article mainly focusses on more recent cases where better records were surely available. Still, the inclusion of such a dramatic and not clearly verified case in the article raises what I think are legitimate concerns about the objectivity of the authors.

you talking about my article? you read it? i think a more important point is what is said about modern Lourdes evidence being so well documented,

But let’s consider a different skeptical concern – the natures of the conditions. I suggest the following principle:

If C is an instance of a miraculous cure, then the frequency of C’s occurrence should not correlate with the frequency of non-miraculous recoveries from the malady in question.

In other words, miraculous recoveries should be just as common among people suffering from rarely cured conditions as from commonly cured conditions.

I disagree.It's based upon the fallacy that we can expect God to work regulatory like a machine or a part of nature, Three is a whole theological literature on my that is not the case. You have to go empirically case by case.


This is what is behind the oft-repeated observation that one doesn’t find discarded artificial limbs at Lourdes.


That is also a fallacy, true it's extremely rare. But there are examples not of Lourdes but in the Vatican archives associated with certain saints.I know this is true because I .spoken with a Lourdes researcher who did research in the Vatican archive and found such an example.



Where are all the people with miraculously regrown limbs? Are people as likely to be cured of diabetes after visiting Lourdes as of back pain? Huntington’s disease? Cystic fibrosis? If allegedly miraculous recovery rates from different conditions are highly variable, why?

LOOK THE MECHANISM that does the healing is a will and a volitional consciousness; the healing has a raison d'etre related to this consciousness' overall purpose so why should we assume healing should be automatic and therefore conform to the demography of nature?

Mike Gerow said...

Real events have fictionalized details or exaggerations added on to them, and stories that originate as works of fiction get repeated as factual.

As seems pretty obvious in the current U.S.situation. But isn't the converse also nearly or equally likely? (In fact, there's a word for that, although I forget it....)