Nathan Pritikin--the Santa Barbara nutritionist who led a crusade to beat heart disease with a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet and a strict regimen of physical exercise--killed himself in an Albany, N.Y., hospital where he was under treatment for terminal leukemia, it was disclosed Friday.
The 69-year-old Pritikin, a former inventor who devised his controversial diet after he found he was suffering from heart disease in 1957, reportedly had checked into the Albany Medical Center 10 days ago under the name Howard Malmuth and was experiencing what a hospital spokeswoman said was "intense suffering."
Albany County Coroner John J. Marra said Pritikin apparently used a razor to cut the arteries in his arms while alone in his room Thursday evening and bled to death in bed. Marra said Pritikin's wife, Ilene, found the body.
Albany police said they wanted to know why Ilene Pritikin first said the body was that of Howard Malmuth and identified herself as Ilene Malmuth. No one knew who Pritikin really was until the hospital was called by an Albany undertaker contacted by "the people in California," Marra said.
He said Pritikin was "a very sick man . . . a very thin man."
At the Pritikin Longevity Center in Santa Monica, spokeswoman Eugenia Killoran said Pritikin was diagnosed as having leukemia in 1958, but that the disease had been in remission until late last year, when it flared up and he underwent treatment that resulted in various side effects. She said he also suffered from anemia, kidney failure and "impending liver failure."
She said Pritikin decided "not to inflict the chronic pain he was suffering on his family."
Ilene Pritikin reportedly was making arrangements to have her husband's body returned to Santa Barbara. He also leaves five adult children.
As current participants continued to follow Pritikin's stringent diet and exercise program Friday afternoon, Killoran said: "We're all very grieved, but . . . there is a renewed commitment and strength. Nathan left a legacy and we intend to continue that legacy."
She said he had not been very active in the center for the last 2 1/2 years, concentrating largely on speaking engagements and research.
The Chicago-born Pritikin was an engineer and inventor who patented chemical and electrical products for such corporations as Bendix and Honeywell.
But when he was in his early 40s, he developed heart disease. Doctors told him to rest and eat dairy products.
"I only got worse," he said later. "It took me two years of research to convince myself my diet was at fault."
Pritikin said he went from one university to another trying to get advice on nutrition, but rarely went near a doctor again.
"They're terrific," he observed, "if you need a broken leg set."
He designed a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet that was as close as possible to that of primitive people--grains, fruits and vegetables with a small amount of fish and poultry. Pritikin was convinced that strenuous exercise and staying away from fats, oils, sugars, eggs, cheese and salt not only would prevent heart disease, but would do undo the damage of years of high-cholesterol eating, drinking alcohol and smoking.
His 1979 book, "Pritikin Program for Diet & Exercise," hit the best-seller lists and sold nearly 2 million copies. He published three other books, including "The Pritikin Promise" in 1983.
The medical community is not wholly in accord with Pritikin's ideas.
Many doctors contend that the exercise routine and diet he espoused are far harsher than necessary. Some of them have criticized the former inventor for making what they regard as wild claims--including the one in his first book that diet "is probably the most feasible method of attaining an extra 20 to 30 years of vigorous life."
In a 1979 interview, Pritikin said, "The human life span should be 100 to 120, if people would stay on the diet."
Pritikin founded his longevity center in Santa Barbara in 1974, then moved it to the old Del Mar Hotel and former Synanon headquarters on the beach at Santa Monica in 1978.
Other centers are in Downingtown, Pa., and Surfside, Fla.
Enrollees pay several thousand dollars apiece to participate in either 13-day or 26-day programs.
Killoran said 18,000 people have gone through the program. She maintained that the average participant shows a cholesterol decrease of 25% and a similar drop in body fat. She said 85% of those who enter the program with high blood pressure are off medication by the time they leave and that 50% of the diabetics depart no longer needing insulin injections.
"He touched a lot of people because of his commitment and drive," Killoran said of Pritikin. "He was this little man who said, 'I'm going to wipe out heart disease,' and he did. No matter who attacked him, he kept standing and arguing and now . . . everyone is agreeing."
In addition to his wife, Pritikin leaves four sons and a daughter--Jack, Janet, Robert, Ralph and Kenneth.
No funeral arrangements have been announced.
Times Staff Writers John Goldman, in New York, and Mathis Chazanov, in Los Angeles, contributed to this article.