THE MOUSE FORMULA
The threat was delivered to Hal Z. Lederman's attorney: "Inform your client that if he continues to steal the formula, I'm not just going to sue, I'm going to take drastic action." It came from one Robert Murphy. Lederman, the marketing mastermind behind a hair-growth product called the Helsinki Formula, didn't let it bother him. He had been getting the same message for months.
So the following morning, April 15, 1987, Lederman was working at his desk in the office building he owns on Beverly Boulevard when he heard a commotion outside. The next thing he knew, the doors flew open. Half a dozen investigators from the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office swarmed in. They were outfitted in full flak gear and commando jumpsuits. The head commando flashed a warrant to confiscate all business records. It turned out there was a 1920 statute in the Los Angeles charter that made it illegal to sell hair-growth tonics within city limits.
Lederman was sprawled against a desk watching in horror as officers with .45 automatics rummaged through desks and wheeled out file cabinets. His baby-blue eyes were the size of compact disks.
"My God, this is hair conditioner," he screamed, "not cocaine! It's just hair conditioner!"
When the cultural history of the late 20th Century is recorded, it won't be about Madonna, political correctness or what Bo knows. It will be about hair loss. Think of the millions of thinning generational scalps. Think of all the weaves and toupees and transplants and baseball caps. Think of the articles, the talk shows, the endless Angst and fretting and mirror-checking, the matted doughnuts of loose hairs curled around bathtub drains.
By that time, no hair-loss story will seem more prophetic about the folly of our own vanities than the decade-long feud between Hal Lederman of Pantron I and Bob Murphy of California Pacific Research Inc. Each of their companies sells a similar hair-growth tonic that most people simply know as "the Helsinki formula." Ostensibly, their bitter feud is over the legal rights to the main ingredient of the tonics, a substance called polysorbate 60 that was proved to grow hair at the University of Helsinki, in Finland, two decades ago. They have spent a good part of their careers on the telephone threatening lawsuits and in court carrying them out.
Like the adversaries in any long-running dispute, Murphy and Lederman are both manic and stubborn, in some measure sympathetic, and glued together in irreconcilable conflict. Competing against each other, Lederman and Murphy have altogether sold nearly 6 million bottles of their tonics worldwide and have grossed an estimated quarter of a billion dollars. Judging from the thousands of unsolicited testimonial letters, they have attracted a cult of balding men so devoted to one product or the other that no amount of government legal action has been able to diminish the products' sales.
Just because the products are similar does not mean, however, that the two men are indistinguishable. Lederman is the embodiment of the California human-potential movement of the early 1970s: He has a peaceful demeanor and a deep tan, and he owns millions of dollars worth of oceanfront property. Murphy is an ex-Ramada Inn manager, a sweet-natured middle-class entrepreneur with insomniac circles under his eyes.
Lederman sports a rising bouffant of naturally thick silver hair; Murphy lets the hair on top of his head grow to enormous length and coils it turban-like around his balding scalp. Lederman dines at Chasen's and subscribes to Architectural Digest. He jogs a mile on the beach each morning and has a deal with actor George Hamilton to distribute the George Hamilton Sun Care system. Murphy eats candy at his desk for lunch and likes to play Keno in casinos. He once marketed a car seat belt for dogs and cats.
"It's hard to imagine two more unlikely guys selling a product to grow hair," Michael Mahoney, president of the American Hair Loss Council in Dallas, told me. "But then again, polysorbate 60 was such a fluke to begin with."
In 1974, Ilona Schreck-Purola, a physician at the University of Helsinki hospital, was doing skin-cancer and tumor research with 40,000 mice. Every morning she would clean the white mice with a solution called polysorbate 60 for her mentor, Dr. Kai Setala, an esteemed Finnish pathologist.
One day Schreck-Purola noticed that the mice seemed to be growing more fur. Not just soft, little mouse hair but thick, Gene Shalit-like stuff. Setala was skeptical. Polysorbate 60 was derived from corn and commonly used as an additive in cleansing solutions and food products. Manufacturers routinely put polysorbate 60 in salad dressing and ice cream as a binder. As an internationally acclaimed scientist, Setala wasn't going to risk losing prestigious grant money by announcing to the world that a food additive was a cure for baldness.
In February, 1976, Schreck-Purola published an article about the phenomenon in an obscure British publication, the Journal of Environmental Studies. It was called "Inhibitory Effects of Cholesterol on Cell Division in Mouse Skin: Psychochemical and Biological Aspects."
For nearly half a decade, the polysorbate experiment went unnoticed--until Bob Murphy rediscovered it. Murphy had grown up in Sacramento. After high school, he'd worked as a bellhop, room clerk and hotel manager in a string of Ramada Inns. He worked his way from Santa Barbara to Tulsa to Miami until he became a typical middle-class victim of the recession in the late '70s. Unable to find a job, the 42-year-old Murphy moved back to Sacramento to live with his mother in a small, shingled house.
Mother and son were killing an evening watching Merv Griffin on the tube in 1979 when Murphy saw a segment heralding various international scientific breakthroughs about the aging process, including the Helsinki findings on polysorbate 60.
Murphy and a balding pharmacist friend named Les Davidson tracked down a copy of Schreck-Purola's article at the UC Davis medical-school library. The ingredients--polysorbate, purified water and preservatives--were available at any pharmaceutical supply house.
The two men whipped up a large batch of what Murphy called the Mouse Formula right in the sink. It had the waxy color and consistency of refrigerated chicken fat. When the pharmacist's wife saw what was going on in her kitchen she pronounced the two men idiots. Either the rest of their hair was going to fall out or they'd both sprout tails and start foraging for cheese.
Her disdain failed to dissuade them from rubbing the goop on their scalps each morning. Eight weeks later, the two men wedged themselves into Davidson's upstairs bathroom where the sunlight was good. Davidson was sweeping his fingers across the exposed epidermis on Murphy's head.
"What's up there? You see anything?" Murphy asked.
"Jeez, where'd you get all this sawdust from, Bob?" Davidson replied. "Did you clean out your mom's garage before you came over?" Davidson's fingertips kept exploring Murphy's head. "Hey, wait a minute. That's not sawdust. My God, Bob. That's hair! "
"Lemme see. Lemme see," Murphy shouted, groping for a hand mirror.
Davidson's wife and children heard the commotion and squeezed into the bathroom. "I can't take this anymore," said Davidson's wife to her husband, who was hopping up and down on the toilet seat cover with excitement. Then she saw for herself the sawdust that had started to grow on Murphy's head.
"Well, my God, it is new hair!" she cried. She and the kids touched Murphy's scalp as though it were a talisman. "I should leave my bald husband for you, Bob Murphy!"
I FLEW UP TO RENO ONE WEEKEND TO SPEND SOME TIME WITH Murphy. He and a staff of 20 now work out of a warren of rundown offices with rec-room paneling. It's surprisingly no-frills, considering that Murphy's empire includes the 413-unit apartment complex behind his offices as well as a shopping center in Napa and office buildings in Reno and Sacramento.
I found Murphy on his knees, patting the underside of his office desk. All I could see was his turban of light brown hair and the smoke drifting up from his Marlboro.
I asked him what he was doing.
"Checking for bugs," he said matter-of-factly and started to turn his desk chair upside down.
A month earlier, Murphy says, a janitor had found a tiny transmitter wire running above the ceiling panel in his office and down the wall. Murphy's private phone line had been bugged.
There was no telling who had done it--possibly the detective agency that had moved into the office above him for a few months, then mysteriously moved out. From there, Murphy had to figure the trail led back to Lederman.
"I'm going to subpoena all of Lederman's telephone bills," trumpeted Murphy.
A moment later, he reconsidered. "No, I'm not. Let him think I have proof that he did it. Yes, much more effective."
Pleased with this decision, he lit up another cigarette and drank from a plastic liter jug of Pepsi on his desk. Then he leaned forward confidentially. Did I know why Lederman hated him?
" I found the original formula that Dr. Schreck-Purola created, not him ," Murphy said. "Lederman owns the name Helsinki Formula, but I own the rights to it. Lederman thinks a formula is like a public telephone that anyone can use. Wrong, wrong. It's a unique intangible, like a telephone number, that only one person can claim.
"I never planned on making a dime off polysorbate in the beginning," he continued. "I just wanted to grow hair myself."
And that is the key for Bob Murphy. Lederman didn't even have a hair-loss problem. "He's an elitist Hollywood granola type, making money off the common man," Murphy said. "You know what he and George Hamilton eat when they get together for business lunches? Swordfish meat loaf with kiwi mustard. Double decaf espressos."
In September, 1980, soon after Murphy started growing some of his hair back, he persuaded his mother to lend him $40,000 and started filling up her garage with 45-gallon drums of polysorbate. Davidson, the pharmacist, who hadn't grown a single hair using polysorbate, dropped out of the project. And Murphy set about trying to get some credibility for the Mouse Formula through real-life testimonials.
Every week for a year, Murphy and his mother drove around Sacramento in their '72 Oldsmobile, passing out plastic bottles of the hair-growth test product along with dozens of questionnaires. The conductor of the Sacramento Symphony Orchestra agreed to use it. Eight homicide detectives from the police department and the assistant chief of police used it. Ronnie Ohanasen, owner of the popular House of Shish Kebab restaurant, used it. So did, in increasing order of public visibility, two dentists, three dermatologists, an assistant district attorney, the head of the Sacramento County Health Department, an NFL scout for the '49ers and Channel 10 Action News weatherman Gordon Rasmussen.
According to Murphy, 65% of the respondents reported regrowth of some kind. In 1981, Murphy decided to call the formula New Generation and threw together a low-budget 30-minute TV infomercial to tell his entire story. Customers sent him a check in the mail or telephoned an 800 number and gave their credit card number. Two eight-ounce bottles of New Generation, which lasted about three months, cost $39.95
This was a few years before torturous infomercials for no-money-down real estate and miracle skin moisturizers started to clog up late-night TV. Murphy's old video, viewed today, has a hokey, disarming honesty. "New Generation works for some people and not for others," Murphy says on the tape with a sheepish, gap-toothed grin. "I don't really understand why. I'm no rocket scientist. I'm just an average Joe." Later on in the tape, two Sacramento homicide detectives appear with their wives. "My husband's hair is all here, and it's getting thicker by the minute," giggles one wife. "It's growing like Bermuda grass," says another.
Orders began to pour into the Murphy garage at the rate of 3,000 a week. Several nationally prominent performers started to use New Generation, including, says Murphy, Dick Smothers of the Smothers Brothers and singer Donny Osmond.
By 1983, Murphy says, he marked the first time in his life that he was truly proud of himself. He had relocated to offices in Reno and married a pretty divorcee named Karen Kincannon. He built a 4,000-square-foot home in exclusive Lake Ridge, overlooking Reno. He sent his oldest stepson to college. "I was living the American dream when Lederman started selling (the Helsinki Formula)," says Murphy. "Business dropped off. It started to affect my marriage greatly. Here I was losing everything. Everything."
This whole hair-growth phenomenon needs some context. First, understand that the fate of a human hair from the base of its root to the tip of its shaft presents one of the most complex and baffling systems of the human body. Heart attacks, glandular activity and multiple orgasms have been relatively easy to understand compared to receding hairlines.
Until the 1980s, there weren't many solutions for baldness. Treatments were either grossly experimental (a Canadian company inserted wires just under the hairline and ran low doses of electric current into the scalp to stimulate dormant follicles) or just plain gross (American surgeons performed Bilobe Flap Reduction surgery, which shrinks a bald spot by removing large pieces of scalp and sewing the hair-covered flaps of flesh together).
Before polysorbate, most over-the-counter products were based on superstition. In the '20s, for instance, a U.S. congressional committee analyzed dozens of reputed formulas, including Lucky Tiger (with arsenic as the hair-saving ingredient), Hair-A-Gain (kerosene and lanolin), Hall's Hair Renewer (red pepper and borax) and Ultrasol (lemon juice, eggs, sulfur and human pituitary-gland extract).
Only in the past decade have scientists come to understand the cause of baldness. It results from the joint effects of chemistry and heredity. As men and women age, some hair follicles show a genetic predisposition to attract the male hormone, testosterone, present to some degree in everyone's bloodstream. As the level of testosterone builds in these follicles, which are located mostly on the top of the head, it short-circuits new hair growth. And, after hairs from these follicles fall out naturally, they are not replaced. This explains why women, who naturally produce less male hormone, rarely go bald; nor do eunuchs and men who receive massive amounts of the female hormone, estrogen, in sex-change operations.
Working on the testosterone theory, possible legitimacy can be claimed for only two baldness treatments. The polysorbate product was thought by Murphy and Lederman to wash away the testosterone in the follicle before it could inhibit hair production. Minoxidil, also known by the trade name Rogaine and developed by Upjohn Corp., the giant pharmaceutical manufacturer based in Kalamazoo, Mich., purports to chemically block the buildup of testosterone and to stimulate new cell division in the hair follicle.
According to Upjohn representative Laura Harwin, minoxidil was originally a drug taken in pill form to treat severe high blood pressure. One side effect was hirsutism--random growth of hair on the nose, forehead and other parts of the body.
Upjohn spent $100 million searching for a safe, topical form of minoxidil that would meet Food and Drug Administration standards. In the late '70s, the corporation started by testing a liquid solution of the drug on the scalps of stump-tailed macaques, a rare species of monkey from Southeast Asia that balds exactly the way humans do. Upjohn attracted so much media attention that the public became less skeptical that hair could be grown scientifically. As Dr. Henry Libby, a former pharmacy professor at University of California, San Francisco, told me, "Minoxidil gave everyone in the chemical-hair-growth business instant credibility."
And there is no doubt that public confidence throughout the '80s contributed to the success of polysorbate. Murphy called his product "the poor man's minoxidil" because it cost about half as much to use. "Everyone expected miracles from minoxidil and were bitterly disappointed," he said. "They expected only snake oil from polysorbate and were thankful for any positive results."
THE PEOPLE FORMULA
The publicity generated by Murphy's "poor man's minoxidil" did not go unnoticed by other industrious Californians throughout the '80s. One of Murphy's employees quit to sell his own polysorbate product called Growthplus. Small companies with their own hybrids of the University of Helsinki formula began to pop up. They had names like Biotin, Folliplex, P/80 and Bio-Prima II.
By far the most enterprising and formidable of these new companies was Pantron I, run by Hal Lederman. I spent an afternoon with Lederman at a large office complex he owns near Beverly Hills. "This is where I can relieve my stress and think clearly," Lederman said. We were sitting in an Oriental-style garden he'd built on the top floor. Yellow flower petals bobbed under a gurgling waterfall, and koi , Japanese carp, darted in and out. Through the window into the reception room, a secretary in a blue-leather Ungaro suit crossed her long legs and smiled at us.
A decade ago, Lederman was a millionaire in the midst of a midlife crisis. After graduating from New York University with a degree in business administration, he moved to California, where he bought and sold giant tracts of undeveloped land throughout Carmel Valley and San Benito County. At age 38, he retired. With too much time on his hands, Lederman developed an obsession with homeopathic medicines. He eliminated all sugar, coffee, fish and meat from his diet. He took injections of adrenal-cortex extract to rejuvenate his glands. When a friend sent him a brochure about the potential of polysorbate, it seemed enough of a challenge to entice him back to the business world.
"I never even knew Murphy's product existed," said Lederman, sipping from a 100cc bottle of ginseng and honey, imported from the Far East, that he claims gives him instant energy. "Murphy still thinks he has an exclusive franchise on the formula because he happened to stumble on it first. You can't patent a food additive like polysorbate 60 any more than you can patent a piece of cheese or the chocolate-chip cookie."
But legal ignorance isn't what upsets Lederman so much about Murphy. "If you're going to sell a baldness cure, you have to do it with class. Everything Murphy does is so cheesy. But he's like 'Fatal Attraction'--whenever you think you're finally finished with him, he's back."
Indeed, it was Lederman who came up with that famous name doused in mystique: the Helsinki Formula. It was Lederman who hired actor Robert Vaughn for $25,000 to host his TV infomercials about the formula. Vaughn, ensconced behind a news desk a la Ted Koppel, interviewed hair-replacement experts from around the world. One of his first guests was Dr. Ilona Schreck-Purola, the original polysorbate researcher whom Lederman had tracked down in Finland.
Schreck-Purola is now in her early 60s. She has soft, grandmotherly features set off by big, round glasses, mother-of-pearl earrings and silver hair pulled into a bun. "Hal Lederman asked if I wanted to go to California," she recalls. "Everyone in Finland wants very much to visit California. So I go." Lederman and Schreck-Purola tinkered with the original formula to make it more commercially appealing. They finally settled on a mix that consisted mainly of purified water, polysorbate 60 and polysorbate 80, which has a slightly thicker fatty acid base.
They became close friends. After Schreck-Purola returned home to Finland, Lederman started sending her quarterly checks for a few thousand dollars. He liked to tell people he had developed a friendship, not a business relationship, with Schreck-Purola. In 1985, Schreck-Purola's daughter even spent a summer in Los Angeles working as an au pair for the Lederman family.
Lederman's marketing instincts enabled him to overtake Bob Murphy's sales in a matter of 18 months. Lederman's company, Pantron I, was selling 15,000 orders a week, more than twice the output of Murphy's California Pacific Research. In Reno, Murphy watched grimly. His heart constricted in his chest like a sausage link in a deep fryer. Outmaneuvered, he sought to buffer himself by developing another product, a squeeze-tube insecticide called Magic Roach Paste. But the roach paste just didn't have the aura of New Generation. Without polysorbate, Murphy was drifting, rudderless.
It was winter 1987. In a desperate attempt at damage control, Murphy flew to Helsinki. He was convinced that Lederman was grossly underpaying Schreck-Purola. After a day of searching, he tracked her down in a small medical office near the University of Helsinki. To his astonishment, he learned that Lederman had never signed any agreement with her.
The truth is that Schreck-Purola wasn't particularly interested in money. People came to her for help in developing their own polysorbate formulas. If they remembered her financially down the line, she accepted. Eight years ago, she had given the German rights to her polysorbate experiment to a German company called Bioscalin for a paltry $8,000. In Sweden, Schreck-Purola had given the rights away, free of charge, to Dr. Setala's son-in-law. Each time she shared the formula, though, she tinkered with it to suit the recipient's tastes and purposes.
By the time Murphy talked to her there were at least a half a dozen or more versions of the Helsinki formula dispersed throughout the world. This did not trouble Murphy; he persuaded Schreck-Purola to sign a 10-year, $25,000-a-year contract for exclusive world rights to the original Mouse Formula.
What did trouble him is that Schreck-Purola remembered that she had experimented back in the '70s with a polysorbate formula that preceded even the original Mouse Formula. That earlier version had been tested not on Finnish mice but on the scalps of 320 human volunteers: 273 men and 47 women. According to the study, about 60% of the people experienced hair growth or a stoppage in hair loss.
The People Formula was much more viscous because Schreck-Purola had thrown in a variety of rumored hair nutrients--panthenol, urea to help promote blood circulation and biotin, a B-complex vitamin.
Murphy reckoned that folks could use the lighter Mouse Formula in the morning and the heavier People Formula before retiring. He was so touched by Schreck-Purola's generosity that he honored her by naming the new product "The Ilona Schreck-Purola Exclusive Overnight Formula." The entire package--including the two formulas, a shampoo and a grooming mist, all laced with polysorbate 60--sold for $49.95.
In her willingness to help, Schreck-Purola unwittingly stoked the feud between Murphy and Lederman. As early as 1985, the year Murphy filed an unfair competition lawsuit against Lederman, the two men were collecting depositions and legal evidence against each other. Whenever Schreck-Purola visited the United States, she spent most of her time in attorneys' offices.
Soon after Murphy returned from Finland, Lederman brought out his own supercharged formula to challenge the Schreck-Purola formula. It was called the Accelerator (Murphy promptly dubbed it the Exaggerator). Then Lederman suspected Murphy of persuading the Los Angeles District Attorney to raid Lederman's offices. (The D.A. never brought charges.) Next, Murphy's office manager quit to go to work for Lederman.
Schreck-Purola contends she just wanted everyone to be happy. "America is such a big country," she kept saying. "Why is there not room for Bob Murphy and Hal Lederman? Both their products work just as well. There are no secret formulas. But I can't make them listen. You see, hair is not as difficult to grow as money."
On June 6, 1988, after hundreds of pages of depositions from Schreck-Purola and various other parties, Murphy's California Pacific Research and Lederman's Pantron I decided on an out-of-court settlement. In its indecipherable complexity and questionable enforceability, the settlement bore some resemblance to an international nuclear-arms treaty.
For instance, both parties agreed not to make any reference, visually or verbally, to the other party's product. Murphy promised never to use the words Helsinki and formula together in that particular sequence in any phrase, sentence structure, advertising, promotion or label copy.
"I was tricked, hoodwinked," Murphy now says.
Lederman agreed that whenever he mentioned the phrase Helsinki Formula on the air, he had to follow it with the cumbersome, adjoining disclaimer: "This product refers to the active ingredient used in the University of Helsinki studies and is not the actual formula used in those studies." This meant that in the course of a 30-minute infomercial, he'd have to repeat the adjoining disclaimer 27 times.
"I had very dopey lawyers back then," Lederman concludes.
Both Murphy and Lederman claimed the other started violating the agreement almost as soon as they signed it.
THE SCREAMING OF THE WEENIES
"Dr. Schreck-Purola is flying in this weekend," Murphy tells me. "Top-secret business."
We have spent most of the afternoon preparing for her arrival, sweeping the Reno office for electronic bugs and sorting through hundreds of testimonials sent unsolicited to New Generation over the years. Murphy's rumpled pale-blue shirt is unbuttoned to the sternum. With his fingertips, he's gingerly patting into place the little hairs on the front of his head. He won't tell me anything about the Schreck-Purola visit right now except that it has to do with a major legal showdown with the U.S. government, or "the Wienies," as he refers to them.
According to Murphy, the government is the reason that miracle products such as polysorbate are not universally used. "All kinds of self-interested forces in our society work against people like me," explains Murphy as we eat lunch at Denny's.
"Lobbyists, politicians, big business. Just look at the electric car. People were driving them around Southern California back in the 1930s. Then the car companies realized it was cheaper and more profitable to make gas engines. The U.S. Congress gave them their blessings. Hello smog alert."
Ironically, over the past decade, Murphy and Lederman often have wound up on the same side in their battles with the government. In 1984, the federal government held an inquiry to decide whether to order Lederman to stop soliciting checks through the mail. The government suspected he was misleading the public by selling a drug but marketing it as a food additive. Part of Lederman's defense was to point out that three years earlier, California's state Food and Drug Administration had brought the exact opposite charges against Murphy: selling a food additive by claiming it was a drug . In that instance, Murphy moved his operation out of state to Nevada, and California dropped the case.
Many of these conflicting federal and state government lawsuits, however, dragged on for years. For instance, take the first polysorbate case ever to garner nationwide publicity: California Pacific Research Inc. vs. the U.S. Postal Service.
The case is as remarkable for its bizarreness as for its longevity. Eleven years ago, Postal Service attorneys accused Murphy of falsely representing through the mail that his product could grow hair. Murphy refused to settle out of court, and a trial took place in U.S. District Court in San Francisco on Oct. 2, 1981. The five lawyers from the Postal Service failed to produce any consumers who had actual complaints about the product. What's more, an army of New Generation users showed up to hoot and applaud. Newspaper photographers snapped pictures of their scalps during court recesses. Eighteen witnesses proceeded to testify for Murphy, including a local radio personality named Tony Russell who recounted under oath: "The experience of using New Generation has been like having sex and winning the Congressional Medal of Honor at the same time."
Despite hours of similar loving testimony, the Postal Service won the case. Murphy immediately appealed the verdict, convinced that he had lost because his own trial lawyer happened to be bald.
In 1985, a federal judge in Nevada reversed the decision in Murphy's favor. In 1986, a U.S. Court of Appeals overruled the Nevada judge's decision and again sided with the Postal Service.
Even today the byzantine legacy of California Pacific Research Inc. vs. the U.S. Postal Service refuses to die. Murphy told me he now hopes to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. He has not failed to note that six of the Supreme Court justices suffer from male-pattern baldness.
One might ask why the federal government should expend so much energy and resources against a hair-growth formula that consumers seem happy with. Since the U.S. government also gave Schreck-Purola grant research money in the '70s, it's possible that Washington was essentially killing off its own Frankenstein monster. Another possibility is that the government had made Upjohn jump through so many regulatory hoops that it came under extensive pressure to crack down on Murphy and Lederman. In fact, a federal judge, in the case of Pantron I vs. the Federal Trade Commission, described that government agency as Upjohn's stalking-horse.
But the real reason the Feds have spent so much taxpayer money dogging Murphy and Lederman turns out to be--get this--Dr. Schreck-Purola again.
The pivotal contention in almost every government legal action through the years has been the reliability and efficacy of Schreck-Purola's '70s Helsinki experiments. According to Dean Fournier, an attorney for the FTC, although Schreck-Purola performed extensive tests on polysorbate for tolerance studies and metabolic effects, neither her Mouse Formula nor her People Formula met FDA standards of competent and reliable scientific evidence. "None of them were double-blind medical studies," Fournier explains.
In November, 1989, the FTC cited this lack of double-blind studies, using placebo test groups, when it sued both Lederman and Murphy for false advertising. It was the most serious government offensive to date. The FTC requested a temporary restraining order to shut down both companies and to confiscate all assets.
Murphy settled out of court and agreed to change his advertising. But Lederman decided to go to trial. A week before the trial, Lederman persuaded Schreck-Purola to fly in from Finland and testify. Schreck-Purola's candor and integrity were meant to impress the judge. The hearings lasted two weeks, and something impressed the judge. Lederman beat the U.S. government.
In an express written opinion for the plaintiff last March, prior to final judgment expected this fall, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Gadbois ruled that while the European medical studies that Pantron I relied on to establish the medical efficacy of its product did not pass FDA muster, they were nevertheless done by careful and experienced scientists in good faith. Judge Gadbois (himself a sufferer from hair loss on the crown of his head) cited the government's failure to produce any consumers who had complaints about the polysorbate product. Later he wrote:
"There is a fair amount of evidence to the effect that perhaps it should not be effective, but in large measure the same may be said for minoxidil. . . . Who's to say that a balding gentleman in his middle years who comes forward and testifies fervently that his pate is becoming younger because of the Helsinki Formula is simply deluding himself?"
The FTC is expected to appeal Gadbois' decision in favor of Pantron I. Murphy is appealing a $2-million fine from the FTC. Lederman has spent half a million dollars to win his case against the government, which doesn't seem any more convinced about the legitimacy of polysorbate now than when mice started growing hair back in the '70s. In addition, there are still about two dozen similar formulas associated with the University of Helsinki thriving on five continents.
That weekend, when Murphy picked up Schreck-Purola at Reno International Airport, I figured she had a lot of explaining to do.
Schreck-Purola seemed very happy to be visiting the United States again but was no less confused about the past decade. "From what I am told, Hal Lederman's victory in court now means that only his polysorbate is scientifically proven to work. But I am the scientist who proved it, and I'm under contract with Bob Murphy."
Murphy had flown Schreck-Purola in so she could make a testimonial video that would explain everything: the polysorbates, the wiretapping, all the court battles.
"Back in Finland, we are not thinking all the time about hair loss," sighed Schreck-Purola, who was realizing that she had a long week ahead of her. "It is no life-or-death matter. I mean, what American has ever died from male-pattern baldness?" She considered that for a moment, then added: "Except maybe through suicide."