This series of posts, appearing one each Tuesday, deals with unnecessary death due to false belief. Some time ago I realized I had been focusing too much on religious belief—faith healing and such. It’s time to pour some attention onto death caused by alternative medicine (alt-med). Here’s the case of Lorie Atikian:
The quackery-related death of a 17-month-old girl has sent shock waves across Canada. No one aspect of the story is unusual. The scenario is a classic combination of cultural vulnerability, modern urban mythology and quackery.
Dead from malnutrition and pneumonia is Lorie Atikian. Eight months before her death on September 25, 1987, Lorie was a perfectly healthy baby. When she died she was nearly bald, covered with deep red rashes, and so emaciated that the paramedics thought they were being tricked by being given a doll to treat.
Lorie’s parents Sonia, 38, and Khochadour, 54, are emigres from Lebanon and Syria. In addition to Lorie, the couple has two teenaged children. Like many people these days the Atikian’s were concerned about modern food additives, pesticide residues, and drugs. Their cultural background may have made them a bit more vulnerable, but like most people they held positive attitudes toward “natural” food and medicine. Sonia became enamored with Gerhard Hanswille, an “herbologist.”
Gerhard Hanswille, 55, says that he learned herbology in Germany through self-study and books (Germany has a tradition of folk medicine that includes a great deal of Medieval herbalism). In 1972, Hanswille obtained a mail order doctoral degree in naturopathy from “Bernadean University” (BU) located at that time in Las Vegas, Nevada. BU, which was never approved or accredited to offer any courses, was closed down by the Nevada Commission on Postsecondary Education in 1976. It then moved to California where it operated for several years before eventually becoming “authorized” under the State’s liberal rules (Aronson, 1983). California has tried to close BU but has been blocked by its claim to being a religious school of the Church of Universology (Emshwiller, 1987).
Hanswille owns two “House of Herbs” stores, writes and gives seminars at which he expounds his theories, which include making wax and clay effigies sealed with drops of blood and sperm (notions founded in Monism and Vitalism which are the basis of most primitive folk medicine). Hanswille’s book describes how to heal diabetes, epilepsy, TB, tumors and paralysis by “touchless massage.” Hanswille likens the technique to dowsing for water, something that “not everyone can do.” Sonia paid $450 to take Hanswille’s course.
Much as I take satisfaction laying the deaths of innocents at the feet of Jesus, this time he was apparently taking a few days off.