Here are some things that the legendary bodybuilder Bernarr Macfadden believed in: Fasting to cure cancer. Fasting to cure asthma. Fasting to cure – here’s an interesting one – emaciation.
“I mean, there’s the old idea of starve a fever, feed a cold,” said Mark Adams, who wrote a book about Macfadden called Mr. America. “For Macfadden it was starve a fever, starve a cold, starve a sore throat, starve cancer, starve kleptomania.”
The alternative medicine enthusiast shook up the health scene in the early 1900s with his magazine, “Physical Culture.” He focused on exercise and cleanses and fasting, sometimes up to seven days, and brushed off modern medicine as “murderous science”.
Macfadden’s ideas had a brief moment of popularity in the 20s and 30s but lost luster around World War II. Around the time penicillin started saving lives, alternative medicine – especially a starvation diet – didn’t seem as appealing a cure.
Almost a century later, updated and repackaged as the “ketogenic diet”, one of Macfadden’s starvation cures is making waves again.
“We know it works,” said Eric Kossoff, a pediatric neurologist at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore.“There are lots of different theories about how it works.”
The ketogenic diet is not the same as fasting – instead it’s an extremely high-fat, low-carbohydrate regimen that essentially tricks the body into thinking it’s starving. And the diet has made inroads into the medical community for treating epilepsy in children.
While Macfadden spent the early 1900s treating virtually everything with a fast, a New York City endocrinologist noticed that some epileptic patients in particular were responding well to Macfadden’s treatment. The doctor presented the treatment to the American Medical Association around 1920 and helped bring fasting for seizures into the medical mainstream.
The ketogenic diet was eventually created to replicate the effects of fasting. Forcing the body to burn fat creates ketone bodies -- molecules also created while fasting. While it’s still unclear exactly why the diet works, switching the body’s fuel source from glucose to fat has been shown to reduce epileptic seizures for some patients. (Kossoff says he sees around a 50-percent response rate.)
Bernarr Macfadden never broke down the science of ketosis when he talked about fasting, but his treatment -- and the diet he helped inspire -- went out of fashion as modern medicine developed into the 1940s.
“No study really showed the diet not being effective anymore, but I think it got overshadowed by lots of new drugs,” Kossoff said.
Macfadden himself could not be saved by fasting. At 87, he decided to treat a bout of jaundice with his go-to method. He was found unconscious and dehydrated in a Jersey City hotel room in 1955. Whatever the initial cause of the jaundice, Macfadden was too far gone, and died two days later in a hospital. But as a new crop of fasting diets – for both weight loss and disease – gains steam, his doesn’t seem so extreme.
“I don’t know,” said author Mark Adams, “but my guess is just [Macfadden] was a combination of ahead of his time and completely nuts.”
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Witching Hour BluesArtist: Glenn Crytzer and His SyncopatorsAlbum: Harlem Mad
Have You Seen My KeysArtist: Tomo NakayamaAlbum: InstrumentalsLabel: Audiosocket
Kenny Malone: Hello, Mary Harris.
Mary Harris: Hey, Kenny Malone.
KM: I have here (sound of paper) a picture that I’m going to show you and then you’re going to describe it to our audience… because they can’t see it.
KM: Keep in mind this is from 1893, it’s from the Library of Congress.
MH: So it’s official.
KM: It’s as official as they come. Alright, you read?
KM: Here you go.
MH: (Laughs) Okay, so I am looking at a very muscular gentleman. He is nude, except for a very-well-placed leaf. He’s got an excellent mustache.
KM: The mustache is fantastic.
MH: He looks like one of those statues you see at a museum, like a Greek or Roman God. He’s sort of in that pose -- hands behind his head…
KM: It looks like his thighs are made of ham hocks or something.
MH: Yeah, you could bounce quarters off this.
KM: Isn’t this great?
KM: So remember, this is from 1893, and this is a guy named Bernarr Macfadden. And this guy actually gets name-checked in the musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes…
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes song: The life I lead would gladden, the heart of Bernarr Macfadden...
MH: Okay, who is this guy?
KM: Oh yeah, Bernarr Macfadden. This guy’s life sounds like it is made up.
So, right around 1900 he launches a magazine called “Physical Culture” and it helps turn him into a famous publisher and a fitness guru. Along the way he helps discover Charles Atlas. He holds a “perfect woman” contest and marries the winner. There’s a rumor he changed his name from Bernard to Bernarr because it sounded more like a lion’s roar.
MH: Yeah, that’s not a name: Bernarrrrr...
KM: Bernarr… Oh, it’s a name now. I mean, and yet, you ever hear of this guy?
KM: Me neither.
KM: And today we have two stories: The first is about Bernarr Macfadden. And the other is about the guy who wrote the movies Airplane and Naked Gun. And we’re going to explain the strange way those two men’s stories fit together.
MH: Alright, well, this is Only Human, I’m Mary Harris. And Kenny, you’re going to take it from here.
KM: I got it.
I’m going to tell you a story about how Bernarr Macfadden came to believe he found the cure… to everything. But without any context, this is going to sound totally insane. So for some background…There’s a Cinemax show called “The Knick.” It’s the early 1900s, surgeons in New York… essentially inventing surgery. The tagline is “modern medicine had to start somewhere.”
There’s this scene where the wife of one of the main character’s gets treatment for depression...
The Knick Clip: Eleanor, you have a visitor.
KM: And when her husband visits her for the first time…
The Knick Clip (Eleanor): Everett!
The Knick Clip (Everett): In God’s name. What in the hell happened!?
The Knick Clip (Doctor): It’s all part of the treatment...
KM: All of her teeth have been pulled out.
The Knick Clip (Doctor): “My research has shown conclusively that all mental disorders stem from disease and infection polluting the brain. So the teeth and gums are havens for bacteria and sepsis… I believe in this treatment so strongly that I’ve removed my own children’s teeth as a preventative measure.”
KM: I mean, that sounds crazy, right? But after that episode aired… there were a number of stories that were like “No, seriously. That is based on a true story.”
And I think it’s easy to forget how young “modern” medicine is and just how primitive it all looks to us now.
For Syphilis, Asthma and Lice? Try mercury, chloroform and kerosene. Surgery was bloody and deadly. The go-to anesthesia was cocaine.
The professionals were making this stuff up as they went. It’s not so crazy, then, for a guy, like Bernarr Macfadden -- without any training at all -- to come along and say: Hey, you know what, I bet I can find a way to fix people without poisoning them or cutting them open with a saw.
Mark Adams: “Bernard Macfadden was an orphan. And he goes to this awful ‘orphan’ school, as he called it.”
KM: This is Mark Adams, who wrote a book about Bernarr Macfadden.
MA: “They don’t have enough to eat. There are days when they don’t have enough to eat there. So, he’s got in the back of his mind the idea that he can get by on no food.”
KM: Bernarr Macfadden was born in 1868. His father drank himself blind and, eventually, to death. His mother died of tuberculosis. And by 12 he was an orphan. At one point, he was vaccinated against smallpox and wound up bedridden for six months with blood poisoning.
It’s probably not a coincidence that, ultimately, Macfadden’s health philosophy would be staunchly anti-vaccine and anti-medicine.
In the early 1880s, as a teenager, Berrnarr Macfadden moved to St. Louis and got really into weight-lifting. By 18, he was a physical specimen. He went around town wrestling people, building a name for himself. And it’s around this time that he makes his big discovery.
It starts when Bernarr Macfadden gets sick.
MA: “I think he was in his early twenties. And comes down with pneumonia.”
KM: And he thinks back to a time when he was working on a farm. And he thinks: You know what? When animals get sick, they sort of have a treatment of their own.
MA: “Which was to stop eating when they felt sick. You know your dog would go out in the backyard and start munching on a little grass and then take it easy for the rest of the day.”
KM: And so… Bernarr Macfadden, sick with pneumonia, stops eating.
MA: Rather than feeling weak he feels himself getting better within 24 hours.
KM: And then after that he feels himself getting energized.
MA: And after that he finds out that he can give up food for 7 days and still keep lifting weights and feel himself getting strong as the week goes on.
KM: And Bernarr Macfadden had the foundation for his cure… to everything.
MA: “Macfadden believed that almost any disease was due to what he called impurity of the blood. If however one fasted, if one could eliminate things like meat, caffeine, alcohol, one could get rid of all of the impurities in one’s blood. He has decided that fasting is essentially the theory of everything. It’s the cure that America has been looking for.”
MH: So stop eating to cure everything?
KM: Oh yeah. Let me bring in the “Bernarr Macfadden” voice actor here?
Bernarr Macfadden Voiceover: “Disease, no matter what may be its nature, can be absolutely “dried up” by this process.”
KM: So a few years after this revelation, Macfadden launches his first magazine -- Physical Culture -- and uses it to preach the hell out this fasting cure… and also to rail against actual doctors.
BMV: “It is time medical fakers with their false, murderous ‘science’ were shown up in the light of reason. The writer cannot recall at this moment any disease which he does not firmly and conscientiously believe can be cured by judicious fasting.”
MH: Yep, that’s pretty, like, unequivocal.
KM: Oh yeah. And check this out… here is Macfadden’s prescription for what seems, to me, like the number one thing you would not want to treat with fasting:
BMV: “Emaciation: Treatment. In this disease because of the peculiar wasted condition of the body, fasting must be employed with great care. Though and abstinence from food for two to five days even if the patient is greatly emaciated will be of decided benefit in practically all cases.
MH: I feel like you can kind of hear his rational brain saying -- no, fasting it just doesn’t make sense here. And then he just kinda can’t help himself. Like, okay, you should probably still fast if you can.
KM: He can’t help himself! Macfadden developed an entire alternative health philosophy sort of around this idea. He did not like surgery or medicine or vaccines. He said you can cure yourself. You can prevent disease yourself. And some of his ideas were way ahead of their time. All the exercise he was into, for example. He was totally against cigarettes and alcohol and processed foods. He was really into cleanses…all kinds of cleanses.
MH: Stuff we hear about all the time now.
KM: Totally. But then he also thought you could stop male-pattern baldness by tugging your hair and clean your bowels by eating sand.
But, at any rate, the heart of this philosophy, this fasting cure. He’s preaching this publicly, but he is practicing it too.
MA: I met his son down in Virginia who looked just like his father except was six inches taller and maybe 50 pounds heavier with more muscle and he told me. You know, when I was a kid we didn’t want to tell my father that we were sick. Because we knew the first thing he’d do is cut off our food.
KM: That’s brutal.
MA: It sounds brutal now. I mean, there’s the old idea of starve a fever, feed a cold. But for Macfadden it was: starve a fever, starve a cold, starve a sore throat, starve cancer, starve kleptomania.”
KM: In the grand scheme of things, Macfadden’s fast-to-fix-everything idea had a very brief moment of success.
It starts to pick up when Macfadden documents how he cured people of rheumatoid arthritis, tuberculosis, asthma and emaciation… this of course was by his own account. But you can see in his magazine, these before pictures of shirtless, skinny-looking dudes, and then after pictures of the same shirtless, slightly less sickly-looking dudes.
By 1901, Macfadden decides to make his methods available to the public.
MA: “Um, and he goes out and he starts opening these health homes. He opens one in Battle Creek, Michigan. He opens one in Chicago. He opens one in Long Island. And he starts inviting people, you know, almost like poking his finger at the medical establishment saying -- look, hey you with the tuberculosis, the doctor can’t help you but I can.
KM: And what did like these health homes look like? What even point of context can we have for this?
MA: You know, they’re not unlike a modern spa. There’s one up in northern New York. It was originally known as the castle on the hillside -- giant red brick building -- completely abandoned now, you know it’s got ceiling falling through. Front desk is kicked over. But you can see like those old machines with the band around your waste that show up in Three Stooges movies where they shake you.
KM: No way.
MA: And like hot boxes that are, like, it’s almost like putting yourself in the clothes drier with your head poking out of the top. I met a guy who had been a dance instructor there in the 1940s. And he said, ‘you know Macfadden, he really wanted everyone to clean inside and out. So, when you showed up, your first appointment was with the Rear Admiral.’
MA: And that meant you were getting cleaned out from the bottom first.”
KM: The problem, Mark says, was that Bernarr Macfadden built his empire around alternative medicine… western medicine was getting it’s act together… and looking more and more promising.
In 1921 a tuberculosis vaccine has its first human trial. By the early 1930s the first pacemakers are in the works. And then in the early 1940s, penicillin saves its first patient and the era of antibiotics truly begins.
MA: The greatest discovery, probably, of the 20th century, medically. And he’s suddenly stuck on the wrong side of history.
I mean, he just never gave it up. He, you know, found his horse that he was going to and that’s, you know, that’s him!
KM: I went looking for tape of Bernarr Macfadden talking about his alternative health stuff, I just couldn’t find anything. Closest I could find was this newsreel about Macfadden entering some airplane race.
Newsreel: 70 year old Bernarr Macfadden, publisher and physical culture advocate who learned flying at 65.
KM: You can hear, Bernarr Macfadden was still finding ways to be in the public eye as his health philosophy faded from relevance. And at some point, Mark Adams says, Macfadden was just famous for being famous.
Newsreel: A man of my age, has one reason for enter it and it’s to make a demonstration. That life really begins at 70. Some people say it begins at 40 or 50, but I’m inclined to believe it begins at 70.
KM: About fifteen years after that footage of Macfadden was taken, he gets sick.
MA: “You know, he’s in a hotel room…
KM: It’s 1955, he’s in Jersey City.
MA: And he gets jaundice. And he decides that I’m going to go with the treatment that I’ve gone with all my life, which is, fasting. And, unfortunately fasting is a very bad treatment for jaundice.
KM: The manager of the hotel finds Macfadden unconscious and dehydrated. Whatever the initial cause of the jaundice was, Macfadden was so sick that he died two days later at a hospital -- 87 years old.
MA: And I’m sad to say, at that time, almost completely forgotten.
KM: You know, Mary, Mark Adams told me he wanted to write a book about Bernarr Macfadden he wanted to write a book about him. Because Bernarr Macfadden felt like he was a “missile” shot from 1900 that’s just landing right now.
MH: Yeah, because all the stuff he’s into: The cleanses and the vegetables and all that, it’s back.
KM: It’s back! And, I think though his idea to cure everything with a fast -- I think the metaphor there’s a little different. I think it’s more like a message in a bottle that Bernarr Macfadden packed on his little deserted island of Physical Culture and sent out, it got lost at sea and… eh… who knows where it might wash up next?
MH: Ooh. That sounds intriguing! Okay. More on that after the break. By the way, Mark Adams book about Bernarr Macfadden is called Mr. America: How Muscular Millionaire Bernarr Macfadden Transformed the Nation through Sex, Salad and the Utimate Starvation Diet.
MH: You’re listening to Only Human. I’m Mary Harris. And we just heard about the rise and fall of a man named Bernarr Macfadden and his idea to cure… pretty much every disease…by not eating. By fasting. Kenny Malone is back now with another outsider taking on the medical establishment, Kenny.
KM: This story I will foreshadow also has a Bernarr Macfadden shoe that drops. But it will drop way down the line. First, we’ll start at the movies. Mary have you ever seen the movie Airplane?
MH: Oh yeah.
KM: You know the Shirley joke?
KM: I haven’t even seen the movie and I know that joke...
Airplane Clip: Can you fly this plane and land it?
Surely you can't be serious.
I am serious… and don’t call me shirley.
KM: I mean, that’s the ultimate dad joke. Right?
KM: At any rate, a dad did help write it: Jim Abrahams.
Jim Abrahams: I have this God-given gift to write fart jokes for 13-year-old boys.
KM: Jim Abrahams is a screenwriter. Almost exclusively comedies like The Naked Gun and Hot Shots and… Airplane.
JA: From that movie, the joke that resonates with me more than any of them is when the doctor, Leslie Nielsen is talking to the pilot. Doctor says:
Airplane Clip: Captain, how soon can you land?
JA: How soon can we land? Pilot says...
Airplane: I can’t tell.
JA: I can’t tell. And Leslie Nielson says...
Airplane Clip: You can tell me, I’m a doctor.
MH: Why is that the joke that resonates with him?
KM: Well, Jim has a complicated history with doctors. And actually that’s the story I’m going to tell you next. And he says, this is the one thing he’s never actually been able to write a joke about.
KM:This all started when Jim’s son Charlie was born in 1992.
JA: Well, I think Charlie was a pretty typical baby. He was our third baby so, you know, we were kind of used to the drill. Just seemed like a happy healthy kid.
KM: One day, Jim was in the yard with Charlie.
JA: He was on the swing and I was in front of him and pushing him. And it was right ((SFX: Music out)) around his first birthday and he kind of flipped one of his arms up into the air and tilted his head.
JA: And I really… it wasn’t really that concerning to me, it just wasn’t very concerning.
KM: But he checks with his wife and, it turns out she’s actually seen these twitches too. So they set up an appointment with the pediatrician and Charlie has one these same twitches in front of the doctor.
JA: And it wasn’t his words that I remember so much as I remember him blanching. I remember him seeing it and kinda getting a little white and saying. You gotta go see a neurologist.
KM: Charlie was eventually diagnosed with something called Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, a pretty bad kind of epilepsy that can cause permanent brain damage, and can really be hard to treat. And Charlie’s condition got worse and worse and worse.
JA: Sometimes like eye-rolls. And the scariest for us, of all, was what’s called ‘drop-seizures.’ It’s as though somebody just pulls the plug from the light socket. You just drop. And the only way, what we used to do with Charlie, if he was up and walking around, we had this harness, and so when he would drop, he wouldn’t hit his head on the table or the floor or something like that. But the bottom-line is the seizures, he wound up getting up to about somewhere between a dozen and a hundred seizures a day.
KM: Oh my God.
JA: Yeah, he was a really sick kid.
MH: God, that is just, like, heartbreaking. So how is Charlie at this time?
KM: Charlie’s still about one still. And, you heard Jim mention that they had a harness so that Charlie wouldn’t fall down when he was walking? Well he actually regressed and stopped walking.
KM: And this around the time that Charlie really should have said his first words. Those never came. They were able to get Charlie in to see a lot of doctors and tried him on dozens of combinations of medication. And often the seizures would stop… for like a week. And then they’d come back. And it was almost even more heartbreaking for the family at that point. And finally they just reached this point where Jim was told: Look, we’re sort of out of options here. There is one more thing we could try. A pretty dramatic brain surgery.
JA: It’s devastating. Because what they do is sever all the connections between the lobes of the brain. So there’s no way the brain can function normally.
MH: So what would that do to Charlie?
KM: Yeah, that’s exactly what Jim wanted to know. He’s thinking: I have two options here: Figure out what life looks like for a kid who’s going to have 12-100 seizures a day, or figure out what life looks like for a kid who’s had this “devastating” surgery.
JA: So do those people… are they still able to live with their families? Do they need round-the-clock medical care? Will they ever learn to walk, talk, love? Anything. You just don’t know and you try as hard as you can to prepare for the future.
KM: Jim has no idea what to do. And he sort of finds himself heading to UCLA’s medical library just to see… is there something out there that can help him understand what might life look life for his family and for Charlie.
Jim walks into the library, goes to the epilepsy section and pulls down, what he says, is one of the few books that didn’t just look like a medical text.
JA: So the cover, it’s some shadow images of some kids walking.
KM: He flips through to the index looking for Charlie’s condition: Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome.
JA: It says Lennox-Gastaut syndrome.
KM: And three entries above that Jim sees this thing…
JA: And then above that: Ketogenic Diet and Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome.
“Ketogenic Diet” he thinks.
JA: Page 111, risks and benefits of.
KM: That was it, that was the first time you saw that word?
JA: That’s the first time I saw that word. First time I had ever heard of Ketogenic Diet.
KM: Mary, to understand the Ketogenic Diet, it helps to go back to the 1900s to that medicine hating bodybuilder that we talked about earlier.
KM: Bernarr Macfadden. So his “alternative” treatment for virtually every disease was just… to stop eating?
MH: Yeah. Fasting to cure everything.
KM: Okay. So imagine it’s 1910, 1920… Bernarr Macfadden is going around, taking sick people’s food away. And somewhere along this journey, a real doctor, an endocrinologist from New York City, notices wait a second, this might actually be helping. And in fact it turned out some Parisian doctors had been trying this out too: Fasting to help stop seizures. And so in 1921 this New York doctor presents the idea of fasting for epilepsy to the American Medical Association. A Bernarr Macfadden idea… presented to the “modern” medical establishment that he hated so much.
MH: And so, in essence, they were taking one Macfadden’s ideas -- whether he liked it or not -- and seeing if it could hold up to the test of modern medicine.
Mackenzie Cervenka: There are very early studies that talk about children that were fasted. One particular study that looked at a child that was fasted for sixty days.”
MH: Sixty days!?
KM: Yeah! By the way, that’s a neurologist from Johns Hopkins -- Mackenzie Cervenka. But, Mary, you have hit one of the fundamental problem with fasting for epilepsy. Studies were showing that, yeah, the fasting was -- for some people -- controlling the seizures.
MC: But obviously you can’t fast indefinitely. And that is how researchers came up with the concept of the Ketogenic Diet.
MH: Okay, so how does this work?
KM: The thinking was, okay you can’t fast forever. But fasting is helping with seizures for some people, so could we maybe find a way to get the body to react like it’s fasting?
MC: And they realized that instead of having the patient fast and use their body fat stores, they could, instead, ingest more fat.
KM: Okay this is where it gets a little complicated. But basically, researchers noticed that -- hey, when people fast their bodies make these things called Ketones.
MH: What’s a Ketone?
KM: Yeah, so there’s the technical answer to that.
MC: Ketone bodies are beta-hydroxy buterate, aceto-acetone. And those are the breakdown products of fat.
KM: For our purposes a Ketone it’s the sign that your body is not burning carbohydrates to survive anymore; it has switched over to fat.
And so researchers said: Well… maybe we can’t fast people forever, but what if jacked up the fat intake and forced the body to use that for fuel instead of carbs. That way, you’re inducing this “ketogenic” state, but you’re not starving people.
MH: So you’re almost tricking your body into looking like it’s fasting.
MH: So how does that work for epilepsy?
KM: Well, yeah.
Eric Kossoff: Yeah, well that’s the ultimate question.
KM: This is Eric Kossoff who’s a pediatric neurologist at Johns Hopkins and has done some of the modern research into the Ketogenic Diet.
EK: We know it does. We know it works. There are lots of different theories about how it works.
KM: So, if you think of a seizure as like a momentary power surge in your brain where a whole bunch of your synapses fire at once. Bam, kind of short things out. Switching from carbohydrates as fuel to fat as fuel; it just seems to make it harder to trip that switch. Almost like adding a surge protector to a computer.
And ketones showing up, on one hand that means -- good job, we’re burning fat -- but they may also have some chemical benefit. But, we really just don’t know. Just that, studies have shown that it helps, Eric Kossoff says about half of the people he sees.
EK: Parents will say they’ve had a 50-percent reduction in seizures or a 90-percent or even seizure free response.
MH: Did he say seizure free?
KM: Yeah. For some people. And so that screenwriter Jim Abrahams, this is the diet he’s looking at in that book. Remember, his one-year-old son Charlie is really sick. Jim’s at this medical library researching what he thinks are the only two options for Charlie at this point: life with 100 seizures versus this devastating brain surgery and he opens this book and he sees a third option? “Ketogenic diet?”
JA: So part of me was like, disbelieving.
KM: Right, like this must be some mumbo-jumbo.
JA: Right, exactly.
KM: Jim had been to about five doctors at this point. And, he says, no one had mentioned any “Ketogenic Diet” treatment. But that book he found at the medical library? That was written by some doctors at Johns Hopkins. There was a study he found also by some doctors at Johns Hopkins. It turns out it was really one of the only places in the country Jim could even go to see if this treatment would work for Charlie.
So he sets up an appointment.
KM: You go in, you take him in and he’s still a little guy.
JA: Yeah, he’s still just a baby.
KM: The doctors meet with Charlie and they decide: Let’s give this a try. After a couple of days they start Charlie on the diet. And Jim still has some of the meal plans from back then and he knows that on paper it sounds, unconventional.
JA: Well here’s one: 22 grams bumble bee solid, white tuna. One lettuce leaf.
JA: Twenty four grams macaroni or spaghetti.
JA: And 53 grams fat.
KM: Wait...what… fat?
JA: Yeah. So fat could be in the form of heavy whipping cream or butter.
KM: Wait, just like eating it?
JA: Yeah, I know it’s gross.
MH: Hold on. Your baby’s eating one lettuce and 53 grams of butter!? That’s like half a stick of butter.
KM: I know, I know. But you have to see this from Jim’s perspective, right? This is not a diet at this point. It’s a treatment for his toddler son.
The alternatives are: 100 seizures a day or a “devastating” brain surgery.
MH: Alright, okay. So given that why does he need to eat chunks of butter or drink heavy whipping cream?
KM: So, remember your body wants to burn carbs, so if you want it to burn fat you can’t give your body an option to burn carbohydrates. So in what’s called the “Classic” Ketogenic Diet 80-percent of your calories come from fat. The rest comes from protein and carbohydrates.
MH: So that means even if you eat bacon all day long, you couldn’t because the ratio is out of whack.
KM: Yep. And so there are times where it’s just hard to get the fat you need. So, high fat cheese, drinking heavy whipping cream and butter. That’s what it takes.
KM: Just out of curiosity, what does the face of a toddler look like when you try to feed him butter?
JA: Well, if you’re lucky enough to see the face. It’s kind of sour because you’re likely to get punched in your own face when he sees it coming.
KM: They’re on these meal plans. Charlie’s still having seizures. A couple days go by.
JA: And by the third or fourth day, the seizures stopped.
JA: Yes. And then.
KM: Just wait. You went from 12 to 100 seizures a day to zero!?
JA: Yes, within a few days.
KM: At what point did you realize he was seizure free?
JA: Well, you know, we talked about the honeymoon period. It takes awhile to really trust what’s happening. Maybe this is going to last a few days and then the seizures will come back. But they never did. But they you start to see, especially when the seizures stop and when they withdraw the drugs, you get to see, uh, you know [Pause] like a… jeez, I’m sorry… you get to see like a light in his eye again.
MH: Wait… so that’s it for Charlie?
KM: Well, sort of. So, Charlie was responding really well to this -- like seizure-free well. And that’s not necessary a temporary thing. There has been some success actually weaning kids off of the diet after about two years and then the seizures don’t come back, like ever again.
So, this was the hope for Charlie. After about two years on the diet they tried. They tried to take him off, and the seizures came back. So, they tried again after a couple years and the seizures came back and after about another year they tried one last time when Charlie was about six and this time the seizures did not come back.
Charlie Abrahams: Okay, it’s rolling.
KM: This is Charlie Abrahams. He’s 24 now. A teaching assistant. He has no memories of what so ever of having seizures. He barely remembers the diet. Just that he had to take a lot of vitamins.
CA: Yeah, the vitamins having to be crushed because I couldn’t swallow whole pills and they tasted awful. But, I think it’s a good thing that I don’t remember.
MH: That totally is incredible.
KM: Unbelievable! And only slightly more unbelievable than this.
Movie Clip (Kid): What’s going on?
Movie Clip (Dad): It’s Mom. She said she found something, a different kind of treatment that could help Robbie. A diet.
MH: Is that a movie!?
KM: Oh yeah. This is a TV movie from 1997, based on the Charlie story, directed by his dad, Jim Abrahams, starring Meryl Streep.
Movie Clip: (Phone rings) Hi, this is Laurie Rymueler and I’ve just read Dr. Livingston’s book about the diet that treats childhood epilepsy and I would like to make an appointment for my son.
Jim Abrahams said that at first, when he realized this diet was going to work for Charlie -- he was overwhelmingly grateful.
JA: And then, when it starts to really sink in there’s anger.
KM: Anger, yeah. Because he had to stumble onto the Ketogenic Diet on his own. And so, Jim has made it his mission to help make sure hospitals and doctors and patients all know that this treatment is out there. And he made that Meryl Streep movie, for one, but he also started the Charlie Foundation. And according to the foundation, there are now more than 200 hospitals around the world with Ketogenic Diet programs.
And Mary, I should also say, Jim would also be angry, if I didn’t add that the recipes for Ketogenic Diet have gotten much better since Charlie was a baby.
MH: Okay, but here’s my question. Why did it take the screenwriter from Airplane to get doctors to pay attention to this diet.
KM: Yeah… That is the question, right? So I asked Eric Kossoff -- the neurologist from Johns Hopkins, that very question.
EK: Well, I mean, I think it’s clear what happened in the 1940s and 1950s, which was the development of new anticonvulsants came around. No study really showed the diet not being effective anymore. But I think it got overshadowed by lots of new drugs. If you look at some of the ads at the time, they would say ‘we now have something more modern we can do for epilepsy and take a pill. Lots of promises made about cures of epilepsy and unfortunately that’s not the case for about 30-percent of the population.
KM: And here for me is where the story of Airplane-screenwriter Jim Abrahams and the story of fasting-cure Bernarr Macfadden go from being related to really becoming the same story. Just from totally opposite perspectives.
MH: Okay, tell me about that.
KM: Alright so 1900, you have, Bernarr Macfadden. He has his own cure for everything and then refuses to acknowledge any benefit from “modern” medicine and so he fades into obscurity. Because, c’mon we’re killing bacteria and crushing Measles and Mumps. It looked like modern medicine might come up with a fix for everything. Even a pill to cure epilepsy!
KM: But, now, 100 years later, a guy like Jim Abrahams, the pills for epilepsy don’t work for his son. And so he goes back and looks and finds this treatment -- that works! But sort of got left behind in the dust of hope and progress.
Here we are now, digging back through that dust to see if maybe we left other stuff back there and can we hold it up to our new standards and see if it works.
The New York Public library has an encyclopedia written by Bernarr Macfadden.
MH: That guy did everything.
New York Public Librarian: Careful with the books, ‘cause they’re old.
KM: And if you flip open to the page for epilepsy: No treatment known will do as much for epilepsy as will natural methods.
KM: I mean, there’s an entry that, you know, it’s not the Ketogenic Diet, but it has shades in there. And if you just turned to that page, Bernarr Macfadden looks like a prophet.
KM: The challenge is, this encyclopedia? 3,000 pages long.
KM: And some of those pages look a lot less prophetic.
KM reads entries: Influenza… impotence... typhoid fever... elephantiasis... plague comma bubonic… complete fast number three… milk fast number two… fast number three… fast number two… fast number three should be instituted immediately.
MA: Yeah, I mean the question is, is it a matter of a stopped clock being right twice a day.
KM: And again, author Mark Adams.
MA: Maybe just by the law of large numbers, 300 pages of that have to be brilliant, prophetic health advice and 2,700 pages have to be completely nuts. I don’t know. I don’t know. But my guess is he was a combination of ahead of his time and completely nuts.
KM: Yeah. Uh, I will say, my elbow’s been sore for like four months.
KM: I’ve been thinking like, I don’t know if there’s anything in that encyclopedia for that.
MA: I’m sure there is. I’m sure there is. Muscular soreness, tendonitis.
KM reads entries: Swelling, pain and tenderness of the affected joint.
MH: The Bernarr encyclopedia had this?
KM: Oh yeah. Rest the affected part.
KM: Rest. I tried that too. Hot compresses should be applied. I tried heat.
KM: Enemas should be employed if necessary!? No way, I’m doing an enema for my elbow.
MH: Yeah, that makes sense. Kenny Malone, thank you so much for this story.
KM: Yeah, absolutely.