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Science, Max Planck said, progresses one funeral at a time. What did he mean by this?

Posted on: July 3, 2018   by  John Cannell, MD


Aging world-renowned professors, whose reputations lie with their own discoveries, usually serve as senior reviewers for major scientific and medical journals. In this role, they review the work of younger researchers whose new findings challenge the experts’ old discoveries. Being human, these experts often reject the new papers, effectively delaying scientific progress. Only after their deaths are the new papers accepted, allowing science to progress, but only one funeral at a time.

For example, Professor Walter Stumpf of my alma mater, the University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, correctly foresaw the current understanding of vitamin D as a multi-function seco-steroid hormone precursor with a profound mechanism of action that affects virtually all human biological systems. The essence of his problem was that he presented his theory 40 years ago, when the older established experts “knew,” and I mean “knew,” that D was only, and I mean only, important to regulate calcium. Walter complained bitterly to me that older established vitamin D expert reviewers at the major journals routinely and repeatedly rejected his now clearly visionary papers. Unfortunately for Walter, his death occurred before that of his reviewers, meaning that his papers and insights were not read and thus not appreciated. Try as he might, Walter was unable to advance science.

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” – Max Planck, Physicist

This phenomenon is not limited to reviewers stifling younger researchers. Professor Michael Holick, whose vitamin D discoveries make him the world’s foremost vitamin D expert, is an incredibly clairvoyant, skilled and perceptive scientist. For me, his courage and compassion are his most exceptional qualities. For example, during a time of mass hysteria in the United States over child abuse allegations, he has testified (over 500 times and always pro bono) that a infant’s multiple fractures were not the result of child abuse, but rather were due to metabolic bone disease, usually vitamin D deficient rickets. For his testimony, the child abuse industrial complex has repeatedly vilified him, even suggesting that he himself must be an abuser. Despite such vilification, Holick continues to testify, as do I, often in an atmosphere not totally unlike the Salem Witch Trials.

Holick’s vitamin D discoveries remain the cornerstone of modern understanding of vitamin D. His papers, books, honors and memberships qualify him as one of the preeminent scientists in the world, yet one honor eludes him, a much deserved and long overdue membership in the National Academy of Science. The reason for his exclusion is that current members elect the 84 new members annually, and senior members whose theories he has threatened routinely blackball his yearly nomination, as they did Carl Sagan.  Thus, Holick will need to outlive his blackballers.

Last week, a new breast cancer paper reminded me that such behavior is not limited to science.  The paper is straight-forward: women who maintain a vitamin D level above 60 ng/ml (150 nmol/l) are an incredible 82% less likely to develop breast cancer. I understand the top-rated journals refused to publish the paper, although PLOS ONE, the high quality, peer reviewed journal that published this vitally important paper, is quickly becoming top rated.

breast cancer risk

Perhaps we need to wait another fifty years for discoveries by basic scientists, funded like Nixon’s 1971 war on cancer, to show us how to prevent breast cancer? Did Nixon’s war on cancer cure cancer or reduce its rates? Except for childhood leukemia, where effective treatment was found serendipitously by Dr. Don Pinkel, the war on cancer was a failure, at least so reports JAMA. Now, as this new breast cancer study indicates, it is quite possible that lifetime vitamin D supplementation will prevent most breast cancer cases. If so, the discovery is certainly not due to war on cancer funding.

It appears to me that the solution to breast cancer may simply be an uncomplicated public health problem, solved by having women raise their vitamin D levels to above 60 – 70 ng/ml. Since vitamin D’s anti-cancer chemotherapeutic mechanisms are similar in different cancers, breast cancer may not be the only cancer to succumb to such vitamin D levels.  Unfortunately, it will take more than one funeral before we see this science progress.


John Cannell, MD. Science, they say, progresses one funeral at a time. What did Max Planck mean by that? The Vitamin D Council Blog & Newsletter, 6/2018.


McDonnell, SL. Et al. Breast cancer risk markedly lower with serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D concentrations ≥60 vs <20 ng/ml (150 vs 50 nmol/L): Pooled analysis of two randomized trials and a prospective cohort. PLoS ONE, 2018.

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