In his own words on the 28th anniversary of his career as a science writer:
Ralph W. Moss, Ph.D. Weekly CancerDecisions.com
Newsletter #40 06/18/02
On June 3, I marked the 28th anniversary of my career
as a science writer. Back in 1974, Richard Nixon was
still president and I was an energetic idealist with a
freshly minted Stanford PhD. Although I had a lovely
family, I hadn't yet found my life's calling. Teaching
at the college level left me dissatisfied. Since my
early years I had wanted to write for a living. But I
lacked a focus.
One day I heard about an opening for a job as science
writer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. The
"war on cancer" was under new leadership, and
Sloan-Kettering was looking for "bright young minds" to
help in the fight.
I decided I had the enthusiasm for the job, and so I
applied. The head of the public affairs department gave
me a chance to prove my worth: he asked me to write an
article for the employee newsletter. I spent the
weekend with scientific reprints and Stedman's Medical
Dictionary open on the dining room table. The result
was my first foray into medical writing.
This fledgling effort earned me a much-needed two
hundred dollars and an employment interview with Lewis
Thomas, MD, the president of MSKCC. This was like a
young acolyte being summoned to meet the Pope. Dr.
Thomas was not only a distinguished immunologist but
the author of breathtaking essays on biology in the New
England Journal of Medicine. It was from him that I had
discovered how good science writing could be. (A
collection of his elegantly crafted essays, titled
"Lives of a Cell," later won the National Book Award.)
What a disappointment that meeting was! Instead of
matching my enthusiasm, he stared vacantly through a
haze of pipe smoke, resigned to the chores that kept
him away from his writing. Sad to say, after I was
hired, he was no friendlier. He would not even return
my "good morning" in the elevator. I took this
personally until I heard two secretaries discussing his
condescending rudeness. I was learning that heroes
often have feet of clay.
By contrast, Robert A. Good, MD, PhD, president of
Sloan-Kettering Institute, was compulsively outgoing
and gregarious, the Hubert Humphrey of science. His
face had been on the cover of Time and he was widely
rumored to be in the running for a Nobel Prize. He had
a penchant for unusual ideas and served as mentor to
physicians who would later become some of the most
prominent alternative practitioners, such as Nicholas
Gonzalez, MD, and Charles Simone, MD.
What pride I felt as I first rolled my Memorial
Sloan-Kettering stationery into my IBM Selectric and
signed my name at the bottom. The world suddenly
treated me with a heightened respect, a reflection of
the institution whose glory I borrowed. I had
discovered what happens when you align yourself with a
powerful institution. I was euphoric. I didn't yet see
Officially, my job was to write one article per month
for the center's newsletter, as well as various press
releases and the research section of the annual report.
But I soon discovered that the position held
responsibilities that were not included in my job
description. My first assignment was to investigate the
background of one of Sloan-Kettering's doctors, William
Summerlin, MD, who had recently been fired for
perpetrating a research fraud. He had claimed that he
could transplant tissues between unrelated individuals
and, to support his claim, had Magic Marker-ed blotches
of black "skin" onto the backs of white mice. A
technician uncovered the fraud by rubbing the rodents'
backs with a swab of alcohol.
It was feared that Dr. Summerlin was going to implicate
top officials in this canard. My role was to phone
Summerlin's previous employers and (to put it in plain
English) "dig up dirt" on him. I obediently took up
this detective work, little realizing that I might
someday be the object of similar scrutiny.
I was also handed a hefty folder of unanswered letters
from the general public about unconventional cancer
treatments. On the front, in big black letters, someone
had block-lettered "PSHAW." Initially, I thought that
this was Sloan-Kettering's collective judgment on
alternative treatments, until I learned that it was the
first initial and last name of my predecessor, Phyllis
The folder grew even thicker with questions,
suggestions and diatribes concerning cancer. The public
wanted an outlet for its opinions on the war on cancer,
but the prevailing view at Sloan-Kettering was that the
answers would come only from professional scientists.
We were obliged to humor the public because it paid the
bills, but we weren't expected to take their opinions
Although this was how I was indoctrinated, I had
inherited from my father an interest in human nature
and I enjoyed listening to various speculative theories
of cancer. Luckily for me, so did my boss, and he
encouraged me in this direction. One woman tried to
convince me that cancer could be cured by drinking
water that ran beneath a pine forest. She offered to
send me some. There were various weird theories about
gamma rays and the like. About half the letters
concerned a substance derived from apricot kernels
called laetrile, then much in the news. People demanded
to know why we weren't testing or using what they
called "vitamin B17." Our scientists scoffed at the
On my lunch hour, however, I browsed through the local
health food stores, devouring literature about
alternative cancer treatments. It was through reading
these enthusiastic tracts that I first learned about
the world of alternative cancer treatments. My office
bookshelf filled up with works on laetrile, the Hoxsey
herbs and the Gerson diet.
In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king. I
knew very little about these treatments but those
around me knew even less. The average scientist knew
nothing at all. So I became Sloan-Kettering's majordomo
of alternative treatments.
Until 1976, Americans had no federally funded Cancer
Information Service to provide answers to their
questions about cancer, and public inquiries to cancer
centers got catch-as-catch-can answers. Many calls to
MSKCC were forwarded to the public affairs department,
and I became their de facto "answer man." Soon, MSKCC's
telephone operators had notes taped to their
switchboards stating that "calls about alternative
medicine go to Dr. Moss." Over the next three years I
answered hundreds of such calls, listening
sympathetically to patients' experiences and problems
and offering ad hoc advice when it seemed appropriate.
Mainly I listened.
A Trip To Tijuana
In the spring of 1976, I slipped away from a scientific
meeting in Anaheim, California, and drove on my own to
Tijuana, Mexico, to visit the Cydel Clinic. This was
the Mecca of the laetrile movement. Incognito, I met
with Dr. Ernesto Contreras, Sr., and was struck by his
kindliness. My favorable impression of him was
diametrically opposed to his portrayal in the US media
as a predatory quack. The clinic was like the man, a
serene oasis in a world of toxic conventional
I also talked to some patients who seemed to have been
helped by the treatment. One "terminal" patient told me
that this natural therapy had relieved his intense
pain, which he likened to "someone twisting a knife
back and forth in my throat," within a matter of days.
"I'd like to take an ax and smash up the FDA," he said,
expressing such intense hatred for the federal
government that his words seared my brain. Violent
emotions! But I found it hard to argue with the rights
of a terminally ill patient to receive any reasonably
nontoxic treatment of his choice.
In New York, I had a standard form letter saying that
laetrile had been proven worthless. Imagine my
astonishment when I found out that our most experienced
researcher, Dr. Kanematsu Sugiura, had found that
laetrile decreased the spread of cancer in test mice!
Suddenly, my cozy work world, with its collegial
lunches and Christmas parties, started to collapse
around me. I was not only surrounded by fundamental
dishonesty but was rapidly being dragged into it as an
active participant. My son, who was 10, said to me,
"You cannot go on working for them and against them
forever." Indeed, I could not. In November 1977, I was
fired after holding a press conference to discuss the
topic of laetrile at Sloan-Kettering. Well, that is a
story for another day.
Times have changed. Today, the US government puts $100
million per year into the evaluation of treatments that
were scorned as quackery 25 years ago. It has been my
pleasure, for the last ten years, to play a role in
that process as an advisor to the National Institutes
of Health. Most surprising to me personally, in May
1999, I was invited to give the Grand Rounds lecture to
the Department of Surgery at Memorial Sloan-Kettering.
How strange to walk those corridors once again and,
surrealistically, to be applauded by the very
institution that had padlocked my files and had me
escorted out by armed guards decades before.
What lessons have I drawn from my 28 years as a science
writer? Once we start to shape our writing about
science to accommodate the wishes of doctors, patients
or institutions, rather than the facts, we are sure to
end badly. We must always speak to cancer patients with
a finely balanced mixture of compassion and honesty.
Finally, we must always demand a fair evaluation of all
treatments, conventional and alternative. Only on a
level playing field can the true value of any cancer
therapy be determined.
LINK to Ralph Moss' site
many reports and articles
|Remember we are NOT Doctors and have NO medical training.|
This site is like an Encyclopedia - there are many pages, many links on many topics.
Support our work with any size DONATION - see left side of any page - for how to donate. You can help raise awareness of CAM.