12/20/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Daschle Should Remember There Are Some Things That Are Better

As former Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle contemplates his forthcoming appointment to be Secretary of Health and Human Services, he faces an enormous challenge in attempting to overhaul the country's health care and health insurance system. With 47 million Americans lacking health insurance and a woeful absence of emphasis on any type of preventive health care in our country, Daschle faces a vital but Herculean task.

Daschle and those he brings with him might be looking for "something to be grateful for" as they try to reform HHS. If they are looking for "things that mostly go well," they could focus on and be grateful for the clinical trial system used to test pharmaceutical drugs. Drug testing has not always been undertaken sensibly. Before there were clinical trials overseen by the Food and Drug Administration, there had to be creativity. Consider this:

In sixteenth century Europe, "Bezoar stones" (calcified bits of animal intestines) were considered to be both healing agents and an antidote to poisons. Famed surgeon Ambroise Paré (1510-1590) did not believe that Bezoar stones held any curative properties at all, but he needed a way to prove it. A cook who worked in the kitchen of Charles IX had been caught stealing two silver plates, and he was sentenced to hang for his misdeeds. Paré suggested an arrangement that would permit the testing of the "Bezoar stone:" If the cook agreed to take poison instead of being hanged, Paré would be with him to administer a drink made from the Bezoar stone. If the antidote worked and the fellow survived, he would be given his freedom. If not, well, he was sentenced to die anyway.

Unfortunately for the cook, Paré was correct. The stone was not curative, and seven hours after taking the poison, the cook died an agonizing death.

Paré also debunked other medicines that were popular at the time. Powder from "unicorn horns" (since unicorns are mythological, it is thought they substituted powder from narwhal and rhino horns) were thought to be healing. Paré experimented with the powder on spiders, toads, and pigeons (an early form of "clinical trial?") but he saw no positive results. Contemporary apothecaries and physicians were annoyed by Paré and retorted that he was simply using "cheap" substances. They assured him that with the right ingredients--more expensive ones--a cure could be realized.

Paré responded by saying that he would rather be right and stand alone, than be with the group and be wrong.

That sentiment may resonate for Tom Daschle, President-elect Obama, and many of the others who are valiantly stepping forward. We'll be hoping they can invent "clinical trials" of all sorts as they work to bring badly-needed change to our country.