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The Hoxsey Hoax

Gently holding the hand of five year old Kathy Allison, John Haluska walked to the podium in the Pennsylvania State Senate. “Here is a little angel,” he told his colleagues, “who according to medical science had to meet the angels soon. But after receiving the Hoxsey treatment in Dallas, she is going to school and is cancer free. And they still call Harry Hoxsey a quack.”

Gently holding the hand of five year old Kathy Allison, John Haluska walked to the podium in the Pennsylvania State Senate. “Here is a little angel,” he told his colleagues, “who according to medical science had to meet the angels soon. But after receiving the Hoxsey treatment in Dallas, she is going to school and is cancer free. And they still call Harry Hoxsey a quack.” 

Holuska’s dramatic little speech on that day in 1958 was aimed at eliciting Senate support for a cancer treatment clinic his good friend  planned to open in the town of Portage, Ill. Support was needed because for over thirty years the American Medical Association (AMA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had been on Hoxsey’s trail attempting to throw a monkey wrench into his well-oiled “cancer-cure” machinery. 

The trail was a long one and wound through West Virginia, Michigan, New Jersey and Texas. Hoxsey had set up a string of clinics where he claimed to have cured thousands of cancer patients. Orthodox physicians, he maintained, mutilated their patients with surgery and burned them with radiation in a futile effort to destroy cancer. But he had found a way to restore health with gentle, herbal treatments. Of course, “the establishment” had turned against him because he was destroying their business.  Doctors were making millions with their needless surgery and radiation and had no interest in providing cheap, effective therapies. Not only that, they were actually making people sick with their “cowpus” vaccinations and endorsements of preservatives in foods and “rat poison” (fluoride) in drinking water.  

Hoxsey’s story of his rise from rags to riches and his one man struggle against powerful government forces played well to people who felt they were being harassed by excessive government interference and made miserable by corporate greed. His fiery rhetoric about evil monopolies, conniving Jews and dastardly communists hit home with many Americans who struggled to eke out an existence. A good scapegoat always comes in handy.

“You Don’t Have to Die” was the captivating title of Harry Hoxsey’s 1956 autobiography. In it, he described how his great grandfather, a Kentucky farmer, had noted a cancerous growth on the leg of one of his stallions. The vet advised that the horse be put down, but farmer Hoxsey decided to put the animal out to pasture and let nature take its course. Remarkably, the stallion recovered!  Hoxsey had noted that the horse always grazed in one particular area and concluded that the plants that grew there must have been responsible for the miraculous cure. He then blended various parts of these plants to produce three specialized “cancer cures.” The secret formulas were handed down and eventually put to use by Harry’s father in treating cancer patients. While he claimed spectacular results, apparently the formula did not work for Mr. Hoxsey who developed cancer of the jaw and decided that conventional radiation was a better option.  Harry denied his father’s medical history and claimed to his dying day that the AMA had fabricated a false death certificate and that his father had really died of an infection. In any case, the elder Hoxsey passed the cancer formula to Harry on his deathbed and warned him that “they will persecute you, slander you and try to drive you off the face of the earth.” A savior was born.  

The secret formula turned out to be a mixture of red clover, prickly ash, buckhorn, alfalfa and potassium iodide. But according to Hoxsey, it was the specific blend and amounts used that were critical. “Bunk” said the AMA and filed injunction after injunction. Hoxsey fought back. He was the victim of a conspiracy he moaned. “Is it possible to sell a ‘fake’ cure to 10,000 people for 30 years, despite the vociferous opposition of organized medicine and still attract forty new patients a day?” he asked rhetorically. Actually, it is. And it’s rather easy. Desperate patients will do desperate things. And it’s hard to blame them, especially when traditional medicine is unable to provide “guarantees” as Hoxsey did.

The healer's “successes” can be readily explained. Since he or his workers did the original diagnoses, it is a good bet that many of the patients never had cancer to start with. Indeed, Hoxsey maintained that any man who has to resort to a biopsy lacks experience or mistrusts his own ability.”  A former patient testified that he had been diagnosed with cancer and offered a treatment for $250 and a six week recuperative stay at Hoxsey’s hospital for $360, a lot of money at the time.  He recovered.  But not from cancer. Actually it later turned out that he had suffered from “barber’s itch.” In another instance, an FDA undercover agent was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer that had metastasized to the lungs and was told he had come just in time for the cancer to be arrested. There was an arrest alright, but it wasn’t of the cancer. Some patients certainly experienced a placebo effect and others proclaimed publicly that they had been cured, probably attempting to convince themselves. Nobody likes to admit that they have been duped. As has often been said, the plural of “anecdote” is not “evidence!”

Hoxsey repeatedly challenged the AMA to investigate his “cure.” “How can you condemn a treatment without studying it?” Of course he himself never initiated a study despite having become immensely wealthy and certainly having the means to fund a proper controlled trial. The AMA accepted the challenge and twice asked Hoxsey to provide patient files. He did, but they were so poor and so devoid of proper medical histories and records of physical exams that they could not be evaluated. In 1999, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (certainly not an anti-alternative organization) examined evidence submitted by a Hoxsey clinic in Mexico (yes they still exist there) and found that of 149 patients who had been treated, only 85 could be tracked down five years later and of these only 17 were still alive. Such a 26% survival rate is not exactly the claimed 80% rate, and probably could be achieved by an anti-cancer diet of frog legs, snails and Mexican jumping beans. 

Today, Hoxsey proponents wave scientific papers at skeptics with data about the anti-cancer properties of some of their plants. This is meaningless. There are thousands of plants which in laboratory studies show such properties and have no clinical relevance. Hoxsey himself is a testimonial to this fact.  He developed prostate cancer and when he failed to cure himself, he quietly underwent conventional surgery. And what of Kathy Allison? Eight months after Hoxsey’s “cure,” she was dead of cancer. So, contrary to John Haluska’s remarks, evidence indicates that Harry Hoxsey purported to have medical knowledge that he did not actually possess. In other words, he was a quack. Which is exactly the reason the government finally managed to put him out of business by 1960. His legacy though lives on today in the antics of the numerous bogus cancer cure gurus who prey upon the desperate.