Lately it’s been difficult to find a seat in the lobby of the Livingston-Wheeler Medical Clinic in Point Loma. Across the country news stories have begun appearing about the elderly medical doctor in San Diego who claims to have discovered the cause of all cancers; who, better still, says she has developed a vaccine which protects healthy people from ever getting the disease; who, best of all, claims a greater than eighty-percent success rate for treating cancer victims. Next thing you know, the clinic’s lobby is jammed.
Not that the Livingston-Wheeler Medical Clinic or the hope that it offers is particularly new. More than twenty years have passed since Dr. Virginia Livingston-Wheeler treated her first human cancer sufferer, a San Diego dentist. She opened her first clinic here in 1969 and six years later expanded to her current facility, a half-block from the section of Midway Drive where Arby’s, Wendy’s, Bob's Big Boy, and McDonald’s come together. Livingston-Wheeler says that over the years her clinic has welcomed more than 10,000 people. Curing cancer patients has become routine, in Livingston-Wheeler’s mind. What’s new is a book entitled The Conquest of Cancer, written by Livingston-Wheeler and released March 1 by the Franklin Watts publishing company in New York. It accounts for the crush of new patients.
One recent morning Livingston-Wheeler was blaming the book for her tardy arrival at work. The physician doesn’t move too swiftly under the best of circumstances. She turned seventy-seven in December and the years have left their mark on her. Her shoulder-length hair is chalky white; and although the pink of good health colors her cheeks, her fragile facial skin hardly conceals the outlines of her skull. Her shoulders hunch forward. She explained that she was late because the telephone at her home on Whale Watch Way in La Jolla had interrupted her so many times that morning.
“I almost went mad!” she cried. Every time she had tried to wash her face, to clean her teeth, another call pertaining to the book had intruded. Upon finally reaching the clinic, Livingston-Wheeler had cast a disapproving eye on the uncharacteristic disorder in some of the examining rooms; one of the clinic employees explained that the previous day’s patient load had been so heavy that the staff had not finished up until seven o’clock. “We’re already run out of room here,” Livingston-Wheeler muttered. “I think what we’re going to have to do is license clinics all across the country.”
A knock sounded at her office door, and one of the other four medical doctors who work at the clinic entered to complain about the barrage of phone calls at the clinic. Rather than having the staff physicians interrupt their consultations with clinic patients to answer such calls, he suggested, perhaps the doctors should take an hour at the end of the day to return the queries. “The problem with that is then we’d be paying for the calls,” Livingston countered sourly. The clinic’s phone bill could climb by hundreds of dollars a month. Instead she offered to hire an extra helper to relieve the doctors of answering the callers.
The colleague departed, but a moment later Dr. Owen Wheeler poked his head in with a quick question. Wheeler is more than just another staff doctor; he’s Livingston-Wheeler’s fourth husband and is one of the more dramatic converts to her beliefs. Trained in family medicine, he started practicing medicine in Point Loma more than thirty years ago and in 1958 helped to found Doctor’s Hospital (now Sharp Cabrillo). His own views on cancer were traditional — until at the age of sixty-two he discovered a lump in his own neck which was quickly diagnosed to be a malignant lymphoma. An old friend, an oncologist to whom Wheeler had referred many patients, agreed with Wheeler’s surgeon that the lemon-size mass was inoperable. “I did a strange thing at this time,” Wheeler recounts in one passage in The Conquest of Cancer. “I had been referring cancer patients not only to this oncologist but to several others for many years, and it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t ever seen many of those patients again. I called the various specialists and discovered that most of my patients had died. ... I decided that I didn’t want to be treated with radiation or chemotherapy. It struck me as curious that for years I’d been referring patients for radiation and chemotherapy procedures, and now I was reluctant to undergo them myself. I had been recommending treatments that seldom cured!”
With this realization, Wheeler says he began investigating “alternative cancer therapy” and thus discovered Virginia Livingston’s clinic and theories. “I read about her pioneering work in microbiology and bacteriology, as well as her discoveries of the cancer-causing progenitor cryptocides microbe and the hormone that it secreted. I finally saw the microbe in my own blood sample. ... It was more exciting to me than anything an astronaut circling the moon could have imagined.” He underwent the treatment his future wife had developed, and, he reports, “Within five months my tumor was completely gone. There has never been any recurrence, and it has now been more than ten years.” Shortly thereafter, Virginia Livingston’s third husband, Dr. A. M. Livingston, died and Wheeler agreed to help run the clinic. A year later the two married, and today they work side by side.
“Remember, we have to leave in just an hour,” Livingston-Wheeler called after her husband. The next moment brought still another interruption — a phone call to her broker at Coldwell Banker regarding a motel located not far from the clinic; Livingston-Wheeler hoped to acquire it as a tax write-off and source of extra office space. Although some of her critics within the traditional cancer-fighting establishment accuse Livingston-Wheeler of getting rich off her hapless clients, Livingston-Wheeler herself claims the truth is just the reverse, that her personal wealth has had to subsidize the cancer work. She pays her staff physicians $72,000 per year, "a good average salary," she says of that wage, “the same as a university professor or somebody working at another clinic.” In addition to the five staff doctors (who include herself and her husband), Livingston-Wheeler says the clinic employs almost twenty other people, and yet she says probably only forty to fifty patients pass through the facility each day because of the length of time required for each patient. The most seriously ill among them come Monday through Friday for two consecutive weeks, and pay approximately $3000 to $3500. “And that includes their IVs and their vaccines and their vitamins and everything else.” Those who are less ill pay even less, she says. Livingston-Wheeler claims that as a result of these low fees she has consistently failed to make any money on the clinic, but “I have been very, very fortunate in real estate,” she explains. “I’m a very good businesswoman, which I don’t spend all my time at. But I have made very, very good investments, and I’ve built up a large estate of a few million dollars from my businesses [other than the clinicJ. So I pour that money in.”
If the additional demands on her time spawned by the book have harried her in recent days, Livingston-Wheeler still displays a willingness, even eagerness, to share her time with news reporters. She talks about feeling a moral responsibility to communicate her knowledge about cancer, as long as people are dying from the disease. There’s a missionary spirit behind her words today, but such zeal seems to have been absent from her early days in medicine.
This is a woman who only decided to become a doctor after first graduating from Vassar College (in 1930) and training to be a buyer for Macy’s in New York. After deciding she didn’t like that work, she entered New York University’s Bellevue Medical School, a logical second career choice, she explains, since her father was a doctor for the mills in Pittsburgh. “We lived in a little frame house right by the mills. A Hungarian washerwoman was downstairs, my father’s practice was on the first floor, and our family and an Irish housekeeper lived on the second. We didn’t need a housekeeper but my mother never did a dab of work in her life; she didn’t believe in it. She lived to be ninety-eight and she always said, ‘Exercise is weakening.’ ” Young Virginia’s first marriage — to a talented but alcoholic journalist — had broken up before she finished medical school. After completing her medical training, she says she practiced for about a year with another female doctor in Scarsdale. Before long, however, Livingston-Wheeler remarried, this time to a man fourteen years her senior, a professor of chemistry who had been one of her teachers in medical school. Once again medicine all but disappeared from the young doctor’s life as she stopped practicing, tried unsuccessfully with her new husband to have children, and ultimately adopted a little girl. Only a personal disaster forced her back to work. Her husband had taken his life savings, reportedly more than $100,000, and had invested the money in a freight-car load of sheepskins from which he planned to make sheepskin coats under a government contract, but he lost everything when the train derailed. As a result of the shock he nearly died of a heart attack. To support the family, Virginia got a job as a Newark school physician, and in a strange twist of events the post led her to the cancer research.
She says she used to rotate between various elementary schools, and one day she happened to examine one of the school nurses. The nurse had been diagnosed as having a disease which caused her fingertips to become sore and ulcerated, but Livingston-Wheeler found a leprous perforation in the cartilage of the woman’s nose. The doctor had had plenty of exposure to leprosy during her residency training, when she had worked as the first woman resident in New York City in the field of infectious diseases. At the prison section of Kingston Avenue Hospital in Brooklyn she had examined numerous cases of leprosy and tuberculosis, and she had read all she could about the two at the time. As she examined the nurse years later, she resolved to study the ailment troubling the woman, a little-understood disease called scleroderma.
One peculiarity amid the stack of scientific papers and other works Livingston-Wheeler has published over the years is the plethora of female names that appear in her citations. To those who wonder how the female medical doctors, so scarce in Livingston-Wheeler’s earlier days, figured so prominently in this anticancer literature, Livingston-Wheeler offers at least a partial explanation: she says she belonged to a medical women’s journal club in Newark, and with her adopted baby daughter and incapacitated husband, “I seemed to arouse protection in everyone.” Thus when she became interested in the nurse’s scleroderma, one of the women’s club’s dermatologists and one of its pathologists both agreed to assist her.
In the pathologist’s laboratory, Livingston-Wheeler says she stained smears from the ailing nurse’s nose and finger ulcers with the dye used in the study of leprosy and tuberculosis. Under the microscope, Livingston-Wheeler could clearly discern the presence of microbes, and her excited hope that she had discovered the previously unknown cause of scleroderma increased when the nurse’s skin condition improved in response to an antibacterial drug. Livingston-Wheeler then began studying other scleroderma victims referred to her by the journal club’s dermatologist members, and she found more microscopic bugs, more response to the antibacterial drug. By 1947 she had triumphantly named the offending microbe sclerobacillus Wuerthele Caspe — after her own maiden and married names at the time — in an article published in The Journal of the Medical Society of New Jersey.
To this day, the established medical community still has not acknowledged Livingston-Wheeler to be the conquerer of scleroderma; the disease is considered to remain a mystery. Though she believes that to be an oversight, Livingston-Wheeler says in the late 1940s her attention shifted from scleroderma to cancer for other reasons than the lack of recognition of her scleroderma work. She explains that when she injected cultures of the “scleroderma” microbes into chicks and guinea pigs, she saw the development of cancer-like growths which made her suspect that cancer and scleroderma were related. Another female doctor friend who was chief radiologist at the Newark City Hospital agreed to get Livingston-Wheeler whatever cancer tissues she needed. By this point, Livingston-Wheeler had established a lab in her own basement, and she says that to her amazement, she saw similar mystery microorganisms each time she stained a different cancer sample with the so-called “acid-fast” dye and examined it under ,the microscope. She worked on more papers for less prestigious medical publications, and her suspicion grew that cancers were caused by a bacillus — the same bacillus she had first glimpsed in the scleroderma sufferers’ tissues.
This was a notion unlikely to win her any quick Nobel Prize. The problem was not that no one had ever thought of the possibility that bacterial microbes could cause cancer. On the contrary, asserts Dr. Michael Shimkin, too many researchers had followed that line of investigation to a futile conclusion. A professor emeritus at UCSD’s School of Medicine, Shimkin is the author of several books on cancer, including one considered to be the definitive history of U.S. cancer research. He explains that at the end of the Nineteenth Century, as the newly discovered field of bacteriology enjoyed triumph after triumph, legions of researchers looked for bacteria in cancer, and often found them. “They would put them in various media and something would grow out, and then they would convince themselves that this had something to do with cancer. There was a very rich literature by 1910, and all of it was discredited or disproved because nobody could replicate it.” He continues, “Most tumors, if you let them grow long enough, become infected, and so obviously it’s no trick to fish out bacteria from them. . . . There were a lot of people that wasted a lot of time not only up till 1910 but later on, trying to show whether bacteria were involved in cancer, and they couldn’t. . . . They couldn’t even recover the same bug time after time. There were all kinds of bugs that would creep into cancers.” Livingston-Wheeler was aware that these so-called failures had brought disgrace upon the microbiological approach to cancer research, but they simply failed to daunt her. Some of those early researchers had seen important evidence, she believed. They may have failed to follow through properly on that evidence, but she would succeed.
Her big chance to prove herself came in 1949. Livingston-Wheeler explains that Abbott Labs, interested in her experimental treatment of scleroderma patients, offered her a small research grant if she could obtain university sponsorship. With some skillful politicking, Livingston-Wheeler persuaded the Newark Presbyterian Hospital to allow her the use of an old nurses’ residence, and she convinced Rutgers University to lend its imprimatur to the running of the facility as a research lab under the auspices of Rutgers’ Bureau of Biological Research. Volunteers helped her to renovate the old brownstone residence, and Livingston-Wheeler says over the next few years she won grants from the American Cancer Society, the Reader’s Digest, and other research funds.
“The next few years at Rutgers were to be the most significant period of my work in cancer research,” she writes in her book. “Our research team was enthusiastic that our work would prove once and for all that the . . . microbe was the cause of cancer and that a vaccine could be made to defend against it.” During the four-plus years that Livingston-Wheeler ran the lab, she and the team she assembled studied a wide variety of animal and human tumors. Livingston-Wheeler says strains of the bacterial cultures developed from them were sent to other labs for identification, but “none could really classify them. They were something unknown.”
She claims the team was able to inject “pure cultures” obtained from human and animal cancers into animals which then developed diseased areas that resembled those from which the cultures were obtained, growths which in turn allegedly yielded more of the initial bacteria. As the years passed, Livingston-Wheeler began voicing one heresy upon another. Some of her findings convinced her that the cancer infection could be passed from one kind of animal to another, say from chickens to humans. She developed a vaccine designed to protect chickens against a cancerous disease that was killing many fowl on the poultry farms of New Jersey, and she claimed her efforts succeeded.
By 1953 she had coupled all this work with a theory based on immunology. Immunity levels determined whether any human being would fall victim to the varied ravages of the cancer microbe, she began to believe. Indeed, eventually Livingston-Wheeler would come to believe that the microbe, which she named progenitor cryptocides, can always be found in both well and ill individuals, in healthy tissue as well as cancerous. She says the difference is that healthy people with strong immune systems have the ability to keep the microbe in balance, whereas the microbe proliferates and changes into a pathogenic form in people (or animals) whose bodily defenses are weak. In 1951 a prime opportunity to prove her theories came within her grasp. That year Livingston-Wheeler received word that the Black-Stevenson Cancer Foundation had pored over more than 5000 suggestions for cancer research programs and had selected just two recipients for awards of $750,000 each: the world-famous Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, and Livingston-Wheeler’s own clinic at the Newark Hospital. With the announcement, Livingston-Wheeler writes, “We could see establishing preventive clinics across the nation that would screen patients and immunize them when they were bacteriologically positive.’’ Instead, twin disasters all but ended her cancer research.
The first was political, at least as Livingston-Wheeler recounts it. She says the director of Sloan-Kettering, a man devoted to the promise of chemotherapy, regarded her and her Newark team as dangerous upstarts. Livingston-Wheeler claims that after her lab had won the $750,000 grant, this man managed to convince the grant directors that Livingston-Wheeler should only be able to expend the money under Sloan-Kettering’s direction. And as it turns out, the only expenditures he would approve were the addition of a new wing to the Newark hospital and the installation of a high-voltage cobalt machine, a form of treatment that completely contradicted Livingston-Wheeler’s philosophy.
The second calamity struck at about the same time, and Livingston-Wheeler categorizes it as a personal betrayal, perpetrated by a tuberculosis researcher from Cornell who had joined Livingston-Wheeler’s team as chief bacteriologist. In 1953 Livingston-Wheeler had gone to visit her sick mother who had retired to California, only to find upon her return to the Newark lab that the researcher had grown some obviously contaminated cultures. Livingston-Wheeler claims the researcher denied the contamination and retorted, “Well, you’re just jealous because I got them [the impressive cultures] when you weren’t here.’’ To which Livingston-Wheeler replied that she wasn't jealous, only concerned about the lab’s reputation. For that reason she claims she ordered the researcher not to exhibit the cultures at an upcoming medical conference, an order the researcher disobeyed. Livingston-Wheeler says other scientists soon detected the contamination, and as a result Rutgers told Livingston-Wheeler to close the lab, fire the researcher, and move to the university’s main quarters in New Brunswick. “I didn’t know what to do. I was really in a quandary,’’ Livingston-Wheeler recalls. “Our work was sound. But [the researcher] had made this stupid mistake.”
Right about the same time, Livingston-Wheeler’s chemist husband, who had recovered from his heart attack, received an offer to participate in a Mexican business enterprise. Feeling “betrayed, hurt, and angry” over the developments at the Newark laboratory, Livingston-Wheeler says she closed the facility and moved with her husband and daughter to Southern California; eventually the family settled in San Diego, from where the chemist commuted to his Mexican business. Before very long, however, he died of another heart attack, and once more Livingston-Wheeler was on her own.
Here she was in 1954, convinced at least to her own satisfaction that her work had established her to be one of the few people in America who understood the workings of cancer and who could be expected to develop effective treatment of the terrible disease. Yet for at least the next dozen years she all but turned her back on cancer research. Today she explains that she first had to concentrate on earning a living; she got a job as an internist with the San Diego Health Association on Maple Street in Hillcrest. It paid $800 a month, “which was a lot in those days,” but “as the only woman . . . and the last physician hired, I worked almost double time to become accepted by the rest of the staff and to establish my name in the area. . . she writes. She adds that one of her colleagues at the health association, an eye-ear-nose-and-throat specialist named A. M. Livingston, worried so much that she would be killed while making nocturnal house calls in Logan Heights that he insisted upon acting as her escort. Soon she wed him, taking his name.
They were married for twenty-one years. Her domestic happiness, however, was complicated by major health problems. In 1962 she suffered a heart attack which forced a drastic curtailment of her activities. She nonetheless managed to respond to a very personal call to return to cancer research. Livingston-Wheeler says a friend confided one day that her husband, a well-known local dentist, had learned about the growth of a huge malignant tumor of his thymus gland, a tumor so thoroughly entangled in the surrounding chest-cavity tissues that surgeons had declared it inoperable and predicted the dentist would die within two to three months. When the dentist’s wife tearfully pleaded with Livingston-Wheeler to apply her insight into the disease to a treatment program, Livingston-Wheeler agreed, reluctantly, she says. Proceeding on her theory that strengthening the immune system could result in recovery, Livingston-Wheeler concocted a program which included a change in diet, the use of mild antibiotics, and the administration of a vaccine she made by finding the so-called progenitor cryptocides microbe in the dentist’s body, then culturing it, killing it, and injecting it back into the bloodstream. Today the dentist’s wife, who lives in El Cajon, testifies that within a year and a half x-rays showed her husband’s tumor to have disappeared. He lived until the summer of 1980 — almost eighteen years after first receiving the Livingston-Wheeler vaccine.
Soon after the dentist’s recovery he appealed to David Fleet of the prominent Fleet family to award Livingston-Wheeler a $3000 research grant, and for a while she got some laboratory space to do research at the University of San Diego. By 1969, however, she and her husband had decided to open a clinic specializing in immunological therapy. At first they rented a $125-per-month office on First Avenue. One of their earliest patients was a young man with a brain tumor whose affliction seemed to be aided by the Livingston-Wheeler’s ministrations. His grateful father sold Livingston-Wheeler the current one-acre site off Midway Drive for only $100,000, and in 1975 she built a 4000-square-foot clinic on the property. When her mother died and left her a quarter of a million dollars, she used the money to enlarge her bustling treatment facility.
Despite its current size, the clinic still is just an outpatient facility; that is, all the out-of-town patients must seek independent lodging during the two weeks of their initial training and treatment. The treatment program has grown more complex over the years but is basically an evolved form of the therapy Livingston-Wheeler devised for the dentist, her first experimental human subject. Today the “full program” at the clinic can include four "biological immune boosters" such as gamma globulin, B12 liver and spleen extracts; blood transfusions; antibiotics; megavitamins; enemas; and a largely raw-vegetarian diet which eliminates all sugars, white flour, and processed foods. Other “alternative” cancer clinics feature all these measures, but the Livingston-Wheeler clinic claims one unique element — the administration of anticancer vaccines which purportedly are made from the cancer germ, the variant of progenitor cryptocides found in each patient’s own body.
Livingston-Wheeler says all the vaccines are made in the clinic laboratory. One recent morning a lab technician was sitting at a bench containing twenty or thirty stacks of Petri dishes and working on one step in the vaccine-manufacturing process. With the nonchalance of one who has done a boring job too many times, she was smearing the blood-red culture medium in each of the dishes with the contents of test tubes labeled with different patients’ names and containing isolates of bacteria taken from their urine. “Tomorrow, when they’re grown after twenty-four hours, we’ll harvest the cultures. Then we put them in sterile tubes with two-percent phenol saline solution to kill them.” The full vaccine-making process takes from four to six weeks, she explained. (Thus out-of-town clients must either return to Point Loma or be sent their vaccines through the mail.)
In an adjoining room, another lab technician positioned a blood-stained glass slide under the lenses of a microscope. In less than a minute a swarming image came into focus on an adjoining viewing screen. “This is the P. C. [the progenitor cryptocides microbe],” the technician said casually, indicating hundreds of pinheadshaped white dots floating amid blood cells illuminated against a dark background. The pinhead-shaped objects were nonpathogenic, the technician declared. It didn’t take her long to locate other, more malevolent variations of progenitor cryptocides: rodshaped objects and a larger, snakelike variant — all warnings of a debilitated immune system, according to the technician.
That morning, the bustle under the laboratory microscope seemed the quietest activity at the clinic.
Throughout the corridors, white-coated nurses ushered patients in and out of antiseptic-scented examining rooms superficially indistinguishable from those in any more conventional medical suite. At the front of the clinic, past the crowded lobby, people gathered for the vegetarian lunch ($2.50 per serving). A few ashen individuals occupied wheelchairs, but mingled among them were diners who betrayed no sign of illness. In fact, robustly healthy people as well as dying ones are welcomed on these premises; the healthy come for a $500 “prevention” program, the keystone of which once again includes the individually tailored anticancer vaccine.
All these health and miracle seekers haven’t escaped the attention of local health regulators. The food and drug branch of the state department of health services did investigate the Livingston-Wheeler Medical Clinic several years ago, but no charges were ever filed. Jim Waddell, one of the department’s San Diego agents, says he periodically has received letters of complaint about the clinic, and Waddell has concluded that if Livingston-Wheeler were not a physician, her activities would be illegal; but “a physician can treat his or her patients with any modality he or she chooses.” Waddell adds that Livingston-Wheeler’s alleged anti-cancer vaccine falls into the category of a “biological substance” rather than a drug, which further limits the state investigators’ control over it.
Livingston-Wheeler says an attempt at professional as opposed to legal sanction failed a few years ago when she applied to rejoin the San Diego County Medical Society after having allowed her membership to lapse in the wake of her heart attack. “They didn’t want to readmit me. I went before a board of forty doctors. They were very mean to me. They called me names.” Her detractors on the board apparently failed to persuade the majority to bar the cancer doctor, who today remains a member in good standing.
While the law and her peers have been unable to stop Livingston-Wheeler from dispensing her treatments, the American Cancer Society has actively tried to persuade cure seekers to shun use of the vaccines. As far back as 1968 the society issued a statement declaring that a team of experts had carefully studied the Livingston vaccine and had concluded that no evidence existed that the treatment works. Helene Brown, a Los Angeles resident who is both the national vice chairman for the society and the head of its committee on “unproven methods,” fulminates that Livingston-Wheeler is “exploiting cancer patients at a time in their lives when they can least afford to be exploited.” Most are deeply frightened. Brown says, “and they go to her [Livingston-Wheeler] because she is offering them what their own doctors cannot offer them. Because their own doctors have to tell them the truth, and she doesn’t.”
In Brown’s view, Livingston-Wheeler’s motives are transparent. “I think she's making a lot of money. I think it’s as simple as that. She’s not misled. She’s an M.D.” That opinion, however, is at the harshest end of the spectrum of professional opinion about the self-described “cancer conquerer.” At the other end, it’s easy to find San Diego oncologists and cancer researchers who are persuaded of Livingston-Wheeler’s sincerity. One thing that impresses them is Livingston-Wheeler’s willingness to refer her patients to them in those cases when her treatment has obviously failed. Hillcrest oncologist Dr. Fred Saleh has taken such referrals from Livingston-Wheeler for about two years and he judges, “I really believe Virginia is an honest person.”
Saleh says most of the patients who have come to him from Livingston-Wheeler have asked him if they could continue at the same time with Livingston-Wheeler’s program, and the oncologist has not discouraged them from doing so. He says he even has had a general impression that these patients tend to respond to chemotherapy and radiation better than the average. But why? He points out that Livingston-Wheeler’s referrals have tended to come from higher socio-economic classes, to have strong familial support, to pay attention to nutrition, and to be strongly motivated — all of which also could well account for a better-than-average response.
He points out something else that limits his ability to assess what Livingston-Wheeler recommends. “I don’t see her successes. And she won’t see the successes that we [oncologists] have. We see each other’s failures.” Aware of that limitation, Saleh stops short of declaring that Livingston-Wheeler’s program doesn’t work. At the same time, he says he can’t ethically refer any of his patients to Livingston-Wheeler’s treatment because he has no grounds for believing that that treatment does work. The only such grounds would be controlled, scientific studies.
The charge that her work has not passed scientific scrutiny genuinely seems to upset Livingston-Wheeler. When she mentions that "some people" think her work will eventually earn her a Nobel Prize, she gives the impression that she thinks the prediction reasonable; being not just a healer but also a serious scientist is very important to her self-image. She also believes she’s worked hard on several fronts to establish the validity of her work.
She says the task of quantifying the cure rate at the clinic has been difficult because of the tremendous variety of the types and severity of cancers she treats. Nonetheless, for her recently published book she did organize what she describes as a "random survey" of her own effectiveness. Last October she had a scientist not employed by the clinic pull out at random one hundred patient charts. Livingston-Wheeler then culled from that group of charts all non-cancer patients, all patients who decided not to follow the program, and all patients who came to the clinic after June 30, 1982. Sixty-two charts were left, including seventeen diagnosed as terminal. Livingston-Wheeler says an examination of the sixty-two random cases showed a success rate of eighty-two percent — an astoundingly high rate when one considers that the very best cure rates claimed by conventional medicine are about seventy percent (for testicular cancer and Hodgkin’s disease), with the statistics for most advanced cancers much grimmer than that. However, few serious researchers would take Livingston-Wheeler’s home-grown “random sample” very seriously. “One of the reasons she has such a wonderful success rate is because when the victims get sick they stop going to her,” says one detractor. Such individuals are referred back to the medical establishment, “and then traditional medicine takes the rap for not healing them.”
On the other hand, Livingston-Wheeler doesn’t tout the survey as being very scientific. She acknowledges that no controlled study of the vaccine has ever been done. While she says she could not morally do such a study of her own patients — because this would require her to withhold the vaccine from some of the patients — Livingston-Wheeler complains that she has offered details of the vaccine procedure to research institutions, including the Sloan-Kettering cancer center in New York. She’d be delighted if any of them would do a study of the vaccine, she insists.
The problem with that, says Dr. Shimkin, UCSD’s cancer research historian, is that “science follows leads that seem to be promising.” He points out that after a single article appeared about the possible significance of monoclonal antibodies in Nature in 1975, “my God, everybody in the world jumped on that. And monoclonal antibodies are being made in three or four laboratories right here in San Diego because it’s so hot.” He contrasts that with the much-explored bacterial theories of cancer and says, “People who are working hard in science have a lot more to do and more interesting things to do than to work on some old, tired theory that they know is not going to work out.”
So Livingston-Wheeler offers a third line of argument in support of her position — a bound volume of papers published in various scientific journals. She thinks these published writings alone conclusively establish the basis for her treatment program. Although most of the scientific papers published by Livingston-Wheeler are more than twenty years old, she says important confirmation of her work has appeared within the last two to three years.
Wost of those newly published confirmatory papers have come from the pen of Dr. Alan Cantwell, a fifty-year-old dermatologist who practices at the Southern California Permanente Medical Group in Los Angeles. Livingston-Wheeler’s name first came to his attention because of the disease scleroderma, Cantwell explains. Just as Livingston-Wheeler did back in Newark in the late Forties, Cantwell also — startlingly — found bacteria in a sample of scleroderma while he was doing research as a medical resident twenty years ago. Another dermatologist friend subsequently told him that Livingston-Wheeler had made the same finding, and over the years Cantwell became familiar with Livingston-Wheeler’s seemingly far-fetched claims about cancer, claims from which he carefully distanced himself. “It’s one thing to talk about bacteria in scleroderma. But when you start talking about bacteria in cancer, that’s basically taboo. Nobody but idiots talk about bacteria in cancer!’’ Because he never wanted to be known as a “weirdo,’’ Cantwell says he avoided looking at any cancers under the microscope until about five or six years ago, when his curiosity finally overcame his fears of professional stigmatization. Since then he has examined a half dozen different types of cancer and found the mystery microbe in all of them.
Cantwell says, “It finally dawned on me that everyone has this microbe. It’s a universal germ that everybody carries, not only man but animals and plants. It’s like a germ that has adapted to living with us, which shouldn’t be terribly shocking. . . . But Virginia has always said that the problem is quantitative rather than qualitative.’’ Cantwell hypothesizes that the microbes exist in a very delicate balance, and “only when the immune system tilts, then these microbes become a problem.’’
A charming, voluble man, Cantwell obviously harbors no illusions about the popularity of this theory. “We have all these preconceived ideas, and when someone comes along and says you can see the cancer germ with a microscope, they say, ‘Oh, come on! The whole world has got microscopes and you’re telling me you’re the only two people that see it? Give me a break! ’ After a while you start to think, ‘Well, am I nuts?’ ’’ Counterbalancing any such self-doubt, however, Cantwell brings up other famous cases in which one person has proven the world wrong. He says a recent example involved Legionnaire’s Disease. “Everyone said it couldn’t be a bacterium," Cantwell says, but one lone researcher at the national Center for Disease Control used the right coloring on his tissue samples and looked carefully and stuck to his convictions — and was eventually shown to be correct. Inspired by that example, Cantwell says his own efforts have been directed simply to trying to get other medical researchers to look at these puzzling bacteria deep in the cancer tissue.
Judging from the reaction of one local “orthodox” cancer researcher, Cantwell’s tactic may not get him very far. This particular physician and six-year cancer researcher — call him Dr. Smith — had not come across any of Cantwell’s published cancer “findings.” Indeed, Smith sneered at the publications which had carried Cantwell’s findings (the Journal of Dermatologic Surgery & Oncology, for example). “It’s not even a major journal in dermatology, besides which dermatology per se is not a cancer subspecialty,” he said. But Smith agreed to a request to read Cantwell’s articles,which purportedly confirm Livingston-Wheeler’s work. (Smith asked that his true name not be used out of a fear Cantwell or Livingston-Wheeler might retaliate against any criticism by suing either Smith or the San Diego research institution that employs him.)
What seemed to outrage Smith most about Cantwell’s published work was Cantwell’s report of what happened when he grew cultures of the “cancer microbe." According to Cantwell, the cultured microbes resembled a common strain of bacteria known as staphlococcus epidermitis. Livingston-Wheeler vehemently maintains that the microbes are in fact progenitor cryptocides, and that they simply look similar to staphlococcus epidermitis. But Cantwell isn't positive. In either case, Cantwell says.
“You have to remember that the reason staphlococcus epidermitis is all over the place is because you can’t get rid of it. I personally feel that if something is all over the place, it’s a lot stronger than me.’’ In other words, Cantwell suggests that the pervasive bacteria, regardless of the name by which it is identified, may be the key to cancer.
Cancer researcher Smith finds this idea outrageous. “Staphlococcus epidermitis is the most common skin contaminant of all organisms,’’ he says. “It’s found on everyone! Our skins are loaded with this organism. It’s just a contaminant. In fact, if you have a person who has a fever and he comes into the hospital and someone does a blood culture on that patient and they grow staphlococcus epidermitis. the doctors ignore it because it is assumed the skin wasn’t cleaned properly before they took the culture. Therefore, to say that this is in some way implicated in the disease is just nonsense!”
Smith further says that even if the microbe in the Cantwell cancer tissue isn’t really staphlococcus epidermitis but is instead something that merely looks like it, he remains scornful of any leap to the conclusion that the microbe causes cancer. He says, ‘‘To establish it as the cause, you’d have to then take it and put it into an animal and make a tumor. Not just see it in a tumor. That’s the critical point. Unless you can do this, you cannot prove that this is the cause.”
The debate over whether Livingston-Wheeler or anyone else has ever done that (she claims yes; others challenge that claim) obviously
is far removed from the minds of the pilgrims daily being drawn to the Point Loma clinic. Their minds and emotions are engaged by examples such as Jane Kerwin, a victim of ovarian cancer so grateful to the Livingston-Wheeler therapy that she volunteers several hours a week to helping out at the clinic. Kerwin is fifty-six, pert and youthful, a widow who moved to San Diego in 1974. Four years ago, when her gynecologist recommended a hysterectomy to rid her of a long-standing fibroid uterine tumor, Kerwin wasted no time worrying about cancer. She had no family history of it and had always enjoyed excellent health. Indeed her uterus was fine, but the surgery revealed that cancer had ravaged her ovaries. Although the surgeon removed them and all other traces of the disease he could find, two oncologists told Kerwin after the operation that minuscule traces of the cancer almost certainly remained in her body. If she did not follow up the surgery with radiation and chemotherapy, her life expectancy would be only thirteen to eighteen months, they warned.
“I went through radiation for seven weeks at Scripps Clinic,” Kerwin recounts. Though she endured the ordeal well, Kerwin shrank from the prospect of following it with chemotherapy, particularly when told that the powerful drugs she would have to take only helped one-third of the people with conditions like hers. The alternative of trying the Livingston-Wheeler clinic, which Kerwin had heard about from a Long Beach health-food store owner, seemed at least as promising. “I was really impressed with their [the clinic staff’s] attitude,” she says. “Their attitude is cancer can be controlled just like diabetes can be controlled.”
She started the clinic program on September 3, 1980, and Kerwin says by April of 1981 “all my important tests came out in the normal range. The immune system was then functioning properly.” Ever since, Kerwin says she has carefully followed the prescribed diet and kept up her immunizations, a drastic change in her life which she frankly describes as being onerous. “I used to eat steak and pork. I liked to have a drink before dinner and a drink when I went out. ... In the afternoons I used to like to have a cup of coffee and a piece of pie with a friend.” Now the tiny kitchen of her furnished studio apartment on Dawes Street in Pacific Beach features a blender, juicer, and cartons of vitamins.
For all the burdens, however, Kerwin says, “If I’d taken the chemotherapy, I wouldn’t be here. I think my body really needed something to build it up. . . . In regular medicine they just repair you. They don’t tell you what to do to keep repaired.” She gets angry at the suggestion that Livingston-Wheeler may be offering cancer patients a false hope. “Boy, when they tell you you have cancer, you can just see that they've Xed you out. ... I don't think people should have to live without hope. It makes no difference whether it’s false or not!” Kerwin says even if her cancer should one day return — which she thinks is unlikely — she still would have no doubts about the efficacy of Livingston-Wheeler’s program. “Look, the oncologists told me 1 would live for thirteen to eighteen months. And how many months have I been able to live past that?”
“The ego defends itself very well,” says William Jarvis, president of the California Council Against Health Fraud. A professor of health education and chairman of the public health sciences department at Loma Linda University, Jarvis has heard an endless stream of anecdotes about cancer recoveries over the years, and he says no matter how emotionally powerful any single anecdote may be, it doesn’t prove anything. People receiving traditional medical therapy sometimes experience “miraculous” recoveries; so, sometimes, do people who receive no treatment at all. To evaluate Livingston-Wheeler's claims more scientifically, Jarvis has visited the Point Loma clinic, read many of Livingston-Wheeler’s articles, and has concluded that Livingston-Wheeler doesn’t offer any solid evidence that her program works. Yet when his neighbor across the street developed colon cancer, Jarvis got a personal insight into the loyalty of one of Livingston-Wheeler’s patients. “In the end, the man and his wife were laying out seventy-five dollars a day for food supplements. But the worst part is that they kept being told that he was getting better when he obviously was getting worse. For example, his wife used to sit him out in the sun in the driveway, and one day I came home and found him on the ground. Even clues like that didn’t shake her faith at all.”
When the neighbor finally died of the cancer about a year and a half ago, the wife was completely unprepared psychologically, Jarvis says. But Jarvis thinks the widow today still endorses the Livingston-Wheeler therapy. And maybe she’s right; no one has proven Livingston-Wheeler wrong, Jarvis concedes. On the other hand, he laughs at the thought of any large organization — a pharmaceutical company, for example — presenting so little evidence for the efficacy of its products after so many years of claims. Jarvis wonders aloud, “So why does Livingston-Wheeler get away with it?"