Nathan Pritikin: An American Hero

On a sunny day in April 1984, a thin, wiry man, no more than five feet, eight inches tall, with wavy black hair and a tight, serious face, hurried to the podium at New York City's Mount Sinai Medical School and prepared to speak. His audience, composed of nearly 400 doctors, scientists, and other health professionals from all over the nation, shifted about, many of them still amazed that the prestigious Mount Sinai would deign to cosponsor a medical conference with the man they were about to hear. He was, after all, a layman. More importantly, he was the creator of a health program that treated serious and life-threatening illnesses, not with conventional methods, but with a diet and exercise regimen that had been credited with literally thousands of "miracle" cures. It was the same program he had used to successfully treat his own heart disease.

For much of the past decade, he had carried on a very public battle with the leading government and private health agencies, as well as with the American Medical Association, in an effort to change the way serious diseases were treated. Between 1976 and 1984, he had developed a large and influential following that included a growing number of medical doctors and scientists. As his influence grew he became as controversial as the message he tried to spread: that diet was both the cause and the cure for many of the most widespread diseases of modern times. The vast majority of physicians and scientists were still not ready to accept that premise, despite the ever-increasing scientific evidence that supported it. Indeed, many of the doctors and scientists present in this room had long regarded him as an enemy of establishment medicine.

And yet, here he was in the Stern Auditorium at Mount Sinai, looking at his audience with that familiar expression of impassive, unshakable confidence, focused only on his message, which had carried him through a gauntlet of criticisms and personal attacks to his current status as the leader of the diet and health revolution.

For Nathan Pritikin, it had been a long and remarkable journey.

These are the words that begin Chapter 1 of the book Pritikin: The Man Who Healed America's Heart. This book is, unfortunately, out of print and now only available through used book dealers. It was written after his death by his wife, Ilene, and Tom Monte, best known as the coauthor of Recalled by Life, the first-person account of Anthony Sattilaro's dramatic recovery from "incurable" cancer, solely by dietary means.

There is a tremendous amount of evidence today showing that our fat- and cholesterol-laden diet is the primary cause of atherosclerosis and heart disease, and many people are altering their diets because of it. But few people know who led the revolution that brought about this drastic change toward better health for millions. He was, predictably, not a member of the medical establishment, and, again predictably, had to deal with strong medical opposition in order to prevail.

Nathan Pritikin was an engineer who owned several companies in fields such as electronics and photography. He held numerous patents in these fields. His interest in health matters began in earnest when he found out that he suffered from heart disease, and he used his investigative ability to solve that problem as he had solved many others.

His research made him aware of the link between fat consumption and atherosclerosis, or clogged arteries. He learned that those countries which consume the most fat have the most arterial disease. During World War 2, arterial disease diminished drastically in Europe because fatty foods were in short supply. He became convinced that there was an answer to this puzzle out there somewhere and he set out to find it.

Again quoting from the book:

Here is the inspirational story of Nathan Pritikin, who, with only two years of college and a professional background in electronics, single-handedly started a health revolution in America.

In 1957, when he was 40, Pritikin was diagnosed as having heart disease. Faced with a lifetime on drugs and ever-increasing restrictions on his movements, he exhausted the scientific literature and formulated a diet and exercise program to treat his disease. After nine years of trial and error he had cured himself.

Long before most doctors and scientists were willing to acknowledge that something as simple as diet might be causing serious illnesses, Pritikin had, on his own, created a scientifically sound program to treat them, using food and exercise as medicine. It was a revolutionary departure from current medical thinking.

For ten years he tested his program on relatives, friends, and friends of friends, and in 1976 he opened the Pritikin Longevity Center in Santa Barbara, California. Its successes against illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, gout, arthritis and other major diseases proved to be even greater than even Pritikin dreamed. Eighty-five percent of those who came to the center with high blood pressure and on medication left with normal blood pressure and no medication; half of adult-onset diabetics on insulin left insulin-free; more than half of those who came to the center already scheduled for heart bypass surgery left never needing the operation. Thousands upon thousands of people who arrived at the center unable to walk even a block without pain left able to walk, even run, for miles at a stretch. The stories became legend.

But the opening of the center touched off a war between Pritikin and the scientific and medical establishments that would last for much of the next decade. He was the focus of ceaseless attacks by doctors and scientists who criticized him as being everything from a charlatan to an entrepreneur.

The attacks on Pritikin only served to heighten the controversy and bring his message to a broader audience. Soon, he represented the fault line between those who pushed for prevention of illness and the use of diet as a means of treatment, and those who remained wedded to drugs and surgery as the answers to heart disease and other serious illnesses.

By 1984, more than 25,000 people had "graduated" from the longevity centers, now located on both coasts. Pritikin had become a best-selling author and a regular guest on leading television and radio talk shows. The Pritikin Program had been celebrated in newspapers and magazines across the country and Pritikin had been asked to testify as an expert witness for the U.S. congress on diet's relationship to health. More importantly, the scientific evidence emerging throughout the '70s and '80s had consistently supported his views on the link between diet and disease.

The final proof that his program works was his own autopsy which showed his arteries were akin to those of a young man and totally clear of any signs of heart disease.

On June 19, 1987, just two years after Nathan Pritikin's death, the Journal of the American Medical Association announced a study that showed regression of atherosclerosis in the coronary arteries of humans. The two-year study was done by David Blankenhorn and his associates at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Blankenhorn got his results by reducing the blood cholesterol of his patients by 26 percent, a drop similar to the one achieved at the Pritikin Longevity Centers. The scientists lowered blood cholesterol by using diet and drugs. However, the study made clear that a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet alone could achieve the same results.

Blankenhorn's study provided the long-awaited "final proof" that atherosclerosis could, in fact, be reduced and even eliminated from the coronary arteries of people simply by lowering blood cholesterol.

The study made front page headlines around the country because, for the first time, it showed that the underlying cause of most heart disease could be eliminated.

In 1966, Nathan Pritikin made the same claim that coronary atherosclerosis could be reversed by lowering blood cholesterol. Pritikin based his premise on the available research - most of which had been done on animals - and the fact that he was able to cure himself of coronary insufficiency with his own low-fat, low-cholesterol diet and exercise program. Pritikin made the claim again in his book, Live Longer Now, which was published in 1974. A year later he believed that he had demonstrated regression of coronary atherosclerosis in two men who participated in Pritikin's Long Beach Study.

Nathan was widely criticized for his statements. Many scientists believed that his thesis was so far-fetched that they used it to dismiss him.

Twenty years later, Nathan Pritikin had been vindicated.

And lastly, inspirational words from Nathan's wife, Ilene, from the Foreword to the book:

As Nathan Pritikin's wife and life partner, it was my great privilege and adventure to watch and help him emerge as an influential nutritional scientist, reformer, and advocate of a lifestyle that profoundly benefited the health of many thousands of people.

For much of the almost four decades that Nathan's life was my life, we enjoyed relative privacy. This began to change after 1976 when he started his first Longevity Center, and especially after the publication in 1979 of his book, The Pritikin Program for Diet and Exercise, which had millions of readers in many countries. As he gained the public's attention, the world's claim on him grew progressively greater.

It was my joy and his, that his perseverance and hard work had an impact on the lives of so many. Before his 65th birthday in 1980, almost five years before his death, I prepared to commemorate the day in the most appropriate way I could conceive. I wrote to all of the people who had been patients at the Pritikin Longevity Centers, suggesting that they send Nathan a birthday letter telling him how their health had changed as a result of following his diet and exercise program. There was an avalanche of heartwarming letters, as I expected. One grateful writer put it this way: "When one man is responsible for saving another man's life, it seems only fitting that he should know about it."

Now, after Nathan's death, it's time that everyone should know about it. To me, he belonged not only to the family that loved him but to the thousands he helped - and to the world, too.

The choice of Tom Monte as Nathan's biographer seemed a logical one. Tom, a journalist and author had interviewed Nathan many times over the years. Tom admired Nathan and understood his goals. Nathan, for his part, liked Tom, and felt the young writer had a fine grasp of the issues Nathan was promoting. In 1984, a year before Nathan's death, Tom approached him on the matter of being his biographer. Nathan had an interest, but felt a biography was premature. He wanted his large study - the "plasmapheresis study"- to be completed first. That project is now well on its way and the story is told in these pages.

Working with Tom in putting Nathan's life together on paper so soon after Nathan's death has not been an ordeal for me. Rather, it has given me serenity and gratification. In the process, the meaning of Nathan's life has more clearly emerged. Nathan's complex personality included shortcomings, but to a remarkable degree he possessed insight, courage, vision, and determination. From his callow youth through his demanding life, he grew in character in a way that can be an inspiration to any of us.

His is an incredible story - a lone, nonprofessional believer who captured the attention of physicians, medical scientists, government leaders, and the general public around the world. More so than any other individual before him, he changed the nutritional habits of multitudes of people in the United States and abroad. The consequence in saved or improved lives can only be guessed.

Nathan's legacy is his program. Even in death his influence continues, reaching larger and larger circles, much in the manner of pebbles spreading ever-widening concentric patterns when thrown into a pond.

It was with love and pride that I participated in the telling of Nathan's remarkable story. And it is with the deepest heartfelt gratitude that I take this opportunity to thank the many people who believed in Nathan's dream, working beside him over the years. Whether individually named in these pages or not, all of them are truly part of his story.

Ilene Pritikin
Santa Barbara, California
March, 1987

Nathan died in 1985. As a young man he had suffered from a persistent skin itch that he finally allowed a doctor to treat with high doses of radiation, a treatment that would today probably be considered malpractice. Nathan's blood analysis was never the same after that and worsened with time. He finally developed leukemia and took his own life rather than face further suffering. Even though Nathan had fought medical ignorance and greed all his life, that very ignorance and greed struck him down anyway in the prime of life. An American Hero, certainly, but another American Medical Tragedy as well.

Nathan Pritikin (left), founder and director of the Longevity Center, talks with departing George Perry. Faced with an angiogram and possible surgery after a heart attack, Perry arrived at the Center in a wheelchair. In a month he was walking 7 miles a day.