LETTER TO A MEMORIAL
© 1997 by Ralph W. Moss, Ph.D.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: November, 1997 marked the 20th Anniversary of my being
firing from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. By coincidence, in
the summer of 1997 I was asked by some doctors at MSKCC if I would consult
for them on the question of alternative cancer treatments. The request
was sincere and honest on their part, but I thought we had better clear
up certain matters before proceding. Here is the letter I sent to one
of these doctors.
It took four months for me to get invited to his house for a visit, since
health problems intervened. I am happy that we are now friends, but essentially
he told that there was nothing he could do to effect a reconciliation
with the institution. He suggested that perhaps a change of top administration
would allow for a new openness about the past at MKSCC. Who knows? Stranger
things have happened. So perhaps someday a grand reconciliation will take
place on East 68th Street. Maybe in time for the 30th Anniversary? Watch
this space for details.
Dear Dr. X,
It was a great pleasure meeting you at the N.I.H. conference last week.
I was happy that our mutual friend, Dr. S., brought us together, and that
he recommended me as a possible advisor for your committee on alternative
I would be delighted to serve as a scientific advisor to the program,
as I do for Columbia University's Rosenthal Center, the University of
Texas, and a number of other institutions.
I have been independently investigating such treatments for over 20 years,
have written nine books, three documentaries, and many articles on the
topic. I also direct a consulting service for people with cancer, and
am intimately involved on a daily basis in the medical, legal and ethical
issues involved in this field.
I want you to understand, however, the history of my prior involvement
with Memorial Sloan-Kettering.
From 1974 to 1977, I was employed as the science writer in the Department
of Public Affairs at MSKCC. I was later promoted to assistant director
of the department. In November, 1977, I was summarily fired from this
position. The charge, as a Memorial spokesperson told the New York Times
at the time, was "failing to carry out my most basic job responsibilities."
The issue was my public statements on laetrile (amygdalin), a substance
that as you no doubt remember was the hottest alternative cancer treatment
of the time, perhaps of all time. Frankly, I do not recall if you were
at MSKCC at that time, but in any case, please allow me to refresh your
memory about those long ago events. I have written extensively about this
as well, most particularly in the chapter "Laetrile at Sloan-Kettering"
of my book, The Cancer Industry.
In 1972, at the behest of Benno Schmidt, Sr., Sloan-Kettering Institute
undertook the testing of this controversial anticancer agent. This is
a cyanide-containing glycoside found in many plants. It was and is commercially
manufactured from the kernels of apricots.
Laetrile had engaged the hostile attentions of the California Cancer
Commission since the early '50s, and the national media was focusing on
it, taking away interest from the burgeoning official cancer war. What
is more, the proponents of laetrile was mostly followers of the John Birch
Society, with an ax to grind against the "Eastern Establishment."
This was the setting.
The initial tests in transplantable systems were negative. However, Dr.
C. Chester Stock and Dr. Lloyd Old, the two S.K.I. vice presidents at
the time, asked Member Emeritus Kanematsu Sugiura, D.Sc. to try this compound
in spontaneous tumors in mice. I don't know if you had the privilege of
knowing Dr. Sugiura. He was an extremely skillful, methodical and honest
And he made a remarkable finding. In spontaneous tumor systems, he discovered,
amygdalin does indeed have biological activity. It stops the spread of
cancer and acts as a "good palliative drug." He confidentially
told me that it works like a vitamin, which was exactly what its proponents
had claimed it to be (vitamin B17). For example, in CD8F1 mice there were
lung metastases in 80 percent of the control animals while only about
20 percent of the amygdalin-treated animals had such spread. (This determination
was confirmed by Memorial's Pathology Department.) Because of disbelief,
he repeated this experiment six times.
The institution was deeply divided over what to do with these findings.
Hostility of some towards this discovery happened to coincided with resentment
over the new Good-Old regime at SKI. On the other hand, the new leadership
was astonished and enthusiastic over the finding. There was a spirit of
adventure and re-discovery, and all sorts of alternative practitioners
were invited to the 13th floor of Howard to give presentations.
TRAVEL TO WASHINGTON
In 1974 and again in 1975, Drs. Thomas, Good, Old, and Stock traveled
together to Washington to argue the case for laetrile and urgently request
permission to conduct clinical trials. They were turned down flat by the
F.D.A., which was allied with both A.C.S. and N.C.I. Meanwhile, in order
to maintain a united front, the statements coming out of MSKCC became
increasingly negative. We in Public Affairs were keeping tabs on the progress
of the experiments. I was in daily touch with the participants. By 1975,
we were being told in various ways to issue condemnations of laetrile
which contained ludicrous distortions and even outright falsehoods.
For example, when one experiment failed to confirm Sugiura's findings,
we were told to instruct the media that we had finally "proven"
laetrile worthless. It was only with difficulty that I learned the truth:
that the experiment had used one-fortieth the dose that Sugiura had employed.
That was how determined our leaders were to disprove Sugiura's work, or
at least to appear publicly to be in step with the rest of the "establishment."
At one point--and this is a matter of public record--Dr. Stock gave an
interview to Medical World News, in which he said that "we have found
laetrile negative in all the animal systems we have tested." At that
time we had positive results not just in CD8F1 but in Swiss Albino and
AKR leukemia. I refer you to my book The Cancer Industry for more details.
THE TEMPER OF THE TIMES
It is hard to convey the temper of those times. Once I was having lunch
with a journalist at a restaurant across from MSKCC on First Avenue. Perhaps
I was talking too loud, because mid-meal a red-faced man staggered over
to our table.
"What the hell do you people at Memorial think you're doing?"
he demanded. He was visibly drunk. "Who the hell do you think you
are, fooling around with this laetrile quackery? When are you people going
to get on board" Astonished, I demanded to know who he was. He told
me he was the chief of enforcement for the New York region of the F.D.A.
At another time, we received a visit from a leading television science
journalist. He stood in my boss's office and spontaneously delivered a
peroration: "We've got to stop these laetrile crazies," he yelled.
"We've got to put the final nail in their coffin."
"The final nail in the coffin." It was a phrase I heard more
than once. The purpose of doing testing, in many peoples' view, was not
to seek truth, much less useful treatments. It was to confirm deeply held
prejudices about an enemy treatment, to put the final nail in the coffin
Dr. Sugiura, in his quiet and methodical way, had momentarily thrown
a monkey wrench in these plans. When they found they couldn't intimidate
him into recanting, they started a vicious rumor campaign. Repeatedly
he was called "senile." They told the New York Times that he
was "inexperienced" with the animal systems-this man who began
his career in chemotherapy by catching tumorous rats in the basement of
Roosevelt Hospital! I heard him described as a "glorified technician."
(A glorified technician with a half-page write-up, mind you, in the official
N.C.I. history of cancer research!)
I even heard one so-called scientist say that the only reason Sugiura
could not see metastases was because "he looked at them with his
squinty little Japanese eyes." How much of this he heard I do not
know. But he bore it all with dignified silence, the way he had borne
house arrest during World War Two.
FACED WITH A DILEMMA
I was faced with a dilemma. I loved my job and did it well, had gotten
steady raises and promotions. I had been befriended by Dr. Robert A. Good,
who later told Science that I "knew his innermost thoughts."
I was starting to publish in mainstream magazines as well. I was at the
beginning of a successful career in conventional science writing.
At the same time, the price for this was complicity in a cover-up. I
was expected to keep my mouth shut, and to know not to question my "superiors."
I could hardly afford to lose my job, much less my future. Although I
was barely 30, I had two children in school, and my wife was unemployed.
So at first I tried to get others to write this story without imperiling
me. I went to various magazines and newspapers. But each time I tried
to convey the complexity of the situation it was twisted in one way or
Finally, the New York Academy of Sciences, and particularly the editors
of their magazine, The Sciences, undertook their own independent investigation
of my charges and mainly confirmed them. This formed the basis of their
lead story and press release in late 1977.
I was in a morally untenable position, however. I therefore--with much
trepidation--scheduled a press conference of my own at the Hilton Hotel
to discuss the topic of laetrile at Sloan-Kettering. My boss called me
the night before the conference and instructed me to take the day off
and go to it as a spy. I then informed him I couldn't do that because
I was going to be speaking at the press conference!
The press conference was held on a Friday and made the front page of
the New York Post, among other publications. On Sunday I spoke to over
a thousand people at the Roosevelt Hotel, repeating my charges. Not surprisingly,
come Monday, I was fired when I arrived for work. My filing cabinets were
chained and padlocked and I was escorted out of the Center by armed guards,
Since that time, I have devoted myself full time to the independent evaluation
of all alternative cancer treatments. I have been consistent in avoiding
all promotional activities, but demanding that these methods be scientifically
tested. The important thing, as POMES [i.e. the N.I.H.] is now realizing,
is that these evaluations take place in a way that eliminates any possibility
of fraud (on either side). Without such safeguards, we could have a repetition
of the fiasco of laetrile testing.
I have often wondered when MSKCC would catch up with the rest of the
world and start exploring alternative treatments. Apparently that moment
has come. I have also wondered what my role would be in that.
I am not a religious person, Dr. X, but I do believe in karma. Memorial
as an institution is carrying around a heavy load of historical baggage.
Of course, many great things have been done there, but it has been involved
in the suppression of alternative treatments, from Coley's toxins down
to Burzynski's antineoplastons. Now you, Dr. B., Dr. C., and others are
trying to make a new beginning.
COMING TO GRIPS WITH HISTORY
The question is, can you do this without coming to grips with history
and clearing the decks? Great injustices have been done to many people.
The public remembers this. I recognize the enormous power of the Institution
and its public relations apparatus. But I also feel that this effort will
fail unless these historical issues are addressed and redressed.
Personally, I would like to make a new beginning. I would suggest that
on the 20th anniversary of my firing (November 21, 1997) we jointly hold
a press conference and announce my new association with your committee.
It would be a tremendous gesture for both sides to make and the public
and the media will no doubt recognize it as such.
Reconciliation is healing and will move us all forward. To continue to
cling to old ways will only lead backwards.
Ralph W. Moss, Ph.D.
(minor revisions 3/1-2/98)
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