Interviewed by Emily Slomovits, Photography by Hilary Nichols
Quentin McMullen and Molly McMullen-Laird are a husband-and-wife doctor team and the founders of Rudolf Steiner Health Center, which is one of Ann Arbor’s leading alternative medical practices. Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, Steiner Health is unique as a “community-supported medical practice,” and it focuses on anthroposophic medicine, which combines conventional and integrative approaches to medicine and is based on the teachings of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner.
The environment where I met them is distinctly unlike a traditional doctor’s office. The rooms are artistically painted in cheery colors and filled with art and plants. Nothing is too bright or flashy; instead, a peaceful atmosphere greets patients as they step through the doors. The feeling is reinforced by Quentin and Molly; tall, mellow Quentin perfectly complements smaller, more animated Molly. Intelligence and warmth radiate from both of them, and each has her/his own way of putting patients at ease; Molly’s eyes sparkle with tenderness and enthusiasm, while Quentin’s radio-worthy voice is firm and calming.
I spoke with Quentin and Molly about anthroposophic medicine, the history of their practice, and their dynamic as a married team of doctors.
Emily Slomovits: Where did each of you grow up, and how did you meet?
Molly McMullen-Laird: I was born in New Jersey, and Quentin was born in Connecticut, both of us in the country.
Quentin McMullen: We both went to the University of Connecticut, which is actually how we met. We both worked in Boston in research for a year, and then both went to medical school in New Orleans.
Molly McMullen-Laird: We did our residencies together in internal medicine at Reading Hospital, Pennsylvania, where there was also a Waldorf School. At that point, Sara, our oldest daughter, was getting ready to go to kindergarten. We also knew two other anthroposophic doctors in the area, so we were planning to settle there and work with them once we finished our residencies. Sara and our second child, Christopher, started school there. After we finished our residency, because Quentin had a military scholarship for medical school, he was obligated to serve four years in the Air Force. We went to Germany for that, and again, our children were able to attend a Waldorf School -- they are very easy to find over there. We then finished our training by working in anthroposophic hospitals in Germany and Switzerland for three years before we came here.
Emily Slomovits: Were any of your parents doctors? How did you become interested in medicine?
Quentin McMullen: My parents were not, although I think my father would have made a good physician because of his inquisitive mind. He worked in electronics and was a writer later in life. My mother was a librarian; she didn’t work outside the house until we were out of the house. Molly’s father was an industrial engineer, and her mother was a hospital laboratory technician.
Emily Slomovits: Were you ever interested in pursuing another profession before medicine?
Quentin McMullen: After high school I was pretty sure I would go into the political world, statesmanship, or something to do with government. I was very interested in all of that. But it was a very unfortunate time for young people, rather like now, where many young people shy away from it. Those were the Nixon years; the United States invaded Cambodia, the Kent State tragedy happened, in general bad things were happening in the world. I said to myself, ‘Maybe there’s something else!’. I didn’t really know exactly what that something else would be until I went to Germany as a 20-year-old, and then things settled themselves.
Molly McMullen-Laird: For a while, I thought I would become a researcher; in college I very much enjoyed doing biochemical research. I thought biochemistry was the answer to all the things we needed to understand in biology.
Emily: How did you discover anthroposophic medicine?
Quentin: I learned about it first because, during my college years, I went to work in Germany and Holland in anthroposophic communities, first in a big gardening community, and later in a Camphill community, which is an intentional community for children with special needs, both physical and mental. One of my jobs there was to give them their medicines. They didn’t look like any other medicine that I was used to, so I became curious. I might have had some interest before that, but suddenly I became interested in studying medicine, and practicing anthroposophic medicine afterwards. I returned to the U.S. and finished my undergraduate degree. Molly and I met and began talking about attending medical school. During that time I introduced Molly to what I knew about anthroposophic medicine.
Emily: What did you study in undergrad? Was it just what you would need for pre-med, or did you have another major?
Molly: Biology, basic pre-med.
Quentin: What I recommend to pre-med students these days, is to major in something else that you are passionate about. Take the required biology and chemistry classes, but wait until medical school for the rest of the science you need.
Molly: Right, these days you can, but it was a little more straight-laced and narrow path when we went to medical school. But I think the interesting thing for our story is that when Quentin went to Dornach, Switzerland for a youth conference in 1972, and met a lot of young people who were involved in a lot of anthroposophical things, that was a big introduction for him, and he made connections. That’s how he ended up going back to Germany to work in a biodynamic garden as a gardener -- in a large, intentional, anthroposophic community called Schloss Hamborn. They have a nursing home there, and they have a kindergarten that’s attached to the nursing home, so when the kids go out and play, the older people can sit and watch them. They had the Waldorf School, a nursery, a farm, a sanatorium, which you think of now in America as like a mental hospital, but this was more like a rehabilitation hospital, with maybe 50 beds. There was the beekeeper and the dairy farmer, and the garden for the vegetables, and the baker, and some people worked outside in other jobs, but most people worked inside the community.
For Quentin to go and experience that in Europe, he just happened to land in a community that was really ideal, really functioned in an inter-connected way, with medicine, education, and agriculture. And those three things are really the pillars of anthroposophy in the world; the number one pillar is Waldorf education, the second pillar is biodynamic agriculture, and the third is medicine.
Emily: For someone who doesn’t know, can you explain how the practice of anthroposophic medicine differs from more conventional medicine?
Quentin: Anthroposophy came from Rudolf Steiner in the 20th Century. He was a lecturer, an educator, highly intelligent and interested in what humanity needed to progress, and so he would lecture about those kinds of things, from a theosophical origin. Eventually he realized that he had to write about it in his own way, and so he wrote maybe 60 books in his lifetime, and people would come to him and ask him about different aspects.
For example, the Waldorf schools came from the Waldorf cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany; the owner of the factory asked him, “Can you make a school for the children whose parents work in the factory, so that they will have a reasonable education?” So Steiner gave a series of courses to a group of teachers to prepare the curriculum for the Waldorf School movement. The same thing happened with medicine. A group of doctors came to him and said, “We’re not satisfied with what we’re doing here; can you give us some insight?”
Another thing that is quite different from conventional medicine is the pharmacy – how to take a substance from a plant, or an animal or mineral, and make it available as a pharmaceutical product for human beings. Not just the extract; that ends up being a chemical extract, but something of the whole plant exists in the anthroposophic medicines. And then, when it’s taken in, either internally, or externally as a bath or ointment, it meets the illness in the human being, and sets something off in the direction of healing. There is, for Steiner, a very strong connection between what the pathology is, what the problem is, and what you can find in nature that is related to that pathology. We always start with what’s wrong with the patient, and then we find what there is in nature that is similar to this, and can help turn it around.
Molly: For me, the essential aspect of what makes anthroposophic medicine different, or any of what Rudolf Steiner brought into the world, is that he gained insight on his own through a meditative path, to understand the world as it is, all aspects of the world. He wanted to explain the path that each person can follow and apply to his or her own profession. And he always said to make your own experience. Figure it out for yourself.
He based a lot of this on the work that Goethe had done before him in the phenomenology of nature, and physics, and all of the things that Goethe had worked on besides his literary accomplishments.
When you look at the remedies, and how he picked a certain collection of plants, maybe with a metal or a mineral that has been processed in a certain way, and the fact that he understands that as the treatment for a particular condition – which he explains in a different way than conventional medicine would, it’s on a very different level. And we as the practitioners are the recipients of this gift of an insight into all of the processes and all of the forces in nature and in the human being that create illness, and how to bring them together so that the person can actually be healed of the problem, rather than addressing just the symptom.
Emily: Sometimes, conventional care is required for a patient. When do you know to integrate that care, or recommend that to someone, and how do you balance the two kinds of care?
Molly: Well, there are acute situations that really require immediate surgery, or hospitalization, or there are some infections that are really dangerous, where antibiotics are life-saving, or surgery is life-saving. If there’s chest pain, you go right to the emergency room. And our conventional medicine and technological advances are very good at that acute and interventional type of medicine for emergencies.
Emily: Obviously, there are married couples that each do similar kinds of work, but don’t work together. How did you decide to open a practice together, and what does your dynamic as a couple provide for each of you, and for your patients? In what ways do you balance/complement each other?
Quentin: We have different strengths in medicine; Molly is much more involved in dietary counseling and women’s medicine, kids, and I do more with toxins and Lyme disease. The best part is that we can say, “Here, I’ve got this patient, this is the situation. What do you think?” I can ask Molly like no other physician I could ask.
Molly: That’s the real upside of the whole thing; we have kind of the same background in conventional medicine, we were both trained in general internal medicine, and we’ve been through similar trainings for anthroposophic medicine in the hospitals in Europe. We can really consult with each other, and since it’s kind of a niche that we’re in, it’s good that we’re not alone.
Emily: You have your regular practice, but you also have health retreats and other programs.
Molly: For the retreats, people come from all over the States, with all kinds of illnesses. Probably half of them are cancer patients, but we have people recovering from stroke, or chronic heart disease, or Lyme disease. We recruit therapists mostly from the Ann Arbor area; we have movement therapy, massage therapy, bath therapy, art therapy, and they all have an anthroposophical basis because that’s our work at the health center, to have a home for all the therapies.
We also have fasting weekends where a dozen people come for the weekend program.
Emily: How did you come to Ann Arbor?
Quentin: I had met Dr. Ernst Katz when I was 19. When I lived near New York, I would go in and listen to the anthroposophists give lectures in Manhattan at the Anthroposophical Society, and all I knew about Dr. Katz was that he was a good lecturer. I still had my notes from his lectures years later when we were looking for where in the United States to go after we came back from our training in Europe. So, we took this big tour around the States, and stopped where we knew people; we had the idea for the health center, and we wanted there to be at least one other anthroposophic physician available to help us with that. There had to be a Waldorf High School. Those were our two requirements.
Emily: Yes, congratulations! Steiner Health has now been up and running for twenty years. What has changed in your practice over the years, and what do you see in its future?
Molly: We were very blessed in the first year we were here, with the inauguration of the Patient Organization. That was part of the idea we came with; it’s a collective of patients who pay a certain amount every month, and then when they come, they don’t pay for that service. We have educational events, volunteer commitments, the members get involved in the overall mission. We were very lucky in the beginning that there was a significant group of people who stood behind that and made it happen. And I believe that’s what has sustained us. This group of dedicated and forward-thinking people, who really see that medicine should belong to the community, and be available when they need it.
So we’ve been really blessed that we’ve had that kind of privilege as physicians, to do anthroposophic medicine without compromise in that group of patients. It’s a community function, and many people have put in a lot of hours to make that happen.
Quentin: In the future, I’m hoping that there is a group of alternative physicians and patients who create a parallel system.
Molly: It needs to be said that our organization is a 501(c) non-profit entity; Community Supported Anthroposophical Medicine, modeled after the CSA movement for farmers and their members. Our organization is run according to Rudolf Steiner’s Social Impulse of Threefolding which means that there are three spheres in society that should be understood as interacting with each other, but none should determine the function of the others. Those spheres are the Economic Sphere representing Fraternity, the Rights Sphere representing Equality, and the Cultural Sphere representing Freedom. Medicine is in the Cultural Sphere, which means it should be free from undue economic or legislative burdens so that each patient has access to the kind of health choices they see as appropriate for them, and the societal system should support healthcare by way of the profits generated in the economic sphere.
Emily: Thank you for explaining that, Molly. Moving back to the medicine, itself, do you prescribe tinctures and remedies that are considered anthroposophic medicines? Are they different and distinct from homeopathic remedies, and if so, are they flower essences, or remedies of a different sort? Please describe them a bit.
Molly: The remedies that we use are from anthroposophic pharmacies which include a large body of homeopathic and herbal medicines, many of which are prepared and used in a way that differs from classical homeopathy. Some of the remedies are combinations of various plants that together create a remedy for a particular condition. The pharmacists utilize many interesting processes to transform the substances of nature into a form that functions as a remedy. They use heating and cooling, fermentation, exposure to light and darkness, harvesting and processing according to certain annual rhythms and very precise dissection of parts of plants, minerals and animals to combine in the remedies.
Emily: Can you give our readers a sense of how you might treat a few common ailments, such as high blood pressure, asthma, diabetes, hypothyroid, and osteopenia or osteoporosis -- to give our readers a sense of how the anthroposophic approach may be different?
Molly: Our approach to deficiency illnesses like diabetes, hypothyroidism, adrenal fatigue or osteoporosis is to support the normal function of the organ or combination of organs involved, so that the process is able to work normally again on its own. We use remedies called organ preparations which are typically potentized homeopathic remedies. This encourages the function when the process is weakened, rather than substituting for the missing hormone or other substance as is often done in allopathic and herbal treatments. Although desiccated animal thyroid or adrenal gland may be more biologically congruent than synthetic preparations, the effect on the system is very similar in that it further substitutes for the normal function of that organ. We know that taking too many steroids can result in adrenal failure, but many patients take desiccated adrenal gland for fatigue which most likely will prolong the deficiency. Such preparations are readily available over the counter and it is necessary to read the label very carefully to find out if the desiccated organ preparations are in the supplements. We also find it necessary to work on lifestyle and diet changes that may contribute to the patient’s condition. At times we may need to use allopathic or herbal substances temporarily. Most herbal preparations have strong effects on the patients, not unlike allopathic medicines. In the best-case scenario, we are able to regain the function of the involved system using homeopathic approaches. For other conditions, such as essential hypertension, we may need to work in an indirect approach to offset the influences allowing the condition to arise, rather than directly. We work as closely as possible with our medical colleagues to address transitions away from (safely and step-by-step) the allopathic medicines which some of our patients take.
Emily: How have you gone about looking for other doctors who could join with your practice? And since it’s been unsuccessful so far, have you considered other ways to go about this, to make this a reality in the future?
Molly: We are looking for a physician who is finished with the corporate medical model and is determined to find a way to care for patients outside of the economic model that is prevalent. In other words, someone so dissatisfied that they would be happy to abandon a typical physician salary for quality of life in their day to day work life. Of course, it also has to be someone who is keenly interested in anthroposophical medicine, a fully trained MD or DO, and willing to spend some time studying the basics. It is a lifelong study for everyone, in any case, so we are looking for that commitment. Our organization is community owned and governed which is also a major departure from traditional medical practices, hospital owned or private ventures. So we put out the word in the national anthroposophical medical circles as well as letting our medical student and resident physician connections know what we have to offer.
Emily: How many children do you have, what are their names and ages, and what are they up to these days?
Molly: We have four grown children all of whom were educated in Waldorf Schools in Europe and the United States. Our oldest, Sara Purple, is trained to teach Waldorf high school Physics and Art. Our second, Christopher, is currently studying conducting at the Royal College of Music in London. Our daughter, Lydia, is studying Journalism at Columbia University in New York and our youngest, Samuel, just graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Philosophy. Our children lived in Germany and Switzerland while we were doing training and have had many international experiences. They speak quite a few different languages, in addition to German, which they spoke while in elementary school in Europe.
Emily: What do you most enjoy about Ann Arbor in the spring and summer?
Molly: I like to walk, and we live in town so are able to easily walk downtown to an event or to just walk around campus. I very much enjoy the young people and the neighborhood feeling of Ann Arbor. We are so blessed here with small local businesses full of personality and creativity like Crazy Wisdom!
Quentin: One of the reasons we chose to come to Ann Arbor was because of the university. U-M has a not-so-subtle effect on conversations one has around town, as well as tolerance for progressive social ideas which I appreciate. Not to forget is the great education three of our children received at the University of Michigan.