Archive for September, 2007

Patrick Holford’s mentors and inspirations – but who are they exactly?

September 23, 2007

One of the lessons of reading material – especially on the internet – that deals with Alternative Therapy is that when people cite scientific-sounding “authority figures”, these luminaries aren’t always quite what they are being presented to you as.

Digging online will often reveal all, or at least a fair bit. But how many people bother?

Let’s take the example of media nutritionist Patrick Holford, and the mentors and teachers he mentions on his CV.

Diversion – skip the next bit if you are already familiar with the ongoing “Patrick Holford vs. the Bad Science Blogosphere” saga

The backstory – on the blogs I read that deal with pseudoscience, like Ben Goldacre’s Badscience, David Colquhoun’s Improbable Science, and the Quackometer, Patrick Holford has been getting a bit of a trashing. The Bad Science blogosphere has been examining his work, including his claims, in print and on TV, about such things as Vitamin C and HIV

Several of the bloggers have pointed out that Patrick’s CV, as printed on his website, contains a number of inaccuracies. They suggest that the net effect of these inaccuracies has been to tend to make Patrick seem more expert and scientifically-based than he actually is. For anyone wishing to catch up with all this, apart from the three blogs already mentioned, there is one devoted (if that’s the word) almost entirely to Patrick called Holfordwatch

Anyway, back to Patrick Holford’s mentors. I love a bit of Internet digging – especially when I’m dodging writing a turgid lecture – so thought I would investigate.

Let’s look at a key section of Holford’s CV, the bit detailing how he got started in looking into “nutrition and mental health”, which appears on his website here

“[Patrick] started his academic career in the field of psychology. While completing his bachelor degree in Experimental Psychology at the University of York he researched the role of nutrition in mental health and illness. He became a student of the late Dr Carl Pfeiffer, director of Princeton’s Brain Bio Center, and later a student of Dr Abram Hoffer, Director of the International Schizophrenia Foundation in Canada, who were leading the field in mental health and nutrition. In 1980 he started treating mental health patients with nutritional medicine.”

As has been observed by Patrick’s critics in the Blogosphere, the last sentence is interesting in itself since we don’t know where this happened. We also don’t know in what capacity Holford treated them, since he has no recognized postgraduate training or qualification in clinical psychology (either or sometimes both is necessary to become a psychologist treating patients in the NHS, for instance).

However, I want to focus on the two people Holford’s CV says he studied with after his degree – Drs Pfeiffer and Hoffer, described as “leading the field in mental health and nutrition”.

These two gentlemen are not quite what you might think. A different bio might read like this.

“Carl Pfeiffer and Abram Hoffer are controversial figures, known for their belief in treating psychiatric disorders with vitamin “therapies”. These practices were, and continue to be, regarded as having no real basis by mainstream medicine and psychiatry. By the 1970s Pfeiffer and Hoffer had largely ceased to publish in the mainstream scientific and medical journals, which they claimed were biased against their vitamin work. Hoffer quit academia for good in 1967 (many years before Patrick Holford came in contact with him) to go into private psychiatric practice (he later seems to have also used vitamin therapies to treat cancer sufferers). The “Princeton Brain Bio Center” which Pfeiffer directed was not affiliated in any way with Princeton University (as the name might suggest) but was a private clinic set up by Pfeiffer and his associates in the early 70s to offer nutritional therapies.

Pfeiffer and Hoffer’s work from the late 60s on appeared mainly (or pretty much wholly in Hoffer’s case) in the alternative literature, mostly in Hoffer’s own journal, founded in 1967 as the Journal of Schizophrenia. After several name changes the journal is now called The Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine (JOM) .The JOM is where Patrick Holford has published several of the recent research papers listed on his CV.

The JOM is not listed on Medline (generally a prerequisite for a “serious” academic journal in the sciences), and espouses or has espoused many viewpoints regarded by mainstream medicine as dangerous and unfounded nonsense, e.g. the idea that mercury amalgam fillings cause mercury toxicity, the use of “chelation therapy” to address such mysterious supposed heavy metal toxicities and for other conditions, and dietary therapies for cancer. A brief list of areas of interest for the journal can be found on their front page

Apart from Pfeiffer and Hoffer (who between them authored over a hundred papers in the journal), other names familiar to those who follow the “Alternative Health” field appear as authors in the JOM, including Matthias Rath and the late Bernard Rimland. Rimland was the founder of the Autism Research Institute, which now promotes chelation and unproven nutritional therapies for autism, and supports Dr Andrew Wakefield. Rimland was a high-profile supporter of the discredited idea that the mercury preservative thimerosal in vaccines caused autism.”

To hear Dr Hoffer in his own voice, you can read a self-penned account of his life and work here, or his history of the JOM here

Given all the above, you may feel that an alternative to Pfeiffer and Hoffer “leading the field in mental health and nutrition” would be that Pfeiffer and Hoffer were “convinced that much mental illness was caused by nutritional imbalances and deficiencies, and were consequently regarded by mainstream psychiatrists as cranks”

As a final note, an extensive bibliography of Hoffer’s published work here reveals no articles co-authored with Patrick Holford, around 1979-1980 or since.

So when you see claims that Patrick Holford is “one of the world’s leading authorities on nutrition and mental health”:

…caveat emptor, as they say. All is not what it seems.


Hello world! – Dr Aust goes live

September 22, 2007

Fascinating – have found even blank posts auto-generated by WordPress can attract grumpy comments. Extraordinary.

Anyway, to forestall the accusations that I am a member of the Scientific Global Illuminati Conspiracy hiding behind the cloak of anonymity, some information:

Who is Dr Aust?

A grumpy approaching-middle-aged man (hopelessly watching hairline recede while combing it forward, other hair growing in odd places, spreading waistline etc etc) with a Ph.D. and a job as a biomedical science lecturer at a UK University. I run a small research lab measuring things on cells in dishes that you can only see down a big microscope. Like most scientists in research-intensive Universities, I have published a vaguely respectable number of serious and pretty unreadable papers, absolutely none of which have been in Nature or any of those really fancy journals (I wish). I teach and have taught all sorts of things, from how cells in your kidney or heart do what they do, through pharmacology of various drugs, to very general how-the-body-works stuff (including, once, the entire immune system in one 50 min lecture!) all to science and medical students…not to mention a rag-tag of other student groups (dentists, pharmacists, nurses etc).

In my 20s I used to say this was the fill-in job until I really worked out what I wanted to do, but after over two decades in science I’m clearly a lifer. At least I get a free computer and internet connection.

Dr Aust is married to (logically enough) Mrs Dr Aust, a real gen-u-wine medical doctor. Mrs Dr A (MRCP) spent a decade plus in the NHS trenches, working in general medicine (“Internal medicine” as the Americans would say) and anaesthetics, and ending up as what is technically called a medical registrar (one level below consultant).  She is now working in a less “intense” medical specialty but is still more than able to correct anything really dumb I might be tempted to write about medicine or doctors.

We have one daughter, the rather wonderful Jr Aust, who orders us about mercilessly. Mrs Dr Aust says Jr Aust inherited her never shutting up from Dr Aust.

Summer 08 Update: we are now also the proud if stunned parents of a baby boy, henceforth “Baby Aust”.  Being only a few weeks old, he only eats (a lot), sleeps (a lot, which is good), cries (not as much as his sister did, another plus), and… that other stuff (a lot).

Spring 09 Update: Baby Aust is now mobile and dangerous.! See the Diary entry for Feb 25th.

Why a blog?

The usual. Spent so much time posting on my favourite blogs that I thought I’d try my hand myself. Plus my friends and colleagues kept telling me to (not because they thought I had anything to say – more to stop me boring them with my monologues at the Friday lunchtime lab meeting at the local bar).

What’s it about?

Anything at all, really. Though probably 99% science and how it intersects with the news. And especially scientific nonsense in all forms.

Why “scientific nonsense”?

Because there’s so much about, and it makes us science types variously cross, depressed, or just nervous about what crazy claptrap people believe… almost always about things for which there are perfectly sensible explanations.

More seriously, one reason some doctors and scientists (like me) get rather obsessed with this “rubbish about science” stuff is that it rather defeats the point of doing biomedical research if the public don’t believe any of the results. Or don’t grasp, or believe in, the “scientific method”.


Disturbingly, they all seem to be dead. Scientific one: Richard Feynman. It doesn’t do to take yourself too seriously.

And finally… a disclaimer:

As you will noticed if you have read the above, I am NOT a medically-trained doctor, or physician or MD if you prefer. I am a PhD-trained scientist. I know lots of medics, I teach them, I work with them, I publish papers with them on and off, and I’m married to one – but I am NOT one myself. Hope that’s clear enough.

Which leads me to:


None of the content on this blog is intended either as, or as a substitute for, medical advice . If you need medical advice, see your own doctor.

Any information should not be used for diagnosis or treatment.

The author is not a medical doctor, nor has he had any medical training.

(With apologies to Coracle, from whom I borrowed the original version of this statement)