Book Review - When Healing Becomes a Crime: by Kenny Ausubel

When Healing Becomes a Crime: The amazing story of the Hoxsey cancer clinics and the return of alternative therapies

by Kenny Ausubel

Healing ArtsPress , 2000

461 pages, $19.95 paperback


Cancer is a political problem as well as a medical problem.

That's the bottom line in When Healing Becomes a Crime, the definitive account (underground, of course) of Harry Hoxsey, the proverbial “quack who cured cancer.” This paradigm-shifting book (one Amazon reader called it “the Silent Spring of alternative medicine”) is also a meticulously researched exposé of that other war, the subterranean campaign against “unconventional” cancer treatments and their practitioners. It follows on the heels of Ausubel's award-winning documentary (Project Censored's “Best Censored Story”) about Hoxsey, who comes across in live footage as the prototypical snake-oil salesman.

But appearances can be deceiving. Hoxsey was a folk healer whose Texas-based cancer clinic had branches in 17 states during the l950s. He claimed to cure cancer by using an herbal remedy inherited from his great-grandfather, a Quaker who is said to have devised the formula after watching a cancerous horse cure itself by feeding on medicinal weeds. Thousands of patients attested to the tonic's effectiveness, and it quickly attracted the attention of Morris Fishbein, the equally colorful but wicked editor of the AMA Journal, who Hoxsey claimed tried to buy the formula in secret. When Hoxsey refused to sell it (he said he promised his father on his deathbed that he would never refuse to treat anybody for lack of funds), a 35-year war erupted between the two men.

The first half of this book is that tale in all its sordid detail: Fishbein's glib propaganda (he called Hoxsey a “ghoul feasting on the bodies of the dead and dying”), which graced the pages of the Hearst newspapers, as well as Time, Life and Newsweek; Hoxsey's multiple arrests (usually for practicing medicine without a license), the tampering with scientific studies (thanks to subtle threats by various Fishbein minions), harassment by various branches of the US government — even the overturning of federal judgments in Hoxsey's favor when he sued Fishbein and the AMA and won.

In fact, two federal courts found that the Hoxsey tonics had therapeutic value. And in l953, Benedict Fitzgerald, a US Justice Department attorney working on behalf of a Senate committee, published his findings that the AMA, National Cancer Institute, and FDA had engaged in a conspiracy to suppress a fair investigation of Hoxsey's methods. The NCI ended up putting Hoxsey's treatment on its “unproven” therapies list, and the harmless tonic was outlawed entirely in the US in l960.

In the second half of the book, Ausubel explores the science behind the individual herbs that make up the Hoxsey formula, many of which have since been proven to have anti-cancer effects. He also shows that Hoxsey was not the only innovator whose cancer therapies have been repressed. Another was the highly respected scientist Andrew Ivy, vice president of the University of Illinois, who was also pilloried and destroyed after he refused to turn over the rights to his formula to a couple of businessmen. Ausubel traces the roots of the struggle between allopathic (“conventional”) and alternative medicine, the “heroic” and “empirical” medicines of the 1800s, and brings us up to date in terms of medical politics.

As both a cancer patient and investigative reporter, I love this book. My only gripe is that I wish the extensive footnoting was at the bottom of the page rather than the back of the book. I recommend it to anybody concerned about what to do if faced with the dread disease — and who isn't? Although this book won't tell you what to do, it will expose you to the ugly politics of oncology, something you absolutely need to understand when making decisions about the best cancer therapy for you or a loved one.

Ellie Winninghoff, an alternative cancer patient, has written for Forbes, Fortune, Barron's and the New York Times.

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