When Healing Becomes a Crime: The Amazing Story of the Hoxsey Cancer Clinics and the Return of Alternative Therapies. Kenny Ausubel. 2000. 461 pp., illustrated softcover. ISBN 0-89281-925-1. $19.95.
Legend has it that Harry Hoxseys great-grandfather saw a cancerous, dying horse recover by eating a combination of common weeds from the field into which it had been released to die. The knowledge of those herbs, passed down from father to son, came at last to Harry Hoxsey who was initially reluctant to treat cancer in animals or people. From there the story takes on all the trappings of a David and Goliath battle that involved Senators, Congressmen, the FBI, FDA, AMA, the National Cancer Institute, lawyers, the press, tapped phones, secret surveillance, and all the power of the government brought to bear on one man who had the temerity to suggest that cancer could be cured by common roadside weeds. It is, in short, a great and compelling story.
Ausubel documents the amazing story of Hoxseys rise to prominence: his early beginnings in 1924 when he first began treating patients, to his powerful chain of cancer clinics that operated in numerous states by 1955, and the eventual destruction of his businesses in this country by the AMA and FDA. The most amazing part of the book (and its most significant contribution to the history of herbalism in the United States) is the phenomenal amount of research Ausubel conducted to bring Hoxseys story to light. He interviewed many of the last survivors who knew Hoxsey or had benefited from his work both those who believed in him and many of those who worked to bring him down. Much of this material made it into his award-winning film of the same title. Now Ausubel has provided the definitive in-depth report on Hoxsey in the best tradition of investigative reporting.
The book is organized into three sections: the first on Hoxseys story and his family history, the second on Hoxseys herbal treatment itself and the nature of conventional cancer remedies, and the third recounting the suppression (and the growing return) of alternative cancer therapies in the U.S. The book reveals the growing body of evidence that supports the potential anticancer activities of many of the Hoxsey herbs and does a great job of exploring many of the powerful alternative cancer treatments that have been suppressed since Hoxseys time. In true investigative reporting style, Ausubel traces the money behind many of the groups and people who have been influential in suppressing alternative cancer methodologies.
In spite of its brilliance, the book is not without flaws. Most troubling is that only the alternative cancer proponents are presented in human dimension. Their opponents possess the basest of human motives and nowhere in the book is the reader invited to see them as human beings to understand the human motivations behind their assault on herbal medicines and alternative cancer treatments. The result, for many readers, is helpless rage.
Having lobbied for many years to protect the right of access to alternative medicine, I understand from experience that it is all too easy to see opponents as evil and ill-meaning, intent only on the accumulation of money and power, especially when they engage in abuse of power to achieve their ends and especially when innocent people suffer from that abuse of power. For some, this attribution of evil can justify any means to stop such abuses.
Growing up in a family of powerful medical physicians, which included a U.S. Surgeon General (who, to my shame, could have prevented Hoxseys destruction if he had decided to), places me in a difficult position. Having worked the majority of my life to undo what they spent their lives doing, still I cannot fail to remember them as human beings, seeing both their strengths and weaknesses. If in the end we do not want to become what we have fought against, it is essential to see the human faces of our opponents and to understand that the means are the end.
Despite this, Ausubels book is essential for anyone interested in the history of medicine or the history of herbalism. Hoxseys story stands as compelling testimony to Milton Friedmans warning that if any group achieves complete control over healing, the result is poorer care for patients, loss of innovation, and higher costs to society. In addition (with indigenous herbalism and zoopharmacology in mind), there is something mythic in a tale wherein a horse discovers a cure for cancer and passes it on to a person intelligent enough to examine the natural world with fresh eyes and to act on what is received without prejudgment (never mind that some of the herbs in Hoxseys formula do not grow wild in Kentucky where Hoxseys great-grandfathers horse grazed). Following in Descartes footsteps, most of us have been trained to discount such old wives tales for complex theories that originate in the human sphere. But at the risk of a bad pun, there is much to be said for the notion that the ecological devastation we now face (both medical and environmental) comes to a great extent from putting Descartes before the horse. Stephen Buhner