During the past 25 years, nonaccredited correspondence schools and other organizations have issued thousands of “degrees” and certificates which suggest that the recipient is a qualified expert in nutrition. These documents are promoted as though they are equivalent in meaning to established credentials—which they are not. Whereas nutrition degrees from accredited schools generally take several years to acquire, Donsbach degrees could be obtained in less than a year. Some cases involve no schooling at all but mere payment of a fee.
The most prominent nonaccredited school was Donsbach University of Huntington Beach, California, whose president, Kurt W. Donsbach, D.C., is one of the world’s most notorious promoters of dubious health information and treatment. I have been closely monitoring Donsbach’s activities since 1971.
Although Donsbach has placed various letters after his name, he has never acquired an accredited degree. In 1957, he graduated from Western States Chiropractic College, in Portland, Oregon, and practiced as a chiropractor in Montana, “specializing in treatment of arthritic and rheumatoid disorders.” Later he acquired a license to practice naturopathy in Oregon, based on a document that was later revealed to be a forgery. From 1961 to 1965, he worked in “research development and marketing” for Standard Process Laboratories (a division of Royal Lee’s Vitamin Products Company) and the Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research, headquartered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. While Donsbach worked for Lee, he lived in California, did literature research, and gave nutrition seminars, primarily to chiropractors who were interested in marketing the company’s products to their patients. In 1962, while Donsbach was still employed, Lee and the Vitamin Products Company were convicted of misbranding 115 special dietary products by making false claims for the treatment of more than 500 diseases and conditions. Lee received a one-year suspended prison term and was fined $7,000. In 1963, a prominent FDA official said Lee was “probably the largest publisher of unreliable and false nutritional information in the world.” Lee died in 1967. After Lee became ill, Donsbach left his employ and opened a health food store in Westminster, California, and Westpro Laboratories, in Garden Grove, California, which repackaged dietary supplements and a few drugs. From 1975 to 1989, Donsbach served as board chairman of the National Health Federation, a group that promotes the full gamut of quackery.
Four Criminal Convictions
In 1970, undercover agents of the Fraud Division of the California Bureau of Food and Drug observed Donsbach represent to customers in his store that vitamins, minerals, and/or herbal tea were effective against cancer, heart disease, emphysema (a chronic lung disease), and many other ailments. Most of the products Donsbach “prescribed” were packaged by Westpro Labs. Charged with nine counts of illegal activity, Donsbach pleaded guilty in 1971 to one count of practicing medicine without a license and agreed to cease “nutritional consultation.” He was assessed $2,750 and served two years’ summary probation.
In 1973, Donsbach was charged with nine more counts of illegal activity, including misbranding of drugs; selling, holding for sale, or offering for sale, new drugs without having the proper applications on file; and manufacturing drugs without a license. After pleading “no contest” to one of the “new drug” charges, he was ordered to pay a small fine and was placed on two years’ summary probation with the provision that he rid himself of all proprietary interest in Westpro Labs. In 1974, Donsbach was found guilty of violating his probation and was fined again.
In 1996, after a lengthy investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, he was indicted and pleaded guilty to smuggling unapproved drugs into the U.S. and not paying income tax on the money he made for selling them. In a plea bargain with the U.S. Attorney’s office, he forfeited about $165,000 and paid an additional $150,000 in back taxes. In 1997, Donsbach was sentenced to a year in federal prison by a federal judge, but the sentence was later changed to six months of “house arrest,” during which time he was permitted to conduct business as usual in Mexico and elsewhere.
In 2009, Donsbach was arrested and charged with treating patients without a license, misbranding drugs for sale, grand theft, unlawfully dispensing drugs as a cure for cancer, and falsely representing a cure for cancer. In 2010, he pleaded guilty to 13 felony charges: five counts of practicing medicine without a license, five counts of selling/distributing misbranded drugs, and one count each of of attempted grand theft, grand theft, and being a felon in possession of a firearm. He also admitted that he personally inflicted a great bodily injury on one of the victims related to the unlicensed practice of medicine. In 2011, he was sentenced him to a year in prison to be followed by ten years of probation, during which he is prohibited from representing himself as any type of health practitioner. The judge also imposed a $60,000 fine.
History of Donsbach University
During the mid-1970s, Donsbach affiliated with nonaccredited Union University and reported that he had acquired MS and PhD “degrees” in nutrition from the school. During 1977, Union formed a nutrition department with Donsbach as its “dean” Donsbach subsequently launched and became president of his own school, Donsbach University, which in 1979 became “authorized” by California to grant degrees. This status had nothing to do with accreditation or other academic recognition, but merely required the filing of an affidavit which described the school’s program and asserted that it had at least $50,000 in assets.
The picture to the left, below, appeared in many of Donsbach’s ads. The small print under it says, “Artists’s concept of new building to be completed in the near future.” I have seen no evidence that the building was completed, and I would be surprised if construction was ever started. The picture to the right shows the “diploma” that appeared in the same ads.
Donsbach University, which operated mainly by mail, initially offered courses leading to B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. “degrees” in nutrition. Its original “catalog” was a 4-page flyer. The original “faculty” had seven members, including Donsbach, Alan H. Nittler, M.D., and Ray Yancy, an unlicensed practitioner of iridology. Its 16-person advisory advisory board included Nittler, Richard Passwater, “Ph.D.,” Betty Morales, Benjamin Colimore, “Ph.D,” and Bruce Halstead, M.D.
- Nittler’s California medical license had been revoked in 1975 because he practiced unscientific “nutritional therapies.”
- Passwater’s “degree” was issued by Bernadean University, a nonaccredited correspondence school that was located in Nevada but was not authorized to operate within the state or to grant degrees.
- Morales marketed dietary supplements and performed “nutritional consultation” by mail. Some of her products were marketed with illegal therapeutic claims. In 1976, she recommended a long list of useless products in response to an inquiry from me that described the symptoms of blurred vision characteristic of glaucoma.
- Colimore’s “Ph.D.” was issued by Donsbach University. In 1980, he and his wife were prosecuted by the Los Angeles City Attorney for conduct during the operation of their health food store. Prosecution was initiated after a customer complained that the Colimores had diagnosed a bad heart valve, pancreatic abscesses and benign growths of her liver, intestine and stomach—all based on an analysis of her hair—and prescribed two products from the store. After pleading “no contest” to one count of practicing medicine without a license, the Colimores were fined $2,000, given a 60-day suspended jail sentence, and placed on probation for two years.
- Halstead was convicted in 1987 in the State of California of 24 counts of fraud for prescribing an “herbal tea” to cancer patients.
The original catalog listed 14 “textbooks” required for the “core curriculum.” Four of these were actual textbooks, but the rest were books written for the general public by promoters of questionable nutrition practices who recommend dietary supplements for the prevention and/or treatment of a wide range of diseases. In addition to Donsbach, these included Carlton Fredericks and Lendon Smith. Fredericks, who had no formal nutrition training, was convicted of practicing medicine without a license in New York in 1945. Smith, a pediatrician, was placed on probation by the Oregon Board of Medical Examiners from 1971 through 1979 for “inappropriate prescribing of drugs” to adult heroin addicts. In 1988, he permanently surrendered his license to settle charges of insurance fraud filed by the Oregon Board.
The catalog also listed 18 textbooks under the “Advanced Graduate Study” program. Of these, 15 were not recognized textbooks but were written by promoters of questionable nutrition practices who recommend dietary supplements for the prevention and/or treatment of a wide range of diseases. The authors included Donsbach, Smith, the Colimores, Passwater (2), and Emory Thurston, Ph.D., who in 1973 was convicted, fined and placed on two years’ probation in the State of California after selling laetrile to a woman who told him she had cancer.
The 1981 Donsbach University tuition schedule listed a registration fee of $100 and a tuition fee of $3,045, with a 20% discount for prepayment. In 1985, the MS/Ph.D. tuition was $4,495 with a 20% discount for prepayment. Donsbach claims that the school served over 4,000 students. The significance of this number is unclear.
In 1980, the California Board of Registered Nursing approved Donsbach University as continuing education provider. However, after receiving complaints, the board concluded that his credentials and training were problematic and that substantial portions of the course materials for his “Nutrition in Action” course were “inaccurate and not related to scientific knowledge required for the practice of nursing.” In 1984, the board withdrew its approval but, after Donsbach petitioned for a rehearing, the case was settled by a stipulation in which the board set aside its withdrawal and Donsbach surrendered his provider number and agreed not to apply for another one for at least five years. During the proceedings, Donsbach submitted a CV in which stated that Union University had awarded him a Master of Science degree in molecular biology in 1975 and a Ph.D. degree in nutritional science in 1976. However, Union University president Robert Pfeiffer stated in a letter that (a) that Donsbach had never been a student at Union, (b) the school had never offered the degrees Donsbach claimed (molecular biology and nutritional science), and (c) the school lacked the laboratories and other facilities that would be necessary to provide such degrees. Donsbach’s petition for rehearing vigorously disputed this, but the the stipulated settlement prevented further consideration of this issue.
In catalogs and advertisements during the early 1980s, Donsbach University maintained that it was accredited by the National Accreditation Association (NAA). This “agency” was bogus. I t was created in 1980 by a California chiropractor and two members of his family. A few months later, Donsbach University announced that it had become accredited. In 1981, Dr. William Jarvis, President of the National Council Against Health Fraud, visited NAA in Maryland and found that its “office” was a telephone in the living room of its executive director, who said he received $100-a-month salary. Although NAA correspondence had designated the man as holding a “Ph.D.” from the Sussex College of Technology in England, the British Embassy informed Jarvis that it did not consider the “school” or its diplomas valid. NAA was never recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education or the Council on Postsecondary Accreditation. In 1981, California authorities ordered Donsbach to stop representing that his school was accredited without mentioning that the agency was not recognized.
In 1984, Donsbach University announced that it had been recognized as a candidate for accreditation by the National Association of Private, Nontraditional Schools and Colleges (NAPNSC) as of March 3, 1984. Documents in my possession indicate that NAPNSC began trying to gain recognition from the U.S. Secretary of Education in 1976 and from the Council on Postsecondary Accreditation in 1977 but was not successful. An NAPNSC position paper dated March 20, 1984, stated that neither agency had any intention of permitting NAPNSC to become recognized.
In about 1987, Donsbach University was renamed International University for Nutrition Education and Jacob Swilling assumed its ownership. In a 1997 deposition, he indicated that the number of students dwindled from about 4,000 in 1985 to 2,000 in 1989 and about 60 in 1996. After that, as a result of a change in California law, the school was no longer authorized to grant degrees.
The New York State Injunctions
Donsbach also operated the International Institute of Natural Health Sciences, a company through which he marketed numerous misleading publications and a “Nutrient Deficiency Test” which was taught to students and used nationwide by chiropractors and bogus nutritionists.
In July 1985, the New York Attorney General brought actions against Donsbach, his university, and the International Institute, charging that they lacked legal authorization to conduct business within New York State and that it was illegal to advertise nonaccredited degrees to state residents. Abrams also charged that the institute’s “Nutrient Deficiency Test” was a scheme to defraud consumers. This test was composed of 245 yes/no questions about symptoms. When the answers were fed into a computer, a report of supposed nutrient deficiencies and medical conditions was printed out. The questions did not provide a basis for evaluating nutritional status. A scientist with the FDA’s Buffalo district office who analyzed the computer program (in connection with prosecution of a Donsbach University “graduate”) found that no matter how the questions were answered, the test reported several “nutrient deficiencies” and almost always recommended an identical list of vitamins, minerals, and digestive enzymes. The questionnaire also contained questions about the subject’s food intake during the past week. However, the answers given did not affect the printout of supposed deficiencies [1,2].
In 1986, Donsbach and his Institute agreed to: (a) stop marketing in New York State all current versions of its nutrient deficiency questionnaire and associated computer analysis services, (b) place conspicuous disclaimers on future versions of the questionnaire to indicate that the test should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of any disease by either consumers or professionals, and (3) pay $1,000 in costs. Donsbach and the university agreed to disclose in any direct mailings to New York residents or in any nationally distributed publication that the school’s degree programs were not registered with the New York Department of Education and were not accredited by a recognized agency. The university also agreed to pay $500 to New York State [3,4].
Donsbach University “graduates” typically refer to themselves as “nutrition consultants,” a term also used by some reputable nutritionists. Some are still in practice. At least four Donsbach “PhD’s” have been in legal difficulty:
- Jacob W. Kulp, DC, practiced chiropractic in Cheektowaga, New York. In 1983, he pled guilty to a charge of violating federal drug law by claiming that wheat bran tablets would improve a patient’s nutrient absorption by eliminating “black intestinal plaque”—a condition unknown to medical science. The “patient” was an undercover agent for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service who paid $25 for the advice. Kulp was sentenced to six months’ probation with special conditions that he not pose as a nutritionist or give nutritional advice through broadcast media unless he acquires a graduate degree in nutrition from an accredited college or university.
- Sandi Mitchell practiced as a nutrition consultant in Alabama. In 1985, she was permanently restrained from “the maintenance of an office where the individual care and treatment of persons is performed, including the diagnosis of human diseases or conditions, the giving of instructions on good nutrition thereon, recommendation of colon irrigation, and recommendation and sale of vitamins, food supplements and homeopathic medicines.” She was also barred from performing diagnostic tests or using the designation “Dr.” or giving individual advice to specific persons for human diseases and conditions.
- Gary Pace practiced as a nutrition consultant in New York City. In 1985, New York State Attorney General Robert Abrams filed a civil suit accusing Pace of practicing medicine without a license, false advertising, and illegal use of educational credentials. Pace’s schemes, said Abrams, induced hundreds of consumers to pay him for improper physical examinations, worthless laboratory tests (including hair analysis and herbal crystallization analysis), bogus nutritional advice, and unnecessary vitamin, mineral, and herbal supplements. The case against Pace was supported by affidavits from thirteen aggrieved clients and two undercover investigators, all of whom had been advised to take supplements. Some of the female clients reported that Pace had examined their breasts or genitals. Several clients underwent significant expense to obtain medical reassurance that they did not have various diseases that Pace said they had. One was advised by her medical doctor to stop taking vitamin A because her palms had become yellow as a result of overdosage. Abrams said that at least 251 clients had paid Pace an average of $307 during the previous four years. Many had been attracted by his ad, which was the largest of eleven listings in the “Nutritionists” section of the Nassau County Yellow Pages. Pace also taught in the extension division of a local community college and hosted a radio program. The investigators discovered that the “free consultation” promised in Pace’s Yellow Page ad was merely the brief telephone conversation in which he advised prospective clients to make an appointment. The case was settled with an injunction forbidding Pace from engaging in the unlawful practice of medicine or using “Ph.D.” or “Dr.” in dealings with the public unless he obtains a degree from an institution recognized by New York State. Pace agreed to pay $2,000 to the state and to make restitution to dissatisfied clients. He also agreed not to do further “nutritional counseling” unless he obtained proper credentials or posts a $150,000 bond.
- Raymond J. Salani, who practiced as a “nutrition consultant,” was charged in 1989 by the New Jersey Attorney General and the state board of medical examiners with practicing medicine without a license, violating the state’s clinical laboratory act, and committing insurance and consumer fraud. The complaint stated that Salani misused the term “doctor, “prescribed excessive quantities of food supplements” that were ineffective or potentially toxic, and issued fraudulent reports to insurance companies. In December 1989, a superior court judge enjoined Salani from representing to the public that he has a doctoral degree unless he acquires one from an accredited school. A few months later, the judge approved a consent agreement barring Salani from representing himself as a doctor, recommending supplements for any specific medical problem (except under medical supervision), diagnosing medical conditions or symptoms, or filling out insurance forms in a misleading manner. Salani was also required to inform clients that the FDA does not recognize any need or usefulness for the products he typically recommends. He also was assessed $11,000, part of which was used for restitution to insurance companies and former patients. In 1994 and 2017, he was charged with violating the 1990 order.
- Jacob Swilling is described on the “Healthy Doctors” Web site as “internationally known for his advanced work in the field of Biological Medicine.” Between 1983 and 1985, while residing in South Africa, he obtained bachelor’s, master, and PhD ” degrees from Donsbach University. Shortly afterward, he emigrated to the United States to help Kurt Donsbach operate the school and wound up assuming its ownership.
- George Zabrecky, DC, is a Connecticut chiropractor who treats cancer patients. In 1991, his license was suspended for six months and he was successfully sued for treating a cancer patient with cellular products that appeared to have destroyed the man’s liver.
In 2004, the California Board of Chiropractic Examiners ordered former bodybuilding champion Franco Columbu, D.C., to stop claiming on his letterhead that he had a Ph.D. from Donsbach University. The Sacramento Bee reported this after Columbu was appointed to the board by Governor Arnold Schwarzennegger. The Bee article also noted that Columbu, who had trained with Schwarzenegger and served as best man at his wedding, was still mentioning on his Web site that he had a Ph.D. in nutrition.
Other Donsbach “graduates” I have identified include Michael Adelson, JD; Irene Yaychuk Arabei; H. DeWayne Ashmead, Sheila McKenzie Barnswell; Kenny F. Bastien; Cheryl A. Beckett; Boyce N. Berkel, MD; Donna Billmeyer; William Brown; Michael M. Brai, DDS; John Brimhall, DC; Brian B. Butler, DC; Dorothy L. Cady; Barbara Scott Cammuso; Ralph E. Carson; Ann F. Clague; Herbert Eller; Steven Felder; Marcy Foley; Gus Fowler; Alan Frisher; Debra Pardee Gaffney; Hanoch Guy; Devra Z. Hill; David Imhotep; Betsy Jorgensen; Kathleen Kellers; Marian Kibler; Jan A. Krancher; Agness Kraweck; Steve Kushner; Lark Lands; Joan Matthews Larson; William H. Lee, RPh; Elizabeth Lipski; Michael Jude Loquasto, DC; Larry Lytle, DDS; Ruth Yale Long; Richard Marconi; Neil McAlister; Brenda Moyes; Charles Parry; Cynthia Poa; Osha B. Reader; Jack Ritchason; William Daniel Roberts; David W. Rowland; James Salvadori; Jr.; Anita Sant’ Angelo, DC; Eva L. Shaw; David W. Sloan; Barbara Reed Stitt; Irwin Stone; Thomas A. Sult, MD; Clifford Zadoc; and Cindy Zeislot.
Public Protection Efforts
As Donsbach graduates began representing themselves to the public as nutrition professionals, the American Dietetic Association began a drive for passage of state laws to restrict use of the word “nutritionist” to qualified professionals with accredited training. So far, more than 40 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws to regulate nutritionists. Some make it illegal for unqualified persons to call themselves dietitians or nutritionists, while others define nutrition practice and who is eligible to practice. The most basic requirement is completion of accredited training. Licensing does not offer complete protection against all forms of nutrition practice conducted privately between consenting adults. (It does not, for example, protect people from the poor advice offered by many chiropractors, acupuncturists, naturopaths, and health-food retailers.) But it can deter untrained individuals from widely advertising that they are experts.
- Notice of petition. The people of the State of New York against Donsbach University and Kurt Donsbach, president. New York State Supreme Court, New York County Index No. 42129/85, July 22, 1985.
- Notice of petition. The people of the State of New York against International Institute of Natural Health Sciences and Kurt Donsbach, president. New York State Supreme Court, New York County Index No. 42130/85, July 22, 1985.
- Consent and stipulation. The people of the State of New York against Donsbach University and Kurt Donsbach, president. New York State Supreme Court, New York County Index No. 42129/85, May 21, 1986.
- Consent judgment. The people of the State of New York against International Institute of Natural Health Sciences and Kurt Donsbach, president. New York State Supreme Court, New York County Index No. 42130/85, April 2, 1986.
This article was revised on August 25. 2018.