Dr. Andrew Weil

By Monica Surfaro Spigelman –

Integrative Medicine’s Visionary Force

The front-row seat to the future of medicine belongs to Dr. Andrew Weil – founder and director of the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. 

His boundary-pushing efforts are the force behind healthcare’s increasing focus on a whole-person approach to healing. The model he has created is stirring new buzz as it reaches across multiple disciplines in ways that are reducing costs, improving patient outcomes and re-designing the education of health practitioners. 

“The term ‘integrative medicine’ is now totally accepted in academic discourse – and poised to influence changes in healthcare,” Weil said. “The majority of the nation’s medical schools now have Integrative Health initiatives either in clinical care, research or education – and there are waiting lists for our fellowships and other programs. We’re opening a model integrative clinic with Banner Health that will be replicable and sustainable.”   

Weil’s relentless advocacy for integrative healthcare took a significant step forward last year, with his $15 million gift to name the integrative medicine center at UArizona and establish two endowed chairs and an endowed fund for the internationally recognized program. Construction of the center’s new home on campus is slated to begin in the fall, ensuring the school’s status as the pioneer in integrative medicine education, research and innovation.

Propelling a whole-person approach to health is Weil’s lifetime passion, rooted in his Philadelphia upbringing. Weil’s grandmother and mother – enthusiastic gardeners who planted bulbs in their rowhouse window boxes – encouraged his love of plants. 

Attending Philadelphia’s Central High School reinforced these botanical interests, and in his senior year, a bulletin-board notice led Weil to enter a national essay contest. He placed as a semi-finalist and won a full scholarship to an experimental school that enabled him to travel internationally for an academic year and experience other cultures. 

On his return, Weil entered Harvard University, where he majored in biology with a concentration in botany under Professor Richard Schultes, known as the godfather of modern ethnobotany. His career interest in medicinal plants began here. Weil continued to study the properties of medicinal and hallucinogenic plants through his training at Harvard Medical School, and received his medical degree in 1968. 

For nearly a decade, Weil pursued journalism more than medicine as a career – traveling and writing about indigenous healing systems. It was on one of these trips –  he planned to drive to Oaxaca, Mexico to deliver a baby for a friend – that Weil’s car broke down in Tucson. His first experience in the Sonoran Desert was transformative. 

“I had always loved cactus, and grew them in my dorm room,” Weil recalled. “I remembered seeing Walt Disney’s ‘The Living Desert’ as a kid, and that film – shot in and around Tucson – made a strong impression on me. So, I decided to stay, and rented an old stone house at the mouth of Esperero Canyon.”

From his desert hideaway, Weil continued writing for various magazines – until the UArizona asked him to do a lecture on cannabis. “The lecture, for first- and second-year students, was well received and the organizers of the course  – in Human Behavior and Development – asked me to stay on as an adjunct professor,” he said. “I had been rootless, making my living as a journalist, and it was nice to have ties to an institution. Cannabis was the subject of my early work. I diversified by giving lectures on my new interests in alternative medicine (no one knew what that was), healing and mind-body interactions.”

The lectures at the UArizona College of Medicine became the basis of Weil’s first book, “Health and Healing,” which laid out the philosophy of what would later become integrative medicine. That popularized Weil as the guru of alternative medicine and elevated his leadership in a fringe movement that evolved into a mainstream phenomenon.

Weil never intended to see patients, but when they started showing up at his Tucson doorstep after the book and the lectures, he reluctantly got into it. “At first, I said I was practicing natural and preventative medicine. Sometime later, I came to use the term ‘integrative.’ ”   

Robert Fulford, an old-fashioned Tucson osteopath, became Weil’s mentor. “I had just chased around the world looking for healers, and here in Tucson was the person who had the most to teach me, especially about the healing power of nature,” said Weil, who produced a video on Fulford in 1986.

Until this time, Weil had a marginal relationship with UArizona. But all that changed when James Dalen became dean of the College of Medicine. Dalen brought Joseph Alpert, a good friend of Weil’s from Harvard, from the University of Massachusetts to be chief of medicine.

“Joe and I had dinner shortly after he arrived, and he asked me what I wanted to do, now that I ‘had friends in high places,’” Weil recalled. “I said I wanted to change all of medicine by creating a residency in a field called integrative medicine. We met with the dean, but since the field didn’t exist yet, Jim Dalen convinced me to back up a step and create a fellowship for physicians who had completed their residency training.” 

In 1994, from a room in a trailer in the    College of Medicine’s parking lot, Weil established the world’s first program in integrative medicine. 

“We began by inviting leaders from 12 different fields to a weekend retreat, where we hammered out the basics of a curriculum in integrative medicine. Then, we advertised for physicians to come to Tucson for a two-year fellowship. Four came.”

“For the first few years, we trained just four doctors at a time,” Weil said. “Since then, we have trained thousands more through an online fellowship (with residential weeks in Tucson).  Our graduates are in all specialties, not only from the U.S. but from many countries around the world.”  

Weil’s work at AWCIM has brought healthcare to an inflection point. From the original four residential fellows, the center’s portfolio now includes a trail-blazing in-residency program, as well as leading-edge research that informs education, technology and practice. 

Weil has also extended his teachings to the community at large – creating online learning platforms, authoring new books and founding a group of True Food Kitchen restaurants (one of which may soon come to Tucson). Weil lectures and continues his outreach through podcasts and appearances on national television, including “Dr. Oz” and “Oprah.” He’s thinking about a new matcha bar for downtown and writing a soon-to-be published cookbook with his daughter, Diana.

Fulfillment for Weil also involves keeping centered at home in his routines, surrounded by three adoring Rhodesian ridgebacks, tending his lush vegetable garden or cooking a meal for friends. “For a lot of my life, I’ve felt that I was ahead of the times,” Weil said. “I feel very fortunate that I’ve lived to see the mainstream catch up with all this.” 

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