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Some Notes on Donsbach University

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

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.

Three 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.

History of Donsbach University

During the mid-1970s, Donsbach affiliated with Union University, a nonaccredited school in Los Angeles. During 1977, Union formed a nutrition department with Donsbach as its "dean" and he allegedly acquired MS and PhD "degrees" in nutrition from the school. 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.

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.

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.

Phony Accreditation

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. It 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.

The New York State Injunction

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.

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.

In 1987, Jacob Swilling assumed ownership of Donsbach University, which was renamed International University for Nutrition Education but soon went defunct. Since that time Donsbach's primary activity has been the operation of Hospital Santa Monica, a Mexican clinic that offers dubious treatments for cancer and other serious diseases.

Donsbach's "Graduates"

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:

Other Donsbach "graduates" I have identified include Michael Adelson, JD, H. DeWayne Ashmead, Sheila McKenzie Barnswell, Kenny F. Bastien, Cheryl A. Beckett, Donna Billmeyer, William Brown, Dorothy L. Cady, Ralph E. Carson, Herbert Eller, Marcy Foley,, Hanoch Guy, Betsy Jorgensen, Kathleen Kellers, Marian Kibler, Jan A. Krancher, Lark Lands, Joan Matthews Larson, William H. Lee, RPh, Ruth Yale Long, Richard Marconi, Neil McAlister, Charles Parry, Cynthia Poa, Osha B. Reader, Jack Richason, William Daniel Roberts, David W. Rowland, James Salvadori, Jr., Barbara Reed Stitt, Irwin Stone, Thomas A. Sult, MD, 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.

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This article was revised on May 28, 2004.