Introducing the Fad Diet Hall Of Fame: The Anti-Diet Project is exploring some of history’s legendary and infamous fad diets, and the people behind them. These are the origins of some of today’s most popular health trends and food beliefs. Some of these fads are incredibly strange — and all are uncomfortably familiar.
On January 19, 2015, 11-year-old Makayla Sault died. Ten months earlier, she’d been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common childhood cancer. If treated, children with ALL go into remission 98% of the time, typically in a matter of weeks. According to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, 90% of those patients will remain cancer-free for at least 10 years, at which point they’ll be deemed officially cured. “Cured” is not a word used lightly in the realm of cancer treatment, but in all likelihood, Makayla Sault would have been. Instead, her parents removed her from Canada’s McMaster Children’s Hospital, and brought her to the Hippocrates Health Institute in Florida, which was run by a man named Brian Clement, who allegedly claimed that leukemia was “not difficult to treat.” They paid $18,000 USD for their daughter to receive enemas, vitamin injections, a raw food diet, and, most importantly, wheatgrass.
Makayla was not the first cancer patient to receive care at Hippocrates Health, a non-medical spa which nonetheless “treats” seriously ill people. Nor is Hippocrates Health the only institution of its kind. But it is evidently America’s oldest alternative medicine facility, having been founded in 1956 in Boston — not by Brian Clement, but his predecessor, a Lithuanian-American woman named Ann Wigmore.
It was Wigmore who popularized the notion that a raw food diet was not merely health-giving, but disease-destroying. It was she who first launched wheatgrass into the realms of superfood and even curative medicine. Wigmore died in 1994, but in her long and complicated life, she irrevocably altered the American concept of health and food and medicine. In some ways, she did so for the better. “Ann Wigmore is to sprouts what George Washington Carver was to peanuts,” her obituary in the Vegetarian Times noted. “You can thank her the next time you see sprouts at the salad bar.” But you may also look her way when the anti-vaccination movement engenders a measles outbreak, when practitioners promise simple nutritional remedies for illnesses like multiple sclerosis (MS) and HIV/AIDS, and when children with a 98% chance of remission if medically treated end up dying of cancer.
Ann Wigmore was born Anna Maria Warapicki in Lithuania in 1909. Her parents emigrated to the U.S. when she was an infant, leaving her in the care of her grandmother. According to Wigmore’s autobiography, Why Suffer?, her grandmother was a respected village elder and healer, who devoted her home and her life to care for the sick and injured. Wigmore had been a sickly baby herself, and thus was raised on her grandmother’s remedies. When World War I broke out, Wigmore began to assist her grandmother, treating both wounded soldiers and civilian casualties.
It was there, in war-torn Lithuania, that Wigmore first came to believe that grass was nothing short of a miraculous source of nourishment and medicinal power. Her grandmother had always used it in wound care (crushing it under a glass, then pressing it into an open gash before sewing it up). But during the war, it became an even more vital resource. Wigmore recounts a time when the town was under siege, and she and dozens of other villagers had to take refuge beneath her grandmother’s house. “[I]t was our dreadful experience in the root cellar that made me understand what ordinary grass could do for the human body.” At night, her grandmother would slip out into the field and gather fistfulls of grass in the dark. Wigmore says she and the others survived for “I do not know how many days” by eating grass.
Being an autobiography, there are no sources cited in Why Suffer? other than Wigmore herself. It is also the only apparent record of Wigmore’s life until she became a known figure in the U.S., many years later. This is not to say its contents are inaccurate or even implausible (though some recollections have clearly been written in the rose-colored ink of memory). It is simply to say that, when reading this origin story, it’s important to read between the lines. To a child raised in a secluded, rural home, whose first understanding of the outside world was one of savagery and war, the familiar balms of nature must have seemed far safer as remedies than anything man-made. And when trapped in a cellar for days on end, surely, anyone could come to see their only food source as a miracle. Even grass.
At 16, Wigmore left Lithuania to join her parents where they had settled, in Middleboro, MA. But with her she took her grandmother’s teachings — not just on the cure for illnesses, but the cause: “Grandmother did not believe, as did many people of those times, that physical ills were caused by a vengeful being — either devil or God,” she writes, “but that, in some manner, the fault of all physical problems resulted from ignorance, neglect, or misdirected endeavors on the part of people themselves.”
It’s a sentiment that’s long been echoed by new-age practitioners and faith-healers, but these days, it’s usually presented the other way around. Popular self-help author Louise Hay (who is not affiliated with Hippocrates Health Institute) has built a career on her signature theory that, “You Can Heal Your Life.” On the other side of that declaration is another, less inspiring implication: You’re the reason you got sick in the first place. When Wigmore’s autobiography was published in 1985, it came with a foreword from Dr. Robert S. Mendelsohn (a self-described “medical heretic”). In it, he references her grandmother’s philosophy on illness, saying: “How relevant this teaching is today in view of the new man-made epidemics — herpes, toxic shock, AIDS — as well as the relationships between failure to breastfeed and breast cancer, multiple sexual partners and cancer of the cervix, cigarettes and lung cancer, etc.”
Today, it’s hard to imagine that such overt, across-the-board victim-blaming would be tolerated, let alone embraced. (And it would be even harder not to notice how many of these “man-made epidemics” referenced were associated with women and the queer community.) But Wigmore’s belief was firm when she arrived in America, and only became stronger when she was in a road accident at the age of 18, leaving both her legs broken and, soon, gangrenous. She refused medical treatment and claims that eating grass and being licked by a puppy in her parents’ backyard treated the infection and effectively cured her.
Today, it’s hard to imagine that such overt, across-the-board victim-blaming would be tolerated, let alone embraced.
Wigmore did continue to eat grass and other weeds, even after leaving Middleboro and moving to Boston. One night, she opened her bible to the story of the Israelites’ 40-year journey through the wilderness, wherein they lived only on “manna from heaven.” The question of what “manna” refers to, exactly, has been argued in theological and scholastic circles for approximately 2,000 years. But, after doing some reading, Wigmore felt certain that “manna” referred to indigenous grasses and weeds. Thus, Wigmore became focused on wheatgrass, specifically. It was the oldest variety on earth, she believed, dating back even further than the bible. Moreover, it was thicker and brighter in color than other grasses, she observed. In Why Suffer?, Wigmore says she consulted with scientists, but offers no insight as to how she came to believe so fervently that wheatgrass “was capable of helping Mother Nature to mend shattered health and to extend the span of life.”
Here, one should note that wheatgrass does indeed have nutritional value — but not more so than most other vegetables. “People may label it as a ‘superfood,’ but it’s not this amazing thing that’s going to be a cure-all,” says nutrition epidemiology and research specialist Kelly Pritchett, PhD, RDN, CSSD. “It’s high in chlorophyll, which may have some benefits — similar benefits that you would get with any green vegetable, really. But it doesn’t ‘detox’ the body.” Sadly, the myth of wheatgrass’ curative powers (and particularly its ability to eradicate cancer) is still commonly believed. Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital even has a wheatgrass section on its website, headed with the bold disclaimer: Wheat grass juice has not been shown effective in treating cancer or AIDS.
Wigmore, to be fair, had little means of accessing this kind of information, aside from what she could learn from books. But, based on that and her own faith, wheatgrass became the rock upon which she would build her own church.
By 1963, the woman who now styled herself as Reverend Ann Wigmore had purchased a mansion in Boston's Back Bay neighborhood, where she had established Rising Sun Christianity, Inc. It was there that she administered the “wheatgrass therapy” she developed and promoted via pamphlets and self-published books. In the years since making her “discovery,” Wigmore claimed to have successfully used wheatgrass juice to treat maladies including but not limited to: MS, cancer, diabetes, depression, emphysema, arthritis, and leprosy. At some point, she also claimed to have acquired a PhD and a doctor of divinity degree, though neither can be traced back to any accredited schools. But one thing is certain: Many people believed her.
Wigmore inspired a number of acolytes to adopt and/or adapt her message that a raw food diet, heavily supplemented by wheatgrass juice, could alleviate just about any illness. Prudence Farrow, sister of Mia, was one early celebrity client who spent months living at the Boston facility, in an effort to “get my body in perfect shape — purify it,” she said in The Boston Globe in 1967. Wigmore also allegedly treated Paul Newman and Mick Fleetwood.
By the 1970s, she had a growing staff, many of whom had found her through her publications. One of them was 24-year-old Brian Clement, who traveled from Maine to meet Wigmore after reading her book, Be Your Own Doctor. In 1980, he says, Wigmore asked Clement to become the director of her facility, while she would stay on as president. In 1982, Wigmore purchased the building next door, expanding her already enormous facility, and rebranding with the name it bears today: The Hippocrates Health Institute.
That was also the year she was sued for the first time, by the Massachusetts Attorney General. “Wigmore and others at her Back Bay institute were allegedly found to be urging cancer patients, diabetics, and others to give up their medication in favor of her ‘wheat grass therapy,’” The Boston Globe reported. “Two state investigators said in court-filed affidavits that Wigmore claimed, among other things, that children on her diet would not need to be immunized against disease.” Wigmore didn’t speak to reporters, but Clement told the Globe that she and her work had been “misrepresented” and that “[w]e never said we were curing people.” The investigators countered that Wigmore had said exactly that, “unequivocally.”
Wigmore didn’t fight the suit. Instead, she agreed to sign a consent decree which would prevent her from continuing many of the “deceptive and illegal” practices investigators accused her of. The decree also forbade her from claiming that she’d been given a Nobel Prize or received some other recognition from the Nobel Foundation — something Brian Clement, not she, had recently said in an interview. “I didn't realize that was in the decree,” Clement told the Globe reporter. “Maybe you could leave the Nobel Prize Foundation thing out.” But the lawsuit didn’t seem to have much of an effect on Hippocrates Health’s success.
In 1988, one of her books landed her in court. In Overcoming AIDS, Wigmore claimed a soup recipe (which readers could have access to, should they pay for a course at her facility) would “rebuild a patient’s immune system.” Again, the state attorney general sued Wigmore, citing an affidavit from a local AIDS patient who had paid for Wigmore’s program. The unnamed patient said that, “Ms. Wigmore told me that she could 'bring me back health.'" This time, Wigmore did respond, telling the Globe: “I do not ever say that this is a cure. I don't like the word 'cure,' because the body heals itself.”
In this, Wigmore did appear to be telling the truth. Almost nowhere in her writing does the word “cure” appear. Instead, she preferred words like “recovered” and “overcome.” In her long and lucrative career, Wigmore relied upon the power of implication. It’s what allowed her to promise miracles without getting too specific. It’s how she let people believe she was a medical doctor by simply not correcting them. Indeed, it’s how she avoided any consequences for claiming to help HIV patients “overcome” the virus. The judge denied the attorney general’s injunction against her in 1988, pointing out that the contents of her book were merely information and opinion, and therefore protected by the First Amendment.
Wigmore relied upon the power of implication. It’s what allowed her to promise miracles without getting too specific.
This practice of heavily implying miraculous claims (but not stating them outright) is one continued by Brian Clement since Wigmore’s death in 1994. Hippocrates Health moved to West Palm Beach, FL, in 1987 where it continued to draw both legal scrutiny and terminally ill patients looking for a miracle. In 2013, a 23-year-old Irish woman with breast cancer named Stephanie O’Halloran saw Clement speak in Dublin. “He offered me hope that was not offered here,” she told her local paper. Her family was convinced, as well. According to her father: “[Clement] told her he could help, but not to leave it too late.” O’Halloran spent three weeks at Hippocrates after her local rugby team raised the funds for her treatment. She died eight months later. Clement’s response: “From a one-hour lecture in Dublin, this woman decided that I could heal her? That’s not even realistic when you think about that.”
Yet, the Hippocrates Health Institute’s website is rife with claims and testimonials that could, at best, be described as “not realistic.” The institute’s site heavily implies that it can eradicate MS, lyme disease, heart disease, metastatic cancer, and more — without exactly saying so outright. Even the FAQ section manages to dance around this question. Q: Can you cure cancer? A: We don’t say we ‘cure’ an illness here..we educate the person on how to understand their body and take responsibility to improve their own health, and support them as they detox and rebuild their immune system.
It’s been nearly a century since Ann Wigmore came to the United States, bearing her grandmother’s lessons and the charge to heal her fellow humans. Yet, the ethos still remains, if buried deep, even in this slick new website: Sickness, injury, fatal disease — it is always your responsibility, for better and worse. The remedy is there on the earth, free for the literal picking. But, of course, that is the crucial difference: Ann Wigmore’s grandmother lived off the land and charged nothing for her services. Her granddaughter died in a mansion. In 2013, Hippocrates Health reportedly drew $15.1 million in fees.
It would be easy to brush off Wigmore as a crackpot who came to America and got a lucky break, and it would be even easier to categorize her story as an anomaly. But, while she came from another country, Wigmore followed in the footsteps of the American dietary zealots who came before her: Sylvester Graham, John Harvey Kellogg, Horace Fletcher, and so many more. Her story is nothing if not an American one.
UPDATE: Hippocrates Health Institute returned Refinery29's request for comment in a statement that read: "We are not a medical facility and because of this we don't host guests who are critically ill in need of health monitoring at their time of arrival. We do provide a peaceful environment for people to focus on themselves, personal wellness goals, and learn about healthy lifestyle practices that they may choose to adopt after they leave our property...we are just one of many [institutes] that encourages plant based foods and a whole body approach to wellness."