Abram Hoffer was a psychiatric contrarian
He dedicated his life to developing alternative medical therapies for psychiatric patients
From Saturday’s Globe and Mail, Sunday, Jun. 21, 2009 11:05PM EDT
Do no harm is the basic tenet of the physician’s credo and that is the way psychiatrist Abram Hoffer practised orthomolecular medicine, one patient at a time, for more than 50 years. His theories about the benefits of vitamins and nutrients were dismissed by the medical establishment and Big Pharma – as he invariably described the international drug companies. Nonetheless, thousands of patients, many of them desperately ill from cancer or dangerously debilitated by schizophrenia, lauded him for giving them a longer or better quality of life. And his belief in the power of nutrition remains a foundation of naturopathic medicine and the health food movement.
Dr. Hoffer died on May 27 in Victoria. He was 91.
He came to medicine from biochemistry and already had a PhD when he went to medical school in the late 1940s. That perspective as a researcher, as well as the independent streak nurtured while working on his parents’ farm in southern Saskatchewan in the Depression, helped mould him as a contrarian in the medical profession.
Early in his career he worked with Humphrey Osmond, the British psychiatrist who gave Aldous Huxley LSD and coined the word psychedelic. Both men realized that by ingesting hallucinogens, healthy people experienced schizophrenic-like delusions. Like Albert Hoffmann, the Swiss scientist who synthesized LSD in 1938, they foresaw the therapeutic use of hallucinogens in psychoanalysis and in treating schizophrenics. And they believed, as did Dr. Hoffmann, that LSD had been first hijacked by Timothy Leary and the 1960s counter-culture and then medically demonized by its authoritarian and establishment critics.
That is not to suggest that Dr. Hoffer was a pill pusher. The opposite is true. He believed that eventually drugs will become “minor aspects of modern medicine rather than the major treatment and preoccupation of the medical establishment” as he wrote in his memoirs, Adventures in Psychiatry . Instead, he argued that the route to good health lay in assessing and then providing the “optimum amount of the basic nutrients” needed by each person.
“The origins of disease, in my opinion, are not genetic; no genes are bad genes. Any genes that are truly bad would destroy the individual before birth,” he wrote in Adventures in Psychiatry . “If multiple sclerosis strikes at age 25, why were the genes supposedly at fault doing so well until then,” he asked rhetorically. The problem is not our genes, but the way we abuse them through “the intake of incorrect or inadequate nutrients (and what is correct and adequate is unique to each person) or by radiation or chemical injury.”
His favourite example of how nutrients can be of huge epidemiological benefit to society was the U. S. government’s decision in 1942 to mandate that flour had to be enriched with vitamins during the milling process. Consequently, the incidence of pellagra, a vitamin deficiency disease caused by a lack of niacin (vitamin B3) plummeted. Pellagra, usually diagnosed by the presence of the four Ds – diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia and death, if untreated, within four or five years – was endemic in the poorer parts of the southern U.S. a century ago.
“This legislation was probably one of the greatest single public health measures ever introduced,” according to Dr. Hoffer. “It has prevented millions of people worldwide from getting and dying from pellagra.”
Until the end of his long life, Dr. Hoffer remained optimistic that, like Galileo, he would be proved correct.
When Israel Hoffer and his older brother Meyer fled Hungary with their wives in 1904, they headed for southern Saskatchewan, lured by the promise of bountiful land and the possibility of saying farewell to religious persecution. They dug into the fertile prairie, built themselves sod houses and began tilling the soil and raising a new generation. By the time Abram, the fourth of Israel and his wife Rose, was born on Nov. 11, 1917, the family had built a wooden house.
Abram went to one-room schools and worked in the fields, along with his siblings and the hired hands, “cutting and raking and stoking,” as he said in a 2006 interview with journalist Rob Wipond. Working 10 hours a day, often seeing nobody but other members of the threshing crew, made him so self-reliant that “I got to the point that I would sooner look upon things myself rather than take people’s opinion of them.”
His father wanted Abram to work the farm after he graduated from high school but his mother’s fervent wish that he get a university education prevailed. In 1934, he entered the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, concentrating on agricultural chemistry, and graduated four years later with a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture (BSA) with great distinction.
By 1940, armed with a master’s degree in agricultural biochemistry, he began, with the help of a scholarship, to work toward his doctorate at the University of Minnesota. His money ran out after a year, so he accepted a job setting up a laboratory to measure thiamine (vitamin B-1) levels in grain products at Purity Flour Mills in Winnipeg. By streamlining the measuring process, he was able to do the research on his PhD thesis (on the distribution of thiamine in wheat kernels) while holding down a full-time job.
Realizing that his real appetite was for original research, he quit the flour mill in 1945 and moved with his wife Rose and young son Bill to Saskatoon to begin medical school at the University of Saskatchewan. Accustomed to a scientific education that was heavy on reasoning, he was unimpressed by the emphasis on memorization in his medical training.
Nevertheless, he earned his degree in the spring of 1949 and began interning at City Hospital in Saskatoon. After a year seeing a variety of acute and chronically ill patients, some of whom suffered from psychosomatic afflictions, he determined to combine his knowledge of chemistry and medicine and pursue a career in psychiatric research.
Psychiatry was a wide open field. Mental institutions were more akin to prisons than hospitals, lobotomies were standard modes of treatment and tranquillizing drugs were not yet generally available. Dr. Hoffer and his wife spent January and February, 1951, touring research centres in Canada and the U.S., absorbing new techniques including the experimental use of hallucinogens, such as mescaline, in treating schizophrenia.
That July, he moved his family, which by now had expanded to include three children, to Regina where he was a resident in the psychiatric wing of Regina’s General Hospital, a consultant in biochemistry to the hospital’s pathology department and director of psychiatric research for the Department of Public Health. Although he was crazily busy, he also made $15,000 in combined salaries from his three jobs, which was a huge amount and considerably more than the premier of the province earned annually.
Humphrey Osmond, the British trained psychiatrist, who had experimented in England with mescaline on healthy volunteers and discovered the effects were similar to schizophrenic delusions, arrived that fall as clinical director of the mental hospital in Weyburn. The hospital had about 5,000 patients, half of whom were schizophrenics.
Working together with English researcher John Smythies, the clinical trio theorized that there is an abnormal production of adrenochrome, a derivative of adrenalin, in schizophrenics and it is this excess which triggers the disease, rather like self-intoxication by the body’s unwitting production of hallucinogenic compounds.
According to their research, patients who were given niacin had double the recovery rate over a two year period. They also tried hallucinogens on diehard alcoholics with encouraging results on the assumption that LSD could cause symptoms similar to delirium tremens and thereby scare or shock alcoholics into sobriety.
Although the medical community, which was largely committed to the “talking cure,” remained largely unconvinced of the beneficial effects of a vitamin regimen or hallucinogenic drugs, the researchers did persuade Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling to embrace their cause. Dr. Pauling came up with the term, orthomolecular psychiatry, to describe this diagnostic approach and megavitamin treatment plan.
Frustrated by what he saw as the collusion between the pharmaceutical industry and the medical establishment to push tranquillizers on patients, Dr. Hoffer resigned his official positions at the University of Saskatchewan and the Department of Public Health and went into private practice in the middle 1960s. He became active in the Canadian Schizophrenic Foundation and founded the Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine.
After nearly a decade in private practice, the Hoffers moved to the West Coast in 1976, settling in Victoria, which appealed to them because of its temperate climate and its lack of a medical school. Dr. Hoffer was 59. “I was by now all too familiar with the town and gown antagonisms in cities inhabited by professors from the medical schools and I wanted to avoid them,” he wrote in Adventures in Psychiatry .
In 1996, he felt coerced into retirement when a joint decision by the B.C. government and the B.C. Medical Association revoked billing numbers for doctors when they turned 75. Dr. Hoffer, then 79, protested that he was nowhere near ready to retire. He wanted to keep on seeing patients and to be able to bill the health system for his medical services and so he applied for an exemption on Jan 2, 1997. Eventually his appeal went to the B.C. Supreme Court, which ruled, in July, 1999, against mandatory retirement for doctors who passed competency tests. He finally retired from his private psychiatric practice in 2004, although he continued to provide nutritional consultations through his Orthomolecular Vitamin Information Centre in Victoria.
Dr. Hoffer leaves his son John, his daughter Miriam and his extended family.