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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Quacks’ Raises Timely Issues on Cancer

Times Staff Writer

There’s a good chance that the name Harry Hoxsey will ring a bell with anyone born before World War II. Wasn’t he the quack who claimed he had a cure for cancer?

Hoxsey did claim just that, and Ken Ausubel’s “Hoxsey: Quacks Who Cure Cancer?” makes a strong case for the ex-coal miner who opened his first clinic in 1924 with herbal medicines developed in the 1840s by his great-grandfather for the treatment of his horses.

But in telling the story of Harry Hoxsey, this provocative documentary raises timely issues about the attitudes of the medical establishment and the government toward alternative treatments of cancer. It documents a sorry history of closed-mindedness and vested interests that to this day work against a serious consideration of what non-traditional medicine has to offer.

Through film clips, archival materials and the words of associates, a picture of Harry Hoxsey emerges: big, plain-spoken, uneducated, not above a bit of old-fashioned showmanship to promote his cause, but at heart sincere and kindly--and a man whom many credit with saving their lives. Hoxsey’s life immediately brings to mind his contemporary, innovative car designer Preston Tucker, immortalized by Francis Coppola’s current “Tucker” as a martyr to the mighty forces of the Detroit’s Big Three.

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Hoxsey stood his ground far longer than Tucker. He and the American Medical Assn., represented by Dr. Morris Fishbein, editor of its prestigious journal, battled for some 35 years, culminating in Hoxsey’s successful libel suit against Fishbein. But where Fishbein and the AMA failed, the Federal Drug Administration succeeded. In the late 1950s it forced the closing of Hoxsey’s Dallas clinic, said then to be the largest privately owned cancer center in the world, and its 17 branches throughout the country.

What is sure to be news to most of us is that there still is a Hoxsey clinic, started in 1963 in Tijuana by Hoxsey’s chief nurse, Mildred Nelson. A warm, tough-minded women, she says that as a young RN she thought Hoxsey was a fraud. She was converted in 1946 when he treated her mother, now still vital in her late 80s, for a recurrence of cancer. Nelson’s Bio-Medical Center’s patients attest to the effectiveness of her treatment, which includes a red salve and a yellow powder for external cancers.

Ausubel and his narrator Max Gail bring a calm tone to the film (Times-rated Mature), which Saturday begins 10:15 a.m. weekend screenings at the Monica 4-Plex. Ausubel makes no claims of infallibility for the Hoxsey treatment; he states that it is but one of many alternate approaches, past and present, to treating cancer that have been judged hoaxes simply because they deviated from traditional practice. According to Ausubel,the Hoxsey formulas have yet to be officially tested even though Hoxsey repeatedly invited such testing throughout his lifetime. Harry Hoxsey died of pancreatic cancer at 72 in 1973. Neither his own herbal medicine nor conventional surgery was able to help him.


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