by Giuliano Dego
Station Hill Press, ISBN 0-88268-201-6, 767 pages, $24.95.
A REVIEW ARTICLE
© 1997 by Ralph W. Moss, Ph.D.
This has to be one of the most unusual books ever written on the subject of alternative cancer therapies. It is a sprawling biographical novel about the late Max Gerson, M.D., founder of the famous Gerson Therapy. Alternative treatments come and go--a skeptical colleague once told me that their very transience is proof of their worthlessness--but the Gerson method goes on and on. In fact, now there are several centers of Gersonism in the United States. And so the life of its founder certainly carries a great deal of interest.
To date, there have been a number of excellent books available on the Gerson treatment, starting with the doctor's own classic, A Cancer Therapy--Results of 50 Cases, written shortly before his death in 1959. However, none of these succeed in conveying much feeling for the man himself. This intimate Max Gerson is now available in novel form. If you are interested in the man behind the method, you should read Dr. Max.
The basic facts presented in Doctor Max are well known. Dr. Gerson was a German refugee physician who came to New York, and preached a gospel of pure organic food and farming. He seemed able to treat and in some cases cure even advanced cancer with a dietary approach that included controversial coffee enemas.. When he allowed himself to be interviewed on a popular radio talk show, he was condemned by his holier-than-thou colleagues in the New York State Medical Society. His real crime was that he was independent of the main cancer agencies and was a good 50 years ahead of them in recognizing the important role of diet in cancer. According to Mr. Dego, Gerson's philosophy has swept the world, albeit without his name attached to it. There is some justification for this claim.
As one example which Mr. Dego cites, the British weekly Guardian wrote on July 25, 1996, "The idea of food as therapy is something new. Drug companies reckon this is the future, that you may go to the chemist to get your prescription and then to the greengrocer." This is a bitter joke to Mr. Dego, since Gerson labored for decades to bring the link between diet and cancer to public attention. You would certainly never learn from such articles that "Dr. Max" was persecuted for preaching exactly this doctrine over fifty years ago. And although "five fruits and vegetables a day" has become NCI dogma, Gerson remains a favorite whipping boy of the National Cancer Institute, the American Medical Association and their friends. He is especially ridiculed for the coffee enema, which is little understood by those who guffaw the most loudly on the topic.
To the cancer establishment, then, Gerson was the very picture of a quack: foreign, outlandish, hopelessly out-of-date. In the Fifties, remember, the establishment pontificated that there was no connection whatsoever between diet and cancer. Today, of course, things are a bit more complicated. As Mr. Dego points out, since around 1978 the establishment itself has increasingly gravitated towards a Gerson-style solution to cancer, at least for its prevention. But don't expect the good Dr. Gerson to be inducted into the N.C.I. pantheon any time soon. All of his many detractors will have to die out first and that could take some time.
The oddest thing about the Gerson story is the disparity between what the establishment says about him, and what those who actually knew him recollect. Was he the monster preying on the bodies of the dead and dying? Or was he a saintly individual whose main concern was to heal the sick and the dying with his natural, non-toxic methods? Who should you believe? A quackbuster writing in the pages of the Journal of the American Medical Association? Or Nobel laureate Albert Schweitzer, M.D. (his most famous patient), who wrote, "I see in Dr. Max Gerson one of the most eminent geniuses in the history of medicine." Albert Schweitzer, a shill for quacks? Not likely.
Giuliano Dego is a professor and writer who divides his time between Italy, England and the United States. He has written 14 books in Italian, which have been praised by such leading lights as Italo Calvino and Federico Fellini. I don't know what his other books have been like, but I found the style of this book extremely odd. For one thing, Mr. Dego has set himself a difficult, some would say impossible, task. He has to depict complicated medical and biographical facts in a format that will at least sell enough copies to justify its publication.
The book is epic length. However, the author doesn't seem to have had a great store of anecdotes to choose from. The central part of the novel is filled with a very long excursus on the Nazi Holocaust. However, although Gerson was Jewish, he escaped Nazi-occupied Europe soon after Hitler's rise to power. (The question of his Jewishness was either unimportant to the doctor or is seriously downplayed in this book.) Thus, while it is mildly interesting to find out what happened to his relatives, patients, and colleagues under Nazism, this part of the novel does not propel the action forward. I couldn't wait to get back to Gerson's own story.
The book ends with the author's own bizarre experiences searching for traces of Gerson. For instance, Dego recounts that on November 18, 1994 he was on Martha's Vineyard, turned on his radio and received a "message" from the long-departed Dr. Gerson himself. "First there were greetings to his few surviving relatives and friends. Then a caution to all doctors and patients using his therapy to adhere to it strictly and not be confused by ill-informed advice." And then the oracular statement, "Medicine changes. The way of healing does not."
Was Mr. Dego dreaming? Is he speaking metaphorically? Not at all. He seems to mean this quite literally: the dead Dr. Gerson reached him via an ordinary radio transmission. What is more, Dr. Gerson told him, "When I died, they found arsenic in my [bo]dy. No one was ever accused. But tonight...." At this point, Dego inexplicably turned off the radio before the sentence was finished.
"In my twenty years of research I had never heard or read anything so preposterous. Arsenic? What was the documentation? If anything, Dr. Max's death certificate stated that he had died of pneumonia...." He cursed himself for his rash behavior in shutting off the radio. When he put it back on there was nothing but an "ear splitting crash...." It's interesting that he regards the message as preposterous, and not the fact that a dead man is talking to him via the airwaves.
He immediately called Charlotte (Lotte) Gerson, Dr. Max's daughter and founder of the Gerson Institute. (We learn very late in the book that Mr. Dego is Ms. Gerson's son-in-law.)
"There was an intense moment of silence when she heard that her father had come through, and then she confirmed, 'My father, aged 78, was in perfectly good health when, from one day to the next, he felt awful. They tested his blood and found a high level of arsenic.'
"Did you inform the police?" Dego asked her.
"No, we had our suspicions, but knew from experience that justice would not be done."
So now "murder crowned Dr. Gerson's life-work, making of him a martyr, and I could guess what would happen when the facts became known." But what will happen? Nothing, I suspect. The greater world continues to ignore Dr. Gerson's life and work and probably will not be particularly moved by rumors of his murder. Those who already believe, however, will be further outraged by the suggestion.
As to the radio transmission from the other side, I don't know what to make of it. It will certainly make an interesting media "talking point" for a book that might otherwise be overlooked. Dr. Gerson's back on the radio again. (Wasn't that what got him into trouble in the first place?) This also raises some fundamental metaphysical questions, which Mr. Dego doesn't deal with. Do the dead really have access to the radio waves? Do they deliver oracular messages about their own work? And how odd that the message Dr. Gerson chose to transmit on that stormy day was almost word-for-word the same as the Gerson Institute's diatribes against their rivals, especially the "heretical" Gerson Research Organization. It is a plot worthy of Hamlet: the dead king walks.
If this is true, and I have no reason to doubt it, then the afterlife must be a very busy and unsettled place indeed. Even in death, it turns out, you still have to watch your back, and look out for how your legacy is being misinterpreted. Of course, if it is not true, and this incident was added to the book for polemical or commercial reasons, then it certainly undercuts the whole value of the book. And I am afraid that many readers will conclude that the whole account of Gerson's life is untrustworthy because of this one incident. That would be a pity.
The best parts of the book for me were the detailed descriptions of Max Gerson's early career and family life. Mr. Dego is to be commended for his excellent grasp of historical detail. He has gone over the territory, traveled the world in search of his hero¹s traces, and those parts of the book clearly benefit from the research. I do feel I got to know Dr. Gerson much better, and to admire him. Clearly, as Albert Schweitzer wrote, in the normal course of events this brilliant and caring doctor would have become an important professor at a European university. War and religious and 'racial' bigotry uprooted him, and this added to his difficulty in gaining acceptance in the United States. On the other hand, it also led to a more interesting life.
Unfortunately, Mr. Dego believes it is necessary to work up his hero's story into a rip-roaring yarn. The book is heavily padded, too, with whole sections extraneous to the forward movement of the plot.
Subheads entice us, then take us nowhere. As one small instance, Dego calls a section, "The man who dreamed of armadillos." What a great title! It turns out that the armadillo dreamer in question is the night watchman at the 'Saint Savior' cemetery. "That winter night the watchman had been leafing through a chapter on the feeding habits of armadillos." Stop right there and you're ahead of the game. But unable to leave well enough alone, Mr. Dego adds, "To his amazement, he learned that these small creatures have the ability to hold their breath for up to six minutes, while digging frantically for ants." And so on and so on. More about armadillos than we ever wanted to know.
Now, if the great Italo Calvino had written this, you would know you were in the hands of a master and that armadillos served some important symbolic purpose in the text. But at this point, Mr. Dego just drops the armadillo thing entirely. It is simply an interesting tidbit of information he had culled from his voluminous reading and just couldn't let go of. We never hear from the armadillos again. It is a pattern repeated hundreds of times in the book, which I found very annoying.
Overall, though, I think anyone interested in the question of alternative cancer therapies would be well advised to read this book. It certainly adds to our picture of a fascinating man who was the unsung hero of the currently fashionable dietary approach to cancer.
--Ralph W. Moss, Ph.D. 4/10/97