Stephen Barrett, M.D.
In the early 1990s, a Toronto couple, Sonia and Khachadour Atikian, were prosecuted for failing to provide the necessities of life for their daughter Lorie, who had died at the age of 17 months. Courtroom testimony indicated that the child had died of pneumonia and malnutrition after being kept on a meager diet. Mrs. Atikian maintained that she was following the advice of Gerhard Hanswille, a local herbalist who claimed his system could help make Lorie a "superbaby."
Hanswille admitted that on the day before Lorie died, he had treated her with an electromagnetic machine and advised wrapping her in cabbage leaves. But he denied influencing Mrs. Atikian against conventional treatment and said he had told her to seek medical advice. Hanswille, who was unlicensed, also told the court that he held a doctor of naturopathy degree from Bernadean University [a nonaccredited correspondence school].
A CANADIAN TRAGEDY
The quackery-related death of a 17-month-old girl has sent shock waves across Canada. No one aspect of the story is unusual. The scenario is a classic combination of cultural vulnerability, modern urban mythology and quackery.
Dead from malnutrition and pneumonia is Lorie Atikian. Eight months before her death on September 25, 1987, Lorie was a perfectly healthy baby. When she died she was nearly bald, covered with deep red rashes, and so emaciated that the paramedics thought they were being tricked by being given a doll to treat.
Lorie's parents Sonia, 38, and Khachadour, 54, are emigres from Lebanon and Syria. In addition to Lorie, the couple has two teenaged children. Like many people these days the Atikian's were concerned about modern food additives, pesticide residues, and drugs. Their cultural background may have made them a bit more vulnerable, but like most people they held positive attitudes toward "natural" food and medicine. Sonia became enamored with Gerhard Hanswille, an "herbologist."
Gerhard Hanswille, 55, says that he learned herbology in Germany through self-study and books (Germany has a tradition of folk medicine that includes a great deal of Medieval herbalism). In 1972, Hanswille obtained a mail order doctoral degree in naturopathy from "Bernadean University" (BU) located at that time in Las Vegas, Nevada. BU, which was never approved or accredited to offer any courses, was closed down by the Nevada Commission on Postsecondary Education in 1976. It then moved to California where it operated for several years before eventually becoming "authorized" under the State's liberal rules (Aronson, 1983). California has tried to close BU but has been blocked by its claim to being a religious school of the Church of Universology (Emshwiller, 1987).
Hanswille owns two "House of Herbs" stores, writes and gives seminars at which he expounds his theories, which include making wax and clay effigies sealed with drops of blood and sperm (notions founded in Monism and Vitalism which are the basis of most primitive folk medicine). Hanswille's book describes how to heal diabetes, epilepsy, TB, tumors and paralysis by "touchless massage." Hanswille likens the technique to dowsing for water, something that "not everyone can do." Sonia paid $450 to take Hanswille's course.
Hanswille's compelling vision of natural health made a convert of Sonia. When she became pregnant with Lorie in 1985 Hanswille convinced her to remain "pure" for the sake of the child. She testified that Hanswille promised to make Lorie a super baby. "That baby is going to be very different. Its going to develop without chemicals. Its going to be strong and pure . . . going to be very special." Hanswille convinced Sonia that vaccinations would "poison" her child, and that ultrasound examination would damage an unborn baby's brain. He had Sonia tell her pediatrician that she would not be bringing Lorie in any more because the family was moving to California. Hanswille was described as ". . .like a doctor. . .surrounded by medicine and books. . . sure of what he was saying. He always had an answer."
Hanswille advocated an organic, vegetarian diet. He sold the Atikians a special juicer for $400 alleging that their own juicer "burned the nutrition" out of fruits. Among the special products the Atikians purchased from Hanswille were a bottle of baby oil that cost $16, a bar of soap costing $7.40, and a 3 kg box of laundry detergent that cost $35.99.
When Lorie became ill she was treated with royal jelly, "cell salts" (homeopathy), and an herbal concoction brewed by Hanswille. He also treated Lorie with an electromagnetic "vitalizing" machine that "stimulates the blood" and has attachments such as an electrified comb that "livens up the hair." Sonia Atikian testified that they became very concerned about Lorie's condition but that Hanswille assured them that it was normal for clumps of her baby's hair to fall out and not to worry if Lorie didn't gain weight. Hanswille told Sonia that taking Lorie to a hospital would be like "holding a loaded gun to Lorie's head and pulling the trigger."
The Legal Charges
The Atikians were charged with failing to provide the necessities of life for their baby daughter (child neglect). Up until now Hanswille has not been charged with anything. He has angrily complained that he feels like "the accused" but denies that he did anything wrong. He says that he "cannot tell people what to do," that it is up to the parents to make decisions for their children. The judge instructed the jury that it was all right for them to "vent your spleen" over the activities of Hanswille "and his ilk," but neither he nor herbalism were on trial in the death of little Lorie.
On June 12 the Atikians were found guilty of child neglect. Sentencing is scheduled for July 6.
How Unusual Is This Case?
The sad story of the death of little Lorie Atikian received national coverage in Canada by the Toronto Star (5/10-6/13) and The Globe and Mail. It is the kind of story that elicits harsh blame of the parents for their gullibility. "How could they have been so foolish?" is the usual response. The reality is that most of the public is sympathetic to the underlying assumptions that condemn modern food, commercial agriculture and extol "natural" medicine. The herbal industry is trying to distance itself from Hanswille by saying that the case is "not typical." However, we believe that what Hanswille told the Atikians is not only widely believed by health food and natural (herbal) medicine ilk; it largely represents the philosophy that is used to justify the existence of "alternative" medicine and herbalism. The faith the Atikians placed in Hanswille seems cult-like, but how different is it than the confidence a patient must put in a surgeon, anesthesiologist, radiologist, or physician who hold lives in their hands?
Murder, By Words Alone?
In 1962, a California chiropractor was convicted of second-degree murder by words alone in the death of 11-year-old cancer patient, Linda Epping. To get a conviction, the prosecutor had to prove that "his fraudulent representations ... caused Linda to die when she died" (Miner, 1964). We do not know enough about Ontario law to know if what Hanswille did constituted the unlawful practice of medicine, and if so, the resultant death of Lorie Atikian makes such a felony. We do know that Lorie's death is even more tragic than Linda Epping's because Linda had a form of cancer that is usually fatal while Lorie was a healthy baby with a normal future. People who presume to give health advice that can make the difference between life and death must be regulated by the government and held accountable for their misdeeds. Consumer protection law holds that practicing medicine is a privilege, not a right. Like driving a car or flying an airplane, only those who are qualified are granted such privilege by the state. It is clear that the state has a compelling responsibility to protect vulnerable people—and their children—from the glib purveyors of pseudomedicine. It matters not that such practitioners are sincere in their beliefs. Experience teaches that, when it comes to quackery, zealotry can be more dangerous than fraud.
This article was posted on March 29, 2009.