Health and Fitness

The Weird History of Psychic Surgery in the Philippines

It’s the medical version of flat earthers.
IMAGE WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
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There is alternative medicine and then there is medical fraud—“psychic surgery” falls in the latter category. Despite being debunked and rejected by almost every credible medical association and certified doctor, psychic surgeons continue to insist that their methods have healed people of every kind of cancer. And the Philippines is the leading country in psychic surgery. 

If you look up the phrase, you'll find that it's defined as a “pseudoscientific medical fraud”—in other words, it’s categorically fake. This is not a case of home-brewed herbal potions used as alternative medicine by your neighborhood albularyo. It’s a man putting his hands on your body and pulling out bloody chicken innards hidden in his palm.

In case you aren’t aware, psychic surgery in the Philippines is a “bloodless surgery,” in which a psychic surgeon places his hands on top of your skin and proceeds to pull out what appears to be tumors and organs and such. Your skin is left untouched, which the psychic surgeon attributes to miraculous speed healing. He then insists that the objects he has pulled out were, in fact, in your body, but journalists, doctors, and even magicians have labeled the act merely as a sleight of hand assisted by a couple of chicken gizzards.

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Despite that fact, it doesn’t take much more than a 12-year-old to doubt the medical credibility of psychic surgery, it definitely got some buzz in the ‘70s when the new age movement was at its peak and the Philippines was the mecca of the psychic surgery craze. 

Filipino Psychic Surgeons

The first popular faith healer was a guy by the name of Eleuterio Terte whose services became popular in the ‘40s, but it wasn’t until the ‘50s that foreign interest started to rise. It was his student, Tony Agpaoa, who went on to continue his teachings and gain international fame.

International interest in psychic surgery grew until it reached its peak in the ‘70s, no doubt thanks to the emergence of the new age movement. Suddenly, 7,000 to 9,000 tourists, usually Westerners, were coming to the Philippines every month to try out the psychic surgery that was all over the news. Some were desperate to find a cure to their life-threatening illnesses, others were merely curious. 

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However, everyone from certified health professionals to stage magicians and self-proclaimed psychics called the entire thing a hoax that could very well be duplicated. Agpaoa was eventually charged for fraud in the United States after he proclaimed that he’d healed a bone in a man’s neck. Nothing became of the case.

He might have been one of the most popular psychic surgeons at the time, and in history, but when his appendix burst, Agpaoa went to a San Francisco hospital—not a psychic one—to get his appendix surgically removed (by a real surgeon).

Although the general consensus was that psychic surgery was medical fraud that preyed on desperate foreigners, it captured everyone’s attention again when Andy Kaufman, a well-known American actor, went to Baguio in March of 1984 in hopes that psychic surgeon Jun Labo would cure his large cell carcinoma (lung cancer). Labo proclaimed that he removed his tumors, and Kaufman publicly declared that he believed him.

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Kaufman died of renal failure caused by cancer two months later. His life and death were the subject of the film Man on the Moon, featuring a fictionalized version of Kaufman’s psychic experience. 

If that wasn’t enough to debunk psychic surgery, the 1997 BBC documentary series Full Circle with Michael Palin caught a psychic surgeon’s sleight of hand on camera when Palin went to Baguio to investigate. When he talked to the psychic surgeon, he was told that, in order for him to understand the surgery, he needed to be able to see with his third eye. Apparently, the real surgery was taking place on the astral plane and the sleight of hand was merely a tool to make it happen.

The Placebo Effect 

It all sounds like a load of bull coming from what some would call “quack doctors.” It’s crazy to think that there are still people in 2019 who believe in psychic surgery, but then again, in 2019, there are still some people who think the world is flat and climate change is a hoax. 

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Regardless, there’s no doubt that Wikipedia, for once, got it right—psychic surgery is medical fraud. Critics attribute the few successful cases to the placebo effect and anyone who believes in psychic surgery does so at his own risk. Just look at Kaufman.

But the idea behind psychic surgery isn’t completely ridiculous. The quack doctors eloquently labeled by Western media all attribute their “powers” to God. And that’s not so different from praying for someone to get better. Medical students nowadays are taught that a patient’s well being isn’t just limited to the physical—there has to be mental, emotional, and spiritual healing, as well.

There is science and there is faith—and you can have both without negating the other.

So in a sense, a simple prayer is a safe form of faith healing that won’t lead to death or disappointment like psychic surgery. 

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About The Author
Anri Ichimura
Staff Writer, Esquire Philippines
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