Victor Herbert, MD, JD: 1927-2002
A Prominent Alt Med Critic Passes On
By Peter Chowka
(December 15, 2002)
Victor Herbert, MD, JD died at his home in New
York City on November 19. He was 75. According to his family, the
cause of death was melanocytoma, "a rare form of neurological
Herbert, MD, JD, New York, April 1980
Photo © By Peter Chowka
A medical doctor, attorney,
and author, Herbert was widely known in alternative medicine circles
as one of the most prominent and vociferous critics of the field of
alternative medicine, its practitioners, and its proponents. According
to the second paragraph of a letter from his family dated December 4
and posted at victorherbert.com,
"one of the country's most distinguished educators, advocates,
and leading 'Quackbusters,' Victor was always an outspoken critic of
food frauds, dietary cures, nutrition nonsense and other questionable
medical practices." The prominence accorded to that posthumous
description of his quackbusting activities in a career that, according
to Herbert and his family, had many other highlights suggests how important
these specific activities were to Herbert.
Victor Herbert was born in
1927 and was named for his father's cousin, the famous opera composer.
By the time he was thirteen, according to various published obituaries,
both of his parents had died and during his teenage years he lived in
a succession of foster homes. Herbert went on to be educated at Columbia
University, where he received a BS in chemistry
(1948), an MD (1952) and a JD
(1974). He was associated as a teacher and researcher with a number
of medical schools, including Einstein, Mount Sinai, Harvard, Columbia,
SUNY-Brooklyn (formerly SUNY-Downstate),
In professional circles,
Herbert is remembered for determining in 1961-62 while doing research
at Harvard that a lack of folic acid can result in anemia. He experimented
on himself - depriving his body of folic acid, becoming severely anemic
and physically impaired in the process - to confirm his hypothesis.
When he added folic acid back to his diet, he recovered.
According to victorherbert.com,
Herbert served in the military and will be buried at Arlington National
Cemetery on December 18.
The author of - by his own
count - over 800 scientific articles, Herbert wrote or co-wrote a number
of books, as well, including, with Stephen Barrett, MD,
Vitamins and 'Health' Foods: The Great American Hustle (Aperture,
1981) and The Vitamin Pushers: How the 'Health Food' Industry Is
Selling America a Bill of Goods (Prometheus Books, 1994). He often
appeared in the media, mainly to criticize "questionable medical
practices" and frequently was a witness at trials where alternative
medicine clinicians were the defendants.
Herbert devised a variety
of media savvy strategies to promote his point of view. For example,
he gained a lot of attention for criticizing questionable nutritional
diplomas. To the delight of the media and the medical Establishment,
he repeatedly described how in the early 1980s he obtained impressive
looking credentials as nutrition experts for his dog Sassafras
and his cat Charlie by return mail after paying small fees in each of
their names (Sassafras Herbert and Charlie Herbert) to the American
Association of Nutritional and Dietary Consultants and the International
Academy of Nutritional Consultants.
1980: A memorable
To say that Herbert was an
unstinting and harsh critic of alt med is an understatement. He may
have been the original "quackbuster" and he remained active
in quackbusting activities right up until his death. With his legal
training and take-no-prisoners attitude, he was a particularly combative
adversary. Stories about his encounters with and criticisms of alt med
proponents are legion.
On one memorable occasion,
April 24, 1980, Herbert appeared at a midtown New York City press conference
with Fred Stare, MD of Harvard's School of Public
Health, Richard S. Rivlin, MD of Memorial Sloan-Kettering
Cancer Center, and Elizabeth Whelan, DSc, executive
director of the American Council of Science and Health (ACSH).
The ACSH had called the press conference to criticize
vitamin B-15 (pangamic acid) as a hoax.
Herbert said, "Believing
is seeing - that's what we have with B-15. It
doesn't exist. There's no such substance. It is purely imaginary."
When the floor was opened
to questions from the 40 or so journalists in attendance, a kind of
barely controlled mayhem ensued. Fran Lee, the consumer reporter for
WABC-TV in New York who was sitting in the front
row, asked the panel, "Why did you choose B-15
to take on? Could you not have done saccharin or sugar or all of the
other things Dr. Stare has defended all these years?" Herbert replied,
"I find your question quite strange."
Rising to her feet and pointing
at Herbert, Lee said: "I'm a watchdog for the public." Herbert:
"No you're not. I'm a watchdog for the public. You make
a good living at your job." Lee: "Not half as much as Dr.
Stare makes." Herbert: "That's neither fair nor honest."
Lee: "I've just caught you with your pants down, that's all."
Lee, WABC-TV, confronts Victor Herbert (left)
Fred Stare (center), New York, April 24, 1980
Photo © By Peter Chowka
Rivlin added a moment of
levity to the proceedings when he interjected, "This is an instance
of watchdog eating watchdog."
Ernst Krebs, Sr., MD
and Ernst Krebs, Jr., who developed both vitamin B-15
and Laetrile (which the father and son team called vitamin B-17),
were referred to during the press conference as "snake oil salesmen"
by Herbert. He offered during the conference to show journalists a copy
of Krebs, Jr.'s "criminal record." When science writer Robert
Houston attempted to question Herbert about Russian studies of B-15
that reportedly showed that it had value, Herbert attacked the translation
of the studies, which were published by the McNaughton Foundation. "McNaughton
is a twice-convicted criminal," Herbert charged. Houston, however,
insisted that the McNaughton Foundation translation "compared favorably"
with the original Russian reports, at which point Herbert repeatedly
shouted, "You're lying, sir; there's no such translation.
"Who are you, sir, and
who are you fronting for?," Herbert kept demanding of Houston,
in what appeared to be an attempt to shift the focus from the question
to the questioner. The press conference finally ended with Herbert exchanging
shouts with several other questioners. It was a strange, almost surreal,
event. That same evening, however, it was sobering to hear the accusations
about B-15 duly reported by the national news
media (including the wire services and at least one TV network) without
either another point of view or the chaotic nature of the press conference
Linus Pauling on
In an interview with Linus
Pauling, PhD at his home in Big Sur, California
on February 18, 1989, five and a half years before his death, I recorded
the following comments by the two-time Nobel Prize winner and proponent
of vitamin C about his longtime critic.
Big Sur, California February 18, 1989
Photo © By Peter Chowka
"I perhaps owe something
in a sense to Victor Herbert. I probably never would have written the
several books that I've written about nutrition and health and disease
if it had not been for Victor Herbert. I was asked in 1969 - perhaps
it was a little earlier even than that - 1969, I think, to come to New
York City to give a speech at the opening ceremonies of a new medical
school, Mount Sinai Medical School. And I thought I ought to say something
medical. I had only ten minutes to speak. So I thought I'll talk about
vitamin C and the common cold. And I said, for three years now my wife
and I have been taking large doses of vitamin C. Dr. Irwin Stone was
the biochemist who suggested that we do it. And there's no doubt in
my mind - I've been looking at the literature, too - no doubt that vitamin
C can provide a lot of protection against the common cold.
"Victor Herbert wrote
to me a scathing letter attacking me, and said, 'Can you show me a single
prospective, controlled, double-blind trial where vitamin C is shown
to have more value than a placebo?' So I wrote to him and said, 'Well,
I've found four trials now and all of them show that it has more value
than a placebo.' I said, 'A good one is by Dr. [G.] Ritzel in Switzerland
- Basle.' He said, 'I'm too busy to check up on these reports.' So I
sent him a copy of Dr. Ritzel's paper. He said, 'I don't believe it.
He doesn't say what the sex distribution is or the age.' I said, 'Well,
I think he does. He says they were schoolboys - they must be male. But
I've written to Dr. Ritzel. He said of course they were all boys, it
says so in the paper. And they were 15 to 17 years old.'
"Victor Herbert had
encouraged me to look through the literature for these double-blind
trials. And here he refused to pay any attention. But I also found that
in the medical textbooks, the trials were misrepresented. When a trial
got a positive result, the textbooks said that it got a negative result.
So I thought this is a pretty serious matter. People suffer from colds.
Almost everybody - 90 percent of people - get colds several times a
year. If they suffered as much as I suffered, it was quite a lot of
suffering. Moreover, the story about vitamin C is a very interesting
story. I've learned a lot more about vitamin C than I knew when I began.
I'd met Dr. [Albert] Szent-Gyorgyi [the discoverer of vitamin C] in
1937 when he came to visit us in Pasadena. And I knew something about
other people - I'd met other people who'd worked on vitamin C.
"I got so steamed up
one day, here, in this room, that I sat down and began writing a book
about vitamin C and the common cold. I sat down the first of August
and finished it the thirty-first of August in 1970. I sent it off to
the publisher and it came out the 17th of November in the same year.
Most publishers that I've had experience with don't work so fast but
this book was available already before the end of 1970.
"And then I started
being attacked by the medical Establishment, the medical journals."
It could be added, as they
say, that the rest is history.