Profile: Andrew Weil, American Healer

ANDREW WEIL HAS A SORE FOOT. A FEW DAYS AGO HE stepped on a cactus on his 120-acre ranch here, about forty-five minutes southeast of Tucson. Either that, or a spider bit him. He's not sure. At any rate, his foot has swelled up with infection. He's tried treating it the natural way, by soaking it in warm water, but it's only gotten worse. So he's been forced to start a cycle of antibiotics, those high-powered goon squads of conventional medicine. 

The situation is a neat summary of the concept that Weil calls integrative medicine, which involves elements of both Western medicine and natural cures. It's a philosophy that has made Weil a powerful force. His round, bald pate, squinty eyes and Santa Claus beard are familiar from his seemingly constant appearances on PBS and Larry King Live, where he's known for providing health advice to grateful callers. On the jackets of his bestselling books, Weil is frequently called the guru of alternative medicine, but he doesn't much care for that description. "It's the source of a lot of trouble," he says of "guru," because it conveys an imbalance of power between guru and disciple. "I prefer to think of myself as the godfather." Whether they view Weil as godfather or savior, millions of people have found Weil's gospel of integrative medicine terrifically inspiring. Weil's book sales--he's published nine (see sidebar)--are impressive: His last three titles, preceding a cookbook co-written with Rosie Daley, have sold five million copies in the United States alone. He's a linchpin of the alternative medicine movement, and if he wasn't the first to give voice to many of the ideas he stands for, he was certainly the founding father who became a star. "Lots of people were advocating herbs and natural healing throughout the '70s and '80s," says Barb Tischler, of Herbs, Etc., a store in Santa Fe, New Mexico. "But he's the one who got the message out to the public." 

TODAY, THE IDEA IS TO TAKE A LITTLE WALK TO LOOK AT SOME of the healing plants that grow around Weil's property. In addition to his M.D., Weil holds a degree in ethnobotany--the study of plants and the ways that indigenous societies use them--and has written volumes about plants used by folk-remedy practitioners. Though it's just a matter of time before his painful infection subsides, Weil's shuffling his feet like Charlie Chaplin. Michele, one of his five assistants, looks concerned. She's standing on the front steps of her office, waving her hands and shouting, "Don't take Dr. Weil very far! Remember his foot!" 

We come across a datura plant, a relative of the common jimson weed that has been used by North American shamans to inspire hallucinations--incidentally, another topic about which Weil has written extensively. But the X9 Ranch, named for the cattle brand that was used here in earlier days, is populated primarily by spindly mesquite trees and cacti. When Weil came out here from Tucson four years ago, he moved into the property's original house, a one-story stucco ranch-style that sits under a grove of eucalyptus and cottonwood trees. There are two other freestanding buildings; one is Weil's office and the other is where his assistants answer correspondence, schedule appointments, put out Weil's newsletter and do everything else required to keep Brand Andrew Weil in top shape even as he keeps his profile relativity low. 

Weil, who has often declared that he is in the business of "selling information," has proven to have a deft touch for spinning medical advice into gold. Though he's between projects right now, his next book will likely be another blockbuster: It's about "the aging process and the denial of aging as represented by the cosmetic surgery industry and anti-aging medicine," he says. These areas are certainly ripe for analysis: Americans spent in the neighborhood of $8 billion on "cosmetic procedures" in 2001, and another $300 million on Botox, the poison that erases age lines by, essentially, inducing a mild paralysis. …