Liefcort for Arthritis: Worthless and Dangerous

August 22, 2020

Liefcort was a drug mixture developed and marketed by Robert Liefmann, M.D., of Quebec, Canada, for treating the symptoms of arthritis. Its principal components were prednisone (a form of cortisone), and testosterone (a male sex hormone), and estradiol (a female sex hormone).

The American Medical Association, the Arthritis Foundation, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) all warned that Liefcort was dangerous. Prednisone has legitimate use for some types of arthritis, but it could have serious side effects, including internal hemorrhaging, peptic ulcer, cataracts, spontaneous fracture of bones, and mental derangement. Dosage must therefore be carefully regulated and individual patient reaction closely observed. Supplies of Liefcort were sold by Dr. Liefmann to patients who had traveled long distances to obtain the drug and took them for months without further medical supervision.

Testosterone and estradiol, which had no proven value therapeutic value in treating arthritis, can also produce serious side effects. An FDA analysis found that the amount of estradiol was ten times the usual medically prescribed dose [1]. Time Magazine reported that Canadian arthritis specialists that men taking Liefcort developed enlarged breasts and women had grown beards [2].

Liefmann studied medicine at the McGill University Faculty of Medicine in Canada. In 1954 he took the examination for licensing as a private practitioner but failed the oral examination in surgery. In 1962 he passed this examination and was certified by the Quebec College of Physicians and Surgeons to practice medicine in Canada. Prior to his licensure he worked as a researcher at Montreal’s Royal Victoria Hospital.

He was suspended by the hospital for implanting the pituitary glands of newly slaughtered calves into the thighs of six arthritis patients. He was later reinstated but then left his position and set up a commercial operation called Endocrine Research Laboratories, in Beaurepaire, Quebec, which created and distributed hair tonics, hair-growing preparations, and vitamin preparations [3].

In 1957, a warrant for his arrest was issued in the United States on charges of introducing a misbranded drug into interstate commerce in violation of the U.S. Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The case involved distributing an alleged baldness cure called “R-20” that contained estradiol and isopropyl alcohol. The FDA charged that the preparation was both worthless and dangerous. Although Liefmann lived in Canada, investigators determined that he was trying to market the product through a distributor located in Minnesota. The arrest warrant was issued after Liefmann failed on several occasions to appear in Federal District Court in Syracuse, New York, for arraignment. He avoided prosecution by remaining in Canada.

The FDA learned that Liefcort was compounded in Liefmann’s home in Montreal and labeled as being distributed by Endocrine Research Laboratories [4]. The agency prohibited the importation of Liefcort into the United States and on two occasions initiated seizure and destruction of shipments that came to the U.S. from Canada. The Canadian Food and Drug Directorate prohibited the distribution of Liefcort to Canadian doctors for investigational purposes. In 1959 it also seized bottles of Scalp Antizyme RX-200 and RX-20 because the estradiol content exceeded the labeled potency by 35 times. Two lots of a vitamin and mineral preparation called Vita VO-25 were also seized during that year [5]. The Directorate, however, was not empowered to prohibit a licensed Canadian physician from prescribing drugs and therefore could not stop Dr. Liefmann from selling Liefcort to his own patients.

A 1962 article on Dr. Liefmann and Liefcort in Look Magazine [6] attracted widespread interest in Liefcort and caused many U.S. and Canadian arthritis sufferers to journeyed to Dr. Liefmann’ s office in Quebec to obtain a supply.

The FDA reported that a 71-year-old California woman developed uterine bleeding after taking Liefcort, was hospitalized, contracted pneumonia after an operation to stop the bleeding, and died. In 1963, the medical director of the Arthritis Foundation told the Senate Committee on Aging that at least two other people had been killed by the drug. He also accused Look Magazine of “irresponsible journalism” for describing Liefcort as a “secret cure” when the article’s author knew what it contained and that the article would cause thousands of people to rush to Liefmann’s clinic [7].

In 1968, the Canadian Food and Drug Directorate raided Liefmann’s clinic and charged him with marketing an unapproved drug and other violations. In 1969, he was convicted on 16 counts of violating Canada’s Food and Drugs Act and fined $2,400. However, he was able to continue treating his own patients while appealing his case [8]. He died in 1972 while the case was still on appeal.

In 1979, Consumer Reports noted that Liefcort or similar preparations could still be obtained from a few sources in the United States, Canada, and Mexico [9].

  1. Arthritics warned on using Liefcort. AMA News, Oct 29, 1962.
  2. Medicine: Border crackdown. Time Magazine, Oct 19, 1962.
  3. Data sheet on Liefcort. American Medical Association. Undated, distributed in 1960s.
  4. Hunter M. Arthritis pills barred from U.S. The New York Times, Oct 10, 1962.
  5. FDA press release, May 20, 1962.
  6. Zimmerman G, Breslin C. New arthritis controversy. Look Magazine, May 22, 1962.
  7. Hecht A. Hocus-pocus as applied to arthritis. FDA Consumer, Sept 1980.
  8. Lamont-Havers RW. Testimony at hearing on frauds and quackery affecting the older citizen. January 15, 1963.
  9. A two-part report on arthritis. Consumer Reports, June/July 1979.