The University of Exeter, already home to The Centre for Complementary Health Studies, a research and teaching unit, has been given pounds 1.5m to establish the chair which, it is hoped, will make complementary medicine more respectable.
Dr David Harrison, vice-chancellor of the university, said yesterday that the new professor would be medically qualified, with experience in at least one alternative therapy.
It was central to the appointment that the professor would bring credibility to the subject and work alongside the staff at the postgraduate medical centre.
'We are at the forefront of a sea change in medical education. I consider that the establishment of such a senior medical appointment, made possible by this generous donation, marks a breakthrough for complementary medicine in its relations with orthodox medicine,' Dr Harrison said.
The post will have a salary of about pounds 50,000 and be secure for at least 10 years. The main purpose of the chair will be to investigate and establish credible research methods to test the claims of alternative therapies - despite the fact that many practitioners argue that scientific methods cannot be applied to them.
The University of Exeter does not have an undergraduate medical school, but has a postgraduate centre within the science faculty. It was in the forefront of introducing general practitioner training to an academic setting.
Dr John Tripp, a member of the board of management of the postgraduate medical centre, said the problem with complementary medicines had always been in proving their efficacy.
The Royal College of Physicians had recently expressed the view that it could find little evidence that some treatments worked. Dr Tripp said the problem with orthodox medicine was that 'little evidence equals no proof, and no proof equals no treatment.
'Doctors are not prepared to endorse treatments without proof that they work. All treatment has a downside, whether orthodox or complementary.'
He said that complementary medicine was not a single subject and that some therapies were easier to understand than others. 'It is our task to find out which can be accredited,' he said.
The donation to establish the chair came from Sir Maurice Laing, president and former chairman of the builders John Laing plc. Dr Ronald Davey, who put Sir Maurice in touch with the University of Exeter centre, said there was growing demand from the public for complementary medicine which far outstripped the ability of properly trained practitioners to cope.
He said that Stephen Dorrell, former Under-Secretary of State for Health, had said that it was up to GPs to provide complementary services out of their budgets if patients demanded them.
Dr Davey said: 'The medical profession is very conservative and cautious and this is very proper. However, there is a public demand for something for which there is no adequate training at this time. Medical students feel particularly disadvantaged when asked by patients for advice on acupuncture or homoeopathy, about which they know nothing.'Reuse content