By Lindsay Kines, Canwest News Service
May 31, 2009
VICTORIA - They showed up on his doorstep in Saskatoon from time to
time, schizophrenic patients who had fled the university hospital a
few houses away. They clutched their belongings in their hands and
knocked on the door in search of the one man who they believed could
help them: Dr. Abram Hoffer.
``He represented hope in a way that standard traditional psychiatry
didn't, '' his son said Friday, recalling that time half a century ago.
Hoffer, who died in Victoria Wednesday at the age of 91, was a
controversial figure in psychiatry and medicine throughout his life.
He pioneered the use of LSD for treating alcoholism, discovered the
ability of the vitamin niacin to lower cholesterol levels and
developed a megavitamin therapy for treating schizophrenia - a
therapy largely rejected by the psychiatric profession.
But patients and their families were always at the centre of his
work, and they remain among his staunchest defenders.
``When patients came to him with schizophrenia, they quite often had
failed other treatments and other psychiatrists and were often left
with diagnoses such as, `You will never get better, you will never
recover,' '' Hoffer's son, Dr. L. John Hoffer, recalled. ``They would
come to him, and he would say to them . . . `You have a disease like
diabetes. It's a disease of the chemicals in your brain. We have a
treatment for it, and I will do everything in my power to make you better.'
``Many people had said - and he's told me this story - that for the
first time in a long time they felt hope after they'd seen him.''
Born in a farmhouse in Saskatchewan in 1917, Hoffer received his
early education in one-room schoolhouses. He initially studied
agriculture at university, earning his first degree in agricultural
chemistry at the University of Saskatchewan before becoming
interested in human nutrition and medicine.
He went on to become directory of psychiatric research for
Saskatchewan in 1950 and teamed with fellow psychedelic pioneer Dr.
Humphrey Osmond to explore the causes of schizophrenia. The team
eventually developed the method of treating schizophrenia with large
doses of niacin and Vitamin C.
Two years ago, Hoffer shared the $250,000 Dr. Rogers Prize for
Excellence in Complementary and Alternative Medicine for what the
judges said was ``his stubborn pursuit of non-toxic orthomolecular
approaches to mental and physical disorders (that) helped thousands
of patients with conditions ranging from schizophrenia to cancer.''
Hoffer, who authored more than 500 peer-reviewed articles and more
than 30 academic monographs and books, remained frustrated to the end
that his work was never embraced by the mainstream psychiatric
community, his son said. ``He was disappointed that the treatment
wasn't adopted widely, that it continued to be rejected, and he was
upset and angry that, in fact, it was never even investigated as it
should have been.''
But Hoffer never lost his commitment to helping people, just as he
did those patients who would show up on his doorstep in Saskatoon all
those years ago.
Steven Carter, executive director of the International Schizophrenia
Foundation, said Hoffer improved the lives of ``tens of thousands''
of people with mental illness.
``I've been getting floods of e-mails from people who say it was
Hoffer's work that saved their son or daughter or husband or wife,''
he said. ``Really, there's no area of the world that's been untouched
by his work.''
Victoria Times Colonist reporter Sarah Petrescu wrote in a tribute
that she met Hoffer - ``a tiny spitfire of a man'' - about a year ago
while trying to get help for her mentally ill brother.
``The first thing he did was tell (my brother) that his condition was
a gift as much as a challenge,'' she said. ``He said: `People like
you are very creative, have genius talent and beautiful eyes and
skin, I'm actually quite envious.' We all welled up in tears. These
things are true about my bro, but most doctors have always treated
him like an imbecile leper only offering fistfuls of drugs . . .
``Anyways, he's the only (one) who has ever given our family dignity
in dealing with mental illness. I'm sure there are many similar
stories out there. I hope his work lives on.''