Dr Victor Herbert was a Quackbuster. According to his web site (click on his picture), at the time of his death, he was “a Professor of Medicine and Chair, Committee to Strengthen Nutrition at Mount Sinai Medical Center and Chief, Mount Sinai Nutrition Center and Hematology and Nutrition Research Laboratory at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Bronx, N.Y.” He has authored several books and some 850 scientific papers. He was an outspoken critic of food frauds, dietary cures, nutrition nonsense, and other questionable medical practices.
Additionally, according to his site and family and own words, “Victor was a retired Green Beret with the rank of Lt. Colonel and distinction of service in four wars. He was buried, in accordance with his wishes, at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.”
Herbert’s true claim to fame is his groundbreaking research into folic acid deficiencies. His work described the effects of induced folate deficiency on the central nervous system: irritability, forgetfulness, and progressive sleeplessness. He used a human subject for this experiment. He also reported that the symptoms disappeared within 48 hours of “oral folate intake.”
After he published his findings, many within his circle wondered who would volunteer for this sort of study and what would it take to induce someone to undergo something that could be this dangerous. Herbert avoided answering these questions until he found himself cornered one day and finally had to admit that he, himself, was the guinea pig. Some of his critics still feel that his experiments left him with permanent brain damage.
According to his critics, Dr Herbert was not much of a scientist, not much of an expert in anything, and not much of a human being. He was also never a Green Beret with the rank of Lt Colonel nor did he serve in four wars.
What was Dr Victor Herbert? He was a highly paid expert witness who used pseudo science (lies and oversimplification) to trash anyone or anything outside the bastions of conventional medicine. According to Dr James P Carter’s fantastic book, Racketeering in Medicine, “His expert witness testimony is either inaccurate, twisted or so overly simplistic as to not represent valid medical fact.”
Dr Linus Pauling, two time Nobel Prize Laureate, said of him, “I have known [Dr Victor Herbert] for about 21 years now. I don’t think he is a scientist. It seems to me that he has little understanding of science and little ability in that field. . . . If you can believe what he says, there is no doubt that his beliefs are not based upon facts; that there is some sort of bias; some sort of other activating influence. He is not a scientist in the sense of a person who is able to carry out reliable experiments.” [From court transcripts in the trial of Dr Warren Levin.]
The “activating influence” was money. Dr Herbert was a paid gun for the pharmaceutical and medical interests. As Dr Carter puts it in Racketeering in Medicine, “medicine today is a turf war.” Dr Herbert, also an attorney, used the courts system to destroy many physicians who practiced outside the realm of conventional medicine. The state can continue to prosecute for it has deep, deep pockets. Most physicians go broke in the process.
One of Herbert’s first campaigns was against the use of vitamin C therapy. He claimed that large doses of vitamin C led to kidney stones and interfered with vitamin B-12 absorption. His lack of knowledge combined with the clamor he created in the papers he published nudged Professor Linus Pauling to take the next logical step:
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.” [Interview with Linus Pauling conducted by Peter Chowka]
Herbert ignored Pauling’s research, refused to read it, and continued to use the courts to pursue his agenda. In the Dr Levin trial, Herbert states: Mega doses of vitamin C can cause deposits of oxalates in the heart, which among other things can produce first-degree heart block,” a condition he refers to as “metastatic oxalosis.”
Dr Levin and his attorney could not find a single reference to metastatic oxalosis in any database. When challenged Herbert claimed, under oath, that he had “dozens of articles” on it. His proof came forward the next day when he presented the court with a book in which the term was found. Herbert was the author of that book. He also pulled out a dictionary and found both terms (though not together) claiming that all you had to do was put them together. This was his “proof” that the term, hence the condition, existed.
The truth is, Herbert’s claims concerning megadoses of vitamin C are unencumbered by both science and reality.
Much of Herbert’s claims can be described that same way.
He calls acupuncture, quackupuncture, claiming that the only reason it is even used in medicine was that its endorsement was made entirely by “acupuncture profiteers.” He also claimed that acupuncture worked because of the mindset of the Orientals; that they responded well to this ridiculous therapy. When presented a study in which animals were treated successfully with acupuncture, Herbert fell back on a quotation by the equally infamous Dr Stephen Barrett: “There may be a placebo effect in animals.”
Herbert claimed that vitamin E led to autoimmune disorders.
Herbert claimed that “a majority of the gurus of questionable nutrition practices are in fact sociopath/psychopaths, as delineated in the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM III (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual III).”
In 1997 John Renner, William Jarvis, Stephen Barrett and Victor Herbert compiled a “quack” list not unlike one of the McCarthy era blacklists. On this list were 2,500 physicians and scientists, including Linus Pauling.
When the federal government opened the Office of Alternative Medicine, Herbert called it a 2 million dollar rip-off: “They are screening garbage looking for diamonds. There are no diamonds in garbage.”
Frank Wiewel, the head of People Against Cancer, was the first to head the Office of Alternative Medicine. Knowing that Dr Herbert was both a physician and attorney, he once told Herbert he should sue himself for malpractice. On another occasion, Herbert became enraged, jumped off a stage, and began throttling Frank Wiewel. Wiewel took Dr Herbert to court and won. Herbert, being an attorney, filed an appeal, which was promptly thrown out, leaving the judge to reprimand Herbert, telling him he never wanted to see him again in his court.
Herbert, when cornered, has admitted to being less than honest. He lied on his application to medical school and though he boasts about his service at the Veterans’ hospital in Brooklyn, he did, admit under oath, that he had been asked to resign that post.
However, the lie I focus on now is heinous:
I love being a veteran’s doctor. My mother was an army lawyer and my father was leader of the First Army Band. I served on active duty for five years in three wars and retired as a Green Beret lieutenant colonel.
Beyond the simple fact that the hospital in which he worked was rated as one of the worst hospitals in the VA system (described as filthy with rats sometimes visible in the wards), is his claim of serving in four wars and his claim of being not only a Green Beret (Special Forces) but a lieutenant colonel.
As I write these words, it is Veteran’s Day (11/11/04). Today we celebrate those who fought for our country. We remember too those who have died in battle, however, their day is Memorial Day, even though to some of us, every day is a memorial day for the buddies we left behind.
If you ever want to check out someone’s military records, write to:
National Personnel Records Center
Army Records Center
9700 Page Boulevard
St. Louis, MO 63132
You will need the full name, a birth date, or the last four numbers of a social security number in order to identify the person.
It took us 5 months to get a return from the center. It was a single piece of paper, mostly white space. We did scan it and thought of putting it on the web, but it was very large and not much on it. I can tell you what was on it.
Victor Herbert was a private first class in the Army. He attended basic training and then was sent to an Air Assault unit. Air Assault is paratroopers. However, we are not sure if Herbert made any jumps, as his decorations listed are simply two service medals. He did not receive his jump wings. He did not go overseas.
He reenlisted after medical school in June of 1952 and served nearly two years as a medical officer (rank of captain).
Yes, Dr Herbert is a veteran. He served during one war, but never saw action. Even the New York Times story written about him after his death got it wrong. They did not check out his story. His family continues to promulgate the myth of his service to his country.
When our men are fighting and dying in Iraq and so many have fought and died around the world for this country, it is time to uncover the false heroes for what they are.
Victor Herbert was not much of a physician, not much of a scientist, and not a Green Beret who served in four wars. He was a bully with one purpose: To restrain trade by harming competition to traditional allopathic medical practice. As the anonymous French physician once said: “Medicine has become a whore, and the pharmaceutical industry its pimp.”
Herbert represented this kind of medicine.
References and further reading:
Racketeering in Medicine: The Suppression of Alternatives
To see a real war hero in our history of medicine series, go here: Sharon Lane
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