Most people

misperceive the

Office of 


Medicine to be a


creation of the

NIH rather than

a creature of







The Alternative Medicine Movement
An essay from the frontlines of the war on quackery
 By Dr. Wallace Sampson 
The Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM) is hard to justify. It is a focus for the anti-science, anti-medical, anti-rational movement sweeping North America and Europe; its existence is a symbol of this movement’s strength. Unless the medical and scientific communities raise the issues surrounding the OAM and the research supporting alternative therapies to ones of major importance, there will be no pressure to change-unless it is to increase OAM’s funding, and there is certainly pressure for that.

     The OAM was the outgrowth of recommendations of the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) report on “Unconventional Cancer Methods” produced in the late 1980s. This OTA project was the first salient of anti-science into organized medicine since chiropractic medicine was licensed.

The OTA cancer treatment report

     In 1988, the Office of Technology Assessment began a several year investigation of unproven, dubious, and ineffective cancer treatment methods. This investigation was embarked upon after Congressman Guy Molinari, a Democrat from New York, demanded to find the “roadblocks” to the acceptance and practice of Immuno-augmentive Therapy (IAT) as promoted and practiced by a certain Lawrence Burton, PhD. Burton had fled New York authorities after treating cancer patients with plasma from cured cancer patients. He then set up an offshore clinic in the Bahamas. Michael Terussio, an executive on Congressman Molinari’s staff, was at the same time Burton’s agent. Burton’s clinic attracted many cancer patients seeking cures, including ex-governor Lester Maddox of Georgia.

     Molinari insisted that the one-million dollar Office of Technology Assessment project investigate why “unconventional” methods, specifically IAT, were not available in the United States. Any sensible physician could have told the Congressman: Immuno-augmentive Therapy plasma extract was not only ineffective, it was contaminated with HIV, hepatitis B (HBV), Listeria, and other organisms. But physicians and scientists were not to be trusted, being agents of a perceived conspiracy to keep a cure from the public. Burton’s clinic was shut down for awhile by Bahamian authorities, then later reopened, despite the method’s dangers and lack of effectiveness.

     Members of the Office of Technology Assessment Advisory Panel were for the most part supporters of the methods under investigation. They included Gar Hildenbrand of the Gerson clinic in Tijuana, which promoted coffee enemas; John Fink of the International Association of Cancer Victors (formerly Victims) and Friends, a Laetrile front organization; C. Norman Shealey of the American Holistic Medical Association; and special consultant Michael Lerner, a political scientist who runs a support retreat for cancer patients called Commonweal and who takes a “non-judgmental” stand on medical frauds. Only eight of the nineteen panel members were medical scientists or held neutral stands on “alternative” therapies.

     The Office of Technology Assessment staff referred assignments to contract investigators. These investigators fell into three categories: 1) supporters of pseudo-treatments, 2) science deconstructionists, and 3) scientists/skeptics. The representatives and supporters of pseudo-treatments included such people as Keith Block, MD, who treats cancer with diet, and attorney Michael Evers, who earned millions of dollars through anti-medical ads for a mail-order contribution scheme to his own foundation. Sociologists and deconstructionists of science and medicine adhere to the post-modern cultural relativism view which rejects rationality. Their validity instead concentrates on “meaning” and the function of medical care systems within societies. They consider science to be a “social construct” with no universal principles. The third group, scientists/skeptics, consisted of only one person-Jack Yetiv, MD.

     The Office of Technology Assessment staff struggled between two opposing pressures: their natural ethical imperative to be honest and scientific, and that of Congress, economic groups, and fringe medical-wannabes who pushed for a favorable report to legitimize unaccepted practices. The OTA staff, under Roger Herdman and Hellen Gelband, rewrote reports and came up with a more realistic appraisal of “unconventional” methods. But as a sop to the Congress that generated their appropriations, the staff recommended a “best case” analysis of individual reports of success (we call them anecdotes and testimonials) from the methods.

Formation of the OAM

     In the next action, former Congressman Berkley Bedell (D, Iowa) and Sen. Harken (D, Iowa) teamed-up to create the Office of Alternative Medicine in the National Institutes of Health. The funds for the OAM were not officially appropriated, but instead came from Harken’s millions of dollars for home-district projects. Bedell believed his prostate cancer had been cured by 714X and colostrum; Harken believed his hay fever had been cured by bee pollen. The compound 714X is a fraudulent mix of camphor, ammonium salts and blue dye created by Gaston Naessens, who had fled to Quebec after being convicted in French courts of fraud and unlicensed medical practice. Bee pollen developer, Royden Brown, was fined $200,000 by the Federal Trade Commission for misrepresentation. And the main agent arranging travel to the Immuno-augmentive Therapy clinic in the Bahamas, the head of The IAT Patients Association (now Patients against Cancer), is a resident of Otho, Iowa.

     The National Institutes of Health, seeing the same “will of Congress” to which it also is beholden for funding, acquiesced and forced the OAM into its structure. The first OAM Advisory Committee was stacked with many of the same representatives and supporters of quackery who were active in the Office of Technology Assessment project. These included Gar Hildenbrand of the Gerson Clinic and Ralph Moss, the press agent for Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute who was fired for misrepresenting Sloan-Kettering’s Laetrile data in the 1970s and 80s. The first OAM director, Joe Jacobs, MD, resigned under pressure because he opposed Moss and Hildenbrand.

     The first wave of OAM research awards carried no obligation for interim progress or final reports. They were essentially giveaway awards to “alternative medicine” advocates. The latest OAM awards to eight “Centers of Excellence” under the current director were also for insignificant programs. The OAM has acted as an employment agency for pseudoscience. The National Council Against Health Fraud (NCAHF), which has the largest collection of data on alternative treatments and methods, has never been consulted on any matter. Four NCAHF leaders applied for the Board, but were not accepted, and NCAHF is not included in OAM references for the public.

     The OAM’s recent record has not been exemplary. Former interim director Alan Trachtenberg, MD was an “alternative medicine” supporter and believes acupuncture works for drug and alcohol withdrawal. He organized an all-advocate National Institute of Drug Abuse “Consensus Conference” on acupuncture in 1997, which recommended acupuncture for certain conditions-not including drug programs. The current OAM director, Wayne Jonas, MD, is a practicing homeopath and co-author of a 1997 book extolling homeopathy. (Homeopathy is a defunct, absurd medical philosophy proposing illnesses be treated with infinitely dilute “solutions” of materials that mimic the disorder. The more dilute the solution, the more “potent” it supposedly is.) The OAM is still dominated by post-modern deconstructionists of science, social movement advocates, and quackery supporters.

     Most people misperceive the OAM to be a legitimate creation of the NIH rather than a creature of misinformed congressmen.

     Efforts to straighten out the direction of the OAM are likely to be wasted. Valid treatment methods have always emerged through the slow grinding of scientific wheels. Some argue that today’s quack method is tomorrow’s standard. But name an example: Vegetarianism for health and vitamin E for heart disease prevention were both proposed for erroneous reasons. Vegetarianism was first proposed for auto-intoxication and vitamin E for sexual potency. Quack methods persist for decades to centuries. Their popularity waxes and wanes, independent of the evidence for their efficacy. Once in awhile a guess is correct.

Private funds back alternative medicine

     The forces backing “alternative medicine” are not all governmental; pressure also comes from private foundations, fossils of dead millionaires’ ideologies, that give financial support for major programs. The Fetzer Foundation of Michigan, which has a $300 million endowment, financed Bill Moyers’ public television series Cancer and the Mind, the Eisenberg study of “alternative medicine” and his education courses at Harvard, and David Spiegel’s “alternative medicine” studies at Stanford. The Bernard Osher Foundation gave 10 million dollars to the University of California’s “alternative medicine” program. The British Laing Foundation sponsors the University of Maryland’s acupuncture and alternative medicine program with a one million dollar grant, the “alternative medicine” program at Exeter University, UK, and other programs. The MacArthur Foundation award to Michael Lerner enabled his Bolinas, California, Commonweal program to prosper.

Can the tide be turned?

     Two generations of like-minded students now populate the foundation hierarchies, the press, the legal establishment, and legislatures. These students were trained by the academic community’s uncritical constructivism and blindness to misrepresentation. Legions of reporters and editors reflect “alternative medicine” back to the public through “balanced” reporting, where “balanced” is defined as giving both sides equal time. They ignore false representation and represent “both sides” of the issue as if both have equal validity.

     Beyond being unnecessary, the OAM bestows influence to supporters and an illusion of credibility to therapies that would take billions of dollars to buy, and it spreads a gloss of legitimacy over the quackery’s morass of ignorance and misinterpretation. Congressional committees parade deluded witnesses and testimonial bearers before televised, well-lit hearing rooms. Repeated attempts by the rational opposition to obtain reasonable advanced notice of these hearings are ignored. Requests to testify from opposing physicians, scientists, and organizations are rejected. Committee staffers say they receive few complaints from the public, physicians, the American Medical Association, or state medical organizations.

     In my view, the corporate takeovers of medicine are dwarfed by the hostile takeovers by unlicensed practitioners, borderline and dishonest professionals, lesser trained licensees, and an anti-medical, anti-scientific machine not seen for seventy years.

     The flood of misinformation will not be easy to counter. For instance, it takes sophisticated analysis to uncover the interpretive and experimental errors in acupuncture and homeopathy research which produce falsely positive reports. The public does not understand such analysis. There are thousands of papers and a score of meta-analyses, some better and some worse. None of this makes easy reading or appealing TV. One can only hope rationality, repeated loudly and often, will survive and eventually bring medicine back into a rational world.

About the author

    Dr. Wallace Sampson is a CSICOP Fellow, a member of the Bay Area Skeptics in San Francisco, and a frequent speaker on medical research, “alternative” treatments and medical scams. Sampson obtained his medical degree from UC San Francisco in 1955 and interned at Minneapolis General Hospital. Following medical school, he spent two years as a general medical officer in the US Army. He took residency training in pathology and internal medicine at UCLA and Harbor General Hospital, then a hematology fellowship at San Francisco General Hospital and the Children’s Hospital, San Francisco. He conducted research on the mechanisms of bone marrow toxicity and in nuclear medicine, especially iron metabolism.

     Sampson spent thirty years in private practice, specializing in hematology and oncology in Sunnyvale and Mountain View, California, and taught at Stanford and the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, San Jose. He left practice in 1991 to become Interim Chief of Medical Oncology at Valley Medical Center until his retirement in November, 1997. He is Clinical Professor of Medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine where he developed the first course on analyzing aberrant medical claims of holistic, and later “alternative,” medicine. The course is entering its twentieth year.

     In 1977, Sampson was a co-founder of the National Council Against Health Fraud (NCAHF), also known as the National Council for Rational Health Information, and served as Chair of the Board of Directors from 1990 to 1998. He is also Chair pro tem of the State of California’s Cancer Advisory Council, serving on that body since 1983. He is a frequent expert witness for the Medical Board of California and the California State Attorney General.

     Sampson recently founded and is now editor of the new research journal, The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine published by Prometheus Books. He developed the idea after finding that accurate information about anomalous medical claims was difficult to find in the vast array of medical journals; he felt accurate information should be available in one place.

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© 2001 Oregonians for Rationality