Category Archives: Health

An Interview with Dr. Abram Hoffer

At 88, Dr. Abram Hoffer is still dispensing wise nutritional advice and damning critiques of our health care system. On beginnings, orthomolecular medicine, psychedelic research, a revolutionary treatment for schizophrenia, and the state of present-day psychiatric care.

No Canadian psychiatrist has been simultaneously more dogged by controversy and more beloved by his patients than Victoria’s Dr. Abram Hoffer.

In an era when most psychiatrists believe in medicating for life, Hoffer has been a one-man “underground railroad” helping unchain patients from tranquillizing drugs.

Yet that’s not the reason he’s controversial.

Upon going to work as Director of Psychiatric Research for the Province of Saskatchewan in 1950, Hoffer and colleague Dr. Humphry Osmond became trailblazers.

They were one of the earliest institutional teams using psychedelics for therapy. They provided Aldous Huxley with the mescaline that led to his famous treatise, “The Doors of Perception”, which in part inspired Timothy Leary’s Harvard research and the psychedelic 60s. Hoffer also visited Prague, helping spark the 20th century’s other major psychedelic researcher, Dr. Stanislav Grof.

Teaming with Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling, they then became internationally renowned for research into “megavitamin” treatments, and founded “orthomolecular medicine“.

But most controversially, Hoffer and Osmond were the first to develop a biochemical theory and proclaimed cure for schizophrenia.

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The Real Lesson of a Teen’s Death

What killed 13-year-old Mercedes-Rae Clarke after she ingested an unknown drug she bought on the street? We won’t know until the coroner’s investigation concludes-if ever. But the day after her death in September, that didn’t stop our regional chief medical officer Dr. Richard Stanwick, Victoria police inspector Clarke Russell, and even coroner Lisa Lapointe from telling us all, anyway.They suspiciously fingered a spiked or ineptly-concocted amphetamine.

While speaking for Clarke’s family, Stanwick suggested to the Victoria T imes-Colonist that “she got some really bad stuff.”

“[Y]ou want every child to hear about it and hopefully learn about it,” added Lapointe. “Teenagers are so naïve.”

Russell attacked: “They’re handling drugs that are extremely volatile and made with crap. When you take somebody’s life, your life should be taken.”

Basically, our authorities used the tragedy to sermonize wrathfully against seedy dealers of makeshift drugs.

It was an odd conclusion to reach, however; especially considering no one else reportedly even got sick from that mystery batch.

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Doctor Banned in Ontario, Back at Work in Victoria

Originally published in Monday Magazine, 1998. Connected to 2008 story, “Our Government’s Deliberate Helplessness”.

A FORMER chief of psychiatry at Eric Martin Pavilion psychiatric hospital whose licence was permanently revoked in Ontario after he was found to have drugged and repeatedly sexually assaulted a patient, is currently practising in Victoria.

Dr. Frank Gordon Johnson worked in Ontario during the 1970s before moving to Victoria. He maintained a private psychiatric practice here from 1979-91, was a staff member of the Eric Martin Pavilion during that time, and held the position of EMP chief of psychiatry from 1983-89.

In 1993, the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons found Johnson guilty of medical incompetence and sexual impropriety, and declared him “unfit to continue in practice”.

From hospital notes as well as patient and expert testimony, the Ontario tribunal concluded that Johnson had kept Jean Halliwell in a London, Ontario, psychiatric hospital for months at a time during the ’70s, and that he ignored professional criticism about the “wide variety and large doses” of drugs he was administering to her.

The drugs put Halliwell into a “zombie-like” state, according to hearing testimony, while Johnson repeatedly forced her into oral sex and intercourse. Another former patient also testified to having been repeatedly assaulted by Johnson in a similar manner.

Yet in March of this year, Johnson was granted a one-year renewable licence to practise in this province by the B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons.

“My lawyer has asked that any questions get directed to him,” said Johnson last week in reply to a request for an interview. His lawyer, however, did not return calls. Halliwell’s lawyers also advised her not to speak, as she is currently suing Johnson. Representatives from the Capital Health Region and B.C. Ministry of Health denied having any responsibility or authority in the matter. Even Sandy McLellan of the Victoria Women’s Sexual Assault Centre declined to comment on the situation.

But B.C. advocacy groups for survivors of psychiatric treatments aren’t mincing words.
“I’m angry and disgusted,” says Gerry McVeigh of Victoria’s Anti-psychiatry Movement for Alternative Approaches and Directions, pointing out that in his new private practice, Johnson could be treating victims of sexual abuse.

“It’s astonishing to me that they’d let him practise,” says Irit Shimrat of Vancouver’s Lunatics Liberation Front. “I think it’s really strange and grotesque that B.C. doesn’t think there’s something wrong with that.”

According to the B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons, the physician-run organization with authority for licensing and maintaining professional standards, Johnson is “a member in good standing”.

Deputy registrar Morris Van Andel says the physicians’ organization granted the licence after an investigation including three expert assessments and an interview with Johnson. Previous precedents in B.C., the fact the Ontario verdict related to events from 20 years ago, and the psychiatrist’s clean record in Victoria previously, all played a role in the decision, Van Andel explains.

The Ontario case was not considered in detail, and such out-of-province disciplinary actions are never put on a doctor’s publicly available record in B.C., Van Andel confirms. He notes that regulations and standards differ from province to province, and when a licence is revoked elsewhere, it doesn’t necessarily mean the doctor will lose his or her licence–or be refused one–in B.C.

As for Johnson’s record in Victoria, for the public, the question is largely one of faith. Most professional records regarding Johnson’s work in Victoria are confidential, and according to Janice Martinez, regional director for mental health, actual information on sexual abuse allegations within Eric Martin Pavilion would be difficult to gather because it would be scattered through a variety of records–virtually none of which are available to the public. Recent complaints lodged with the B.C. college would not be public information, either.

In any case, Van Andel says that in B.C. and most other provinces, suspensions beyond three years are uncommon, and permanent revocations are reserved for only the most extreme cases.

“If [Johnson] had committed the same offence here, he would have already been practising,” says Van Andel.

In fact, Van Andel feels the Ontario College was out of line when it revoked Johnson’s licence with no opportunity to re-apply for five years.

“A suspension of practice for five years is an extremely heavy punishment,” he says. “You can kill somebody and be out before then.”

He adds that the Ontario college is “very aggressive” in cases like Johnson’s, and calls their “zero tolerance” approach “somewhat hawkish”.

“That’s a fairly interesting statement for someone to say,” responds Jill Hefley of the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons. “I’m not sure whether the public is well-served by allowing physicians who’ve been found guilty of sexual abuse and medical incompetence to continue practising.”

McVeigh is blunter: “My god! What do you have to do to get your licence permanently revoked in B.C.?”

He points out that it’s one thing to allow someone found to have committed sexual assault the right to rehabilitate and start a new life, but quite another to grant that person a licence to practise psychiatry.

“In the mental health system psychiatrists are the most powerful people there are,” argues McVeigh. “All [psychiatric patients] are in a very vulnerable state, and suggestible.”
Despite such criticisms, Van Andel says the B.C. college is “here to represent the public, not to protect doctors”.

Most college investigations are confidential, with details unavailable to reporters even under B.C.’s freedom of information laws. One of the few publicly available examples of a B.C. college reprimand in a severe case involves Victoria native Dr. James Tyhurst, former head of the UBC department of psychiatry. In 1981, a female patient testified that her “therapy” involved having to strip naked, kneel and call Tyhurst “master”.

The college interviewed the psychiatrist and then issued a letter of reprimand, advising Tyhurst that “the degree of subjugation was unwarranted and its effectiveness questionable”. Tyhurst didn’t stop practising until 1991, when four more female ex-patients testified during his criminal trial to being subjected to hundreds of whipping sessions and forced oral sex.

Also revealing is the B.C. college’s own 1992 province-wide study of sexual misconduct. In it, 3.5% of B.C. physicians (psychiatrists themselves were about one per cent lower) admitted they’d had sex with a person who was their patient at the time. Extrapolating from that statistic, there would be dozens of doctors and psychiatrists in Greater Victoria who would admit to having had sex with patients they were treating.

In the report’s introduction, the college-appointed team of researchers state that the problem of sexual misconduct in B.C. “is serious”–but not primarily because of the actual incidence rate of exploitation.

Rather, “[I]t has eroded the public’s confidence in the medical profession and it has placed doubts in patients’ minds about their trust in their physicians and about the profession’s ability to ‘police’ itself,” the report’s authors declare.

Shimrat says the B.C. college’s handling of the Johnson case reveals a similar “self-centredness”: “It shows horrible disrespect to potential patients to have [Johnson] practising here.”