Remembering Abram Hoffer

Abram Hoffer and Linus Pauling, November 1992.

Abram Hoffer and Linus Pauling, November 1992.

“As a physician, I am ambivalent about my association with the medical fraternity.  I am happy to be in a profession which has discovered so much information in the field of disease and health, but I am unhappy and distressed with such an association which almost invariably rejects at first hand the discoveries and views of scientists which it will eventually embrace with equal fervor.  Is there no end to this irresponsible hostility of physicians towards scientists such as Linus Pauling?  But this is the way it is.”

-Abram Hoffer, May 1986.

The Canadian physician Abram Hoffer, a pioneer of orthomolecular medicine, died in May 2009 at the age of 91.  The Hoffer name is stamped throughout the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers as, in many respects, his career mirrored the final decades of Linus Pauling’s own work.

Hoffer’s career achievements are summed up nicely in this obituary published by the CNW Group:

Abram Hoffer became a pioneer of progress early on his career, challenging the dominant view at the time that schizophrenia was the result of poor mothering, and was instrumental in the authoring of research on the genetics of this common mental illness with the renowned geneticist Ernst Mayer. After co-discovering the first effective lipid-lowering agent, Vitamin B3 (niacin), the native of Saskatchewan became equally as instrumental in the development and execution of the first controlled clinical trials in psychiatry. This resulted in the creation of the then-controversial treatment of acute schizophrenia through principles of respect, shelter, sound nutrition, appropriate medication and the administration of large doses of water-soluble vitamins. In particular, Dr. Hoffer identified through research that large doses of Vitamin B3 (niacin) and Vitamin C could eliminate the symptoms of schizophrenia and reduce relapses. He dedicated his life to curing-not palliating-schizophrenia.

Hoffer’s breakthroughs in the medical understanding of schizophrenia paralleled similar work being conducted by Linus Pauling.  As Pauling noted in 1991

Dr. Hoffer, over 40 years ago, developed the basic principles of megavitamin therapy, a part of orthomolecular medicine.  I devised the word ‘orthomolecular’ to describe substances, such as vitamins, that are present in the human body, and are required for life.  I proposed, in 1968, that significant improvement in health and in the control of disease could be achieved by varying the concentrations of these substances in such a way that they would have their maximum effects.  Many physicians now call themselves orthomolecular physicians.

For the bulk of their association, Hoffer and Pauling, though inhabiting similar orbits, retained their independence from one another as researchers – each supported the other in various ways, but no scientific collaboration actually occurred.

This arrangement would change in the late 1980s as Hoffer became increasingly interested in the potential treatment of cancer using orthomolecular methods.  Based on his study of fifty patients Hoffer concluded that Pauling and Ewan Cameron’s hypothesis “that vitamin C in large doses did improve enormously the outcome of treatment for cancer,” was correct.  As he recalled in 2000

Linus asked me if I intended to publish the data. I replied that I did not. I added that in my opinion there was little point in trying to do so since it would be impossible to gain entry into any medical journal, that they would not accept any paper that dealt favorably with megadose vitamin therapy. The New England Journal of Medicine, which had published the Mayo Clinic attack on Pauling, refused to publish his rebuttal. Linus urged me to do a complete follow up study of every patient I had treated. I was flattered and agreed that I would. He said that he would see that the material would be published. But when I returned home I decided not to do the follow up. It would have meant an enormous amount of work. I thought that Dr. Pauling was being kind to me. Two years later I received a letter from Linus in which he said, bluntly, ‘Abram where is the study?’ I decided that he was serious about it.

Hoffer and Pauling’s shared interest in the vitamin C and cancer issue would result in two published papers as well as a book manuscript intended as a follow-up to Cameron and Pauling’s Cancer and Vitamin C (1979).  Despite Pauling’s enthusiasm for the project (“It is wonderful,” he wrote of Hoffer’s 1988 typescript. “It should have a great effect in convincing cancer patients, people in general, and even physicians that vitamin C has value in the control of cancer.”) the book and its unorthodox approach could not find a publisher, an issue further hampered by Pauling’s own flagging health.

Linus Pauling greatly admired Abram Hoffer’s work, to the point of declaring his support for a 1990 effort to nominate Hoffer for the Nobel Prize in Medicine.  Though both men are now gone, the record of their shared interests and collaboration remains extant in the Pauling archive.

For more information on the Hoffer-Pauling cancer work, see Pauling’s “Hoffer” research notebook listings or the finding aid description for their proposed book How to Control Cancer with Vitamins.  For more on Abram Hoffer, including a short film, see this memorial page.

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3 Responses

  1. [...] material created for a proposed but never-published follow-up, which was to have been penned with Abram Hoffer and was given the working title How to Control Cancer with [...]

  2. My condolences to Dr. Hoffer’s family. A true giant in his field that should have recieved the Nobel Prize in medicine for his significant break throughs in Orthomolecular psychiatry.

  3. [...] to Pauling, his interest in vitamins came about when he learned that the Canadian scientists Abram Hoffer and Humphry Osmond were treating schizophrenia patients with large amounts of niacin. [...]

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