Background History of the Gerson Clinic

James E. Lowell, Ph.D.
July 23, 2006

About six miles south of Tijuana, Mexico, on the old Ensanada Road, is the Hospital La Gloria, one of six major “alternative” cancer clinics located in the area. Housed in a converted resort, La Gloria’s operation is guided by Charlotte Gerson Straus, daughter of the late Dr. Max Gerson.

La Gloria resembles the turn-of-the-century sanitaria where patients went for rest, recuperation, and various therapies. Its facilities are set on several acres among lush vegetation and dozens of palm trees and include a two-story motel wing with spacious rooms, all of which overlook a large patio and pool. The motel portion, plus rooms in two other buildings, can house up to 28 patients at a time, although the average census is 15. Other buildings contain treatment facilities, a lounge, and a combination dining room and lecture area. There is also a small store that sells literature and other products associated with Gerson therapy.

La Gloria opened its doors in 1977 with the avowed purpose of not only treating patients but also training their “assistants” (friends and relatives who accompany them to Mexico) and interested physicians in the Gerson methods. The facility, which is incorporated in Mexico, is operated for profit by Drs. Dan Rogers, an American, and Victor Ortuno, who is Mexican, both of whom were trained as general practitioners. There are about 60 employees, including several other physicians, guards at the gate, nurses, maids, kitchen staff, and drivers who chauffeur patients. About 600 patients are treated each year.

Although the promoters call La Gloria a hospital, a New York Appellate judge ruled recently that the facility did not meet the definition of a hospital for insurance purposes because it lacked operating rooms, laboratories, an emergency room, and other facilities normally found in hospitals.

Max Gerson, M.D., was born on October 18, 1881 in Wongrowitz, Germany, and graduated from medical school in Freiburg in 1906. In 1938, at the age of 57, he fled the Nazi regime and entered the United States, where he was granted a license to practice medicine in New York State. Meanwhile, his father, mother and seven brothers and sisters were annihilated in concentration camps.

Gerson summarized his basic theories about cancer and other diseases he considered “degenerative” in a paper in the Review of Gastroenterology in 1945. He believed that special diet, injections of raw liver extract, “detoxification” of the body with enemas and diet, sodium restriction and high intake of potassium could build up the body’s immune system, thereby increasing resistance to disease. He claimed that his approach could cure not only cancers, but also such conditions as tuberculosis, lupus erythematosis and heart disease. His original dietary recommendations were: no sodium, no fat, little animal protein, high potassium, rich in carbohydrates, lots of fluids, dehydrated, defatted liver capsules and liver injections. Later he advised adding small amounts of linseed oil.

In 1947, the National Cancer Institute reviewed 10 cases selected by Dr. Gerson and found his report unconvincing. That same year, a committee appointed by the New York County Medical Society reviewed records of 86 patients, examined 10 patients, and found no scientific evidence that the Gerson method had value in the treatment of cancer. (Curiously, Mrs. Straus claims that these investigations never took place even though they are mentioned in Gerson literature.) Eventually, Gerson lost his hospital privileges and malpractice insurance, and received a two-year suspension from the New York County Medical Society for advertising his “secret” treatment on a radio talk show. He died in 1959.

Most referrals to La Gloria are made through the Gerson Institute, P.O. Box 430, Bonita, CA 92002. The Institute is described in the 1981 issue of its journal, Healing, as a nonprofit charitable organization which teaches methods for preventing and healing disease, “particularly . . . all the major killing and crippling diseases for which orthodox medicine has a 0% cure rate.” One of the Institute’s goals is “to get at least one copy of Healing into every home in the United States.” According to staff member Gar Hildenbrand, whose testimonial of recovery from lupus erythematosis using Gerson therapy appears in Healing, the Institute now has 2,200 contributing members. In addition, it sells publications about the Gerson therapy. Hildenbrand said he is paid about $30,000 per year and that Mrs. Straus receives somewhat less.

Cancer, Think Curable! The Gerson Therapy, a booklet distributed by the Gerson Institute, specifies 21 conditions which the author claims are curable by the treatment. Included are cancers, heart disease and atherosclerosis, arthritis, allergies, multiple sclerosis, asthma, diabetes, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (“Lou Gehrig’s disease”), infertility, psoriasis and ulcers. Physicians at La Gloria also claim to be able to restore sight to some blind persons by treating them with ozone, a reactive form of oxygen.

Mrs. Straus is president of the Institute and edits its bimonthly newsletter. She maintains a busy lecture schedule, traveling throughout the U.S., sponsoring and speaking at alternative health care conventions, and appearing on talk shows. Her media bookings are arranged by North American Consultants and Promotions, Ltd., headed by Cameron Frye, who advertises himself as a “specialist in obtaining free air time.” Frye also represents Stanislaw Burzynski, another promoter of questionable cancer therapy. Although his mother died of cancer after being treated by Burzynski, Frye believes Burzynski helped alleviate her suffering in her final hours. Many of Straus’ speeches are given at meetings sponsored by the National Health Federation, a group promoting the gamut of unproven practices.

The Institute’s executive vice president is Norman Fritz, a former president of the International Association of Cancer Victims and Friends, a group devoted to unorthodox methods of cancer management.

In a 1984 speech to students at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Oregon, Straus claimed that Gerson therapy could get patients off high blood pressure medicine in only five days, although, she said, it would take a little longer to cure heart disease. She also claimed that milk and protein would cause pregnant women to get cancer, and that nuts cause the breakdown of the immune system because they contain arginine. Babies, she said, shouldn’t get any vaccinations, shots or drugs. Instead, if an infant becomes ill, the nursing mother should be given food supplements, drops of iodine and coffee enemas.

At a meeting I attended last summer at La Gloria, the tables had been moved out of the dining room and replaced with chairs for the occasion. In an hour-long, highly emotional speech, Charlotte Gerson Straus explained that her treatment is designed to “bring the body back to normalcy and strengthen the immune system.” This, she said, can only occur when the “toxins” have been removed and proper nutritional balance established so the body will be able to heal itself.

The Gerson therapy costs about $1,700 per week. This does not include the $30 a day for friends or relatives accompanying the patient or the cost of special medication or products (such as juice presses) which the patient may need to continue the therapy at home. Although Gerson Institute brochures recommend stays of up to eight weeks (which would cost $13,600), Straus says most patients stay only four weeks.

For the first week’s treatment, payment must be made within one day of admission to the facility. Either cash or traveler’s checks with the payee line left blank are accepted, but U.S. personal checks or cashier’s checks are not. Patients are asked to sign various releases including a disclaimer acknowledging that Hospital La Gloria “makes no claims assuring cures of the medical conditions treated, including cancer.”

According to Hildenbrand, patients undergo a complete physical exam when they enter La Gloria. Then they are taken to their rooms and instructed in the use of coffee and castor oil enemas and oral castor oil. These procedures supposedly irritate the organs, especially the liver, intestines and brain, and stimulate the flow of bile, resulting in “detoxification” of the body. One-quart coffee enemas are taken every four hours and increased to every two hours with the onset of symptoms supposedly associated with “detoxification,” such as headache, fever, nausea or intestinal spasms.

The oral doses of castor oil are given every second day along with a cup of “organic” black coffee and raw brown sugar, which supposedly facilitate movement of the castor oil into the large intestine. The rectal dose is mixed with coffee solution and given on the same day. Some patients may also receive up to 1,000 cc of ozone into the rectum through an enema device.

On a recent television talk show, Straus claimed that symptoms of the “detoxification” are transient, and that all her patients feel better within just a few days of admission to the hospital. However, The Gerson Primer, a book distributed to La Gloria patients, states that detoxification may cause flu-like feelings, loss of appetite, perspiration with strong odor, weakness, dizziness, cold sores and fever blisters. Arthritics can expect their joints to become painfully swollen, symptoms of other diseases may worsen, and tumor masses will become painful. High fever, intestinal cramping, diarrhea and vomiting may also occur but, the Primer states, these symptoms indicate that the patient is being healed.

Cancer Winner, by Jacquie Davison, a book included in Charlotte’s publicity package, also describes the detoxification crisis—but states that patients undergoing Gerson treatment can expect to have symptoms caused by the release of toxins for about 1| years.

The usual Gerson dietary regimen begins with an eight-ounce glass of juice each hour, a total of about 13 glasses a day. Included are carrot, apple, orange and “green” juices, the latter made from a mixture of vegetables, and three glasses daily of juice extracted from pressed raw liver. Patients also receive tablespoons of linseed oil, acidophilus-pepsin capsules, potassium solution, Lugol’s solution (an iodine/potassium iodide solution) added to the juice, thyroid tablets, 300 mg of niacin daily, pancreatic enzymes, royal jelly capsules (for some patients only), and injections of vitamin B12 mixed with liver.

Except for the liver juice, the first four weeks’ diet contains no protein from animal sources and is strictly vegetarian. Thereafter, small amounts of dairy products such as yogurt and cheeses may be added. Food supplements given to patients in severe pain include 50 mg of niacin, 500 mg of vitamin C and one aspirin tablet. Castor oil poultices are also used to reduce pain over specific locations.

According to Mr. Fritz, the treatment process after leaving La Gloria Hospital is quite time-consuming. Making fresh juice 13 times day, cleaning the juicer each time, preparing the fruits and vegetables, and shopping for them usually take 40-50 hours a week, although with experience this may drop to 30 hours a week.

Gerson Institute literature claims a recovery rate of 90% of early cases and “about 50%” for advanced cancer patients. These are patients, they say, who have no chance of recovery under orthodox treatment. Fritz claims that patients with melanomas or lung cancer with early metastasis have a 70-90% chance of recovery, while those with brain tumors have only a 30% cure rate.

Mrs. Straus says her success rate is very high in treating essentially all types of cancers. But she said in a recent TV broadcast that statistics have not been published because the establishment would try to compare her results with theirs, which would be unfair, because the patients who come to her have mostly been declared terminal and are close to death. “Comparing my patients with those undergoing standard treatment is like comparing apples to oranges.”

Actually, it does not appear that genuine data exist on the survival rates of Gerson therapy patients. Hildenbrand told me that when La Gloria opened, Rogers and Ortuno had no interest in keeping records or documenting cures. Fritz told Dr. Stephen Barrett in a recent interview that no systematic follow-up takes place because the process would take more money and manpower than are available. Instead, the Institute’s survival statistics are based on a combination of the doctor’s estimate that the departing patient has a “reasonable chance of surviving,” plus feelings that the Institute staff have about the status of people who call in.

According to Fritz, patients leaving the clinic are instructed to telephone every month or two to discuss problems, get additional instructions, or order supplies—but that only about 25% do so. “We assume that those who don’t call are not following the program,” he told Dr. Barrett. If a patient dies, Fritz said, the Institute may not know the cause of death unless a family member happens to provide this information. This process, of course, contrasts sharply with the tumor registries used by hospitals and state health departments to keep track of cancer patients through questionnaires sent at regular intervals to treating physicians.

Mrs. Straus claims that patients who have not undergone the standard treatment modalities of radiation, surgery and chemotherapy have the best chance of being cured by her regimen. In fact, she says, once people have received chemotherapeutic agents, their immune system is destroyed, and the Gerson therapy will no longer work. Therefore, they will not admit them to La Gloria. However, Delmar Aiken, M.D., a tumor specialist from Loma Linda, California, has reported that a patient he treated with both chemotherapy and surgery was later accepted into the Gerson program for outpatient treatment.

Patients treated at La Gloria Hospital may be risking serious infection. Dr. Michelle M. Ginsberg of the San Diego Department of Health has reported that during the past six years, at least 13 patients who said they had been treated at La Gloria have been admitted to San Diego area hospitals with Campylobacter sepsis. Their physicians believe the source of the infections was the raw liver used at the clinic. Five of the patients were comatose when admitted due to low serum sodium (as low as 102 meq/l), presumably related to the no-sodium diet recommended by Gerson. None of these patients was cancer-free, and one died from his malignancy within a week of admission to the hospital.

Another disastrous result in a patient treated by Gerson therapy has been reported by William T. Jarvis, Ph.D., professor of health education at Loma Linda University and president of the National Council Against Health Fraud. In this case, a 24-year-old osteopathic student with testicular cancer had surgery but refused chemotherapy because of his religious beliefs. Instead he underwent Gerson therapy and other unproven methods that fit his interpretation of “God’s remedies.” Although his original probability of 5-year survival was over 90% with proper treatment, he died of his cancer at age 26.

Benjamin Wilson, M.D., a surgeon from Portland, Oregon, has reported that a young woman was told by “doctors” at the Gerson clinic that she had cancer of the breast when she did not. This woman had undergone conventional treatment several years previously and feared her cancer would return. Although a physical exam had found no malignancy, she was still frightened and decided to visit La Gloria—where she was told that the cancer had come back. According to Dr. Wilson, after several weeks on the Gerson treatment, she felt so miserable that she decided to take her chances with the supposed cancer. On her return home, her doctor again reassured her that no malignancy was present.

Straus claims this case is exceptional and that her staff seldom make mistakes of this sort. According to an article in Healing which describes their research and expansion goals, however, the testing methods used at La Gloria “do not, in many respects, equal those used by Gerson a half a century ago . . . We need better and more complete methods of testing and monitoring.” The fact is that La Gloria does not contain laboratory facilities for running the tests necessary to diagnose cancer. In fact, on a recent television broadcast, Straus said her doctors don’t actually attempt to prove that cancer exists but rely on the patients’ word for it or on medical reports that the patients may bring with them.

Before any cancer treatment is considered “proven” and acceptable for general use by physicians, it must undergo rigorous scientific scrutiny. According to the American Cancer Society, standards of investigation for cancer treatments should include at least the following:

  1. complete evaluation of all clinical and laboratory data presented by the proponent including case histories, x-ray films, and microscopic slides;
  2. reproducible analysis of the drug and laboratory results;
  3. observations on the effects of the therapy under study in a sufficient number of patients with biopsy-proven cancer;
  4. assessment of treatment results for each case compared to other previous or concomitant therapy;
  5. examination of autopsy data; and
  6. consultation with other investigating groups.

It appears clear that proponents of the Gerson therapy are not gathering data in a scientific manner with the hope of someday proving their case.

This report was originally published in Nutrition Forum newsletter in 1986. At that time, Dr. Lowell, was a board member of the National Council Against Health Fraud; Professor of Life Sciences at Pima Community College, Tucson, Arizona; and a columnist for The Arizona Daily Star. This article was based on more than five years of investigation which included many trips to “alternative” health conventions, visits to the Mexican cancer clinics, and interviews with promoters and practitioners of unproven methods. 

This article was revised on July 23, 2006.