A story recently published on the website of British YouTuber Myles Power covered the incredible, unlikely, and infuriating story of two of America’s latest great snake oil salesmen – Ernst T. Krebs, Jr. and Sr.
Ernest T. Krebs and “Vitamin B17”
The story of a son trying to live up to his father’s legacy is usually one that has you rooting for the underdog.
Ernest T. Krebs Sr. was a San Francisco physician and entrepreneur. During the 1918 influenza epidemic (the so-called “Spanish flu”), Krebs Sr. created and sold a concoction of parsley that was a supposedly an “old Indian cure.“ He called it Syrup Leptinol, and sold it on the streets of San Francisco for several years before the FDA seized it in response to the irresponsibly fraudulent claims.
A few decades later, prodigal son Krebs. Jr. bounced around the country from college to college, finding each one to be a poor fit. After finally receiving a bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois, Krebs Jr. went on to deliver an hour-long lecture at a bible school in Tulsa. At the end of the hour, the now-defunct school awarded Krebs, Jr. a “doctorate.” The school was not accredited by the state to grant doctorates, but the honorary title is still commonly affixed to Krebs, Jr. by his proponents.
“Doctor“ Krebs, Jr. went on to create a supposed cancer preventative, dubbed Laetrile, by extracting a substance called amygdalin from apricot pits. He reasoned that amygdalin would release cyanide that only targeted tumor cells when exposed to certain enzymes that occur in cancer cells. Other body cells in the area, he claimed, would be protected by enzyme activity that neutralized the harmful affects of cyanide. There are no such enzymes in cancer cells, no such enzymes in body cells, and absolutely no scientific basis in any part of the theory whatsoever.
To go a bridge further, Krebs, Jr. also believed that cancer was routed in pregnancy. He claimed that cells called trophoblasts, which form the exterior shell of the early embryo (called a blastula), were the same cells responsible for causing cancer later in life. Grabs believed that women who produced an inadequate amount of chymotrypsin, a digestive enzyme, would be left with an excess of trophoblasts. These “excessive trophoblasts,” Krebs, Jr. claimed, would break off and enter the systems of the mother and newborn, where they could give rise to cancer years later. Obviously, this is all bunkum as well – but many people were enticed by the miraculous results Krebs, Jr. was claiming.
Laetrile went through a revolving door of labels to avoid suspicion from American, Canadian, and Mexican authorities. Originally marketed as a cancer cure, then a preventative, and finally a nutritional supplement they called “vitamin B17.” Laetrile is not a vitamin (nor is amygalin), and vitamin B17 doesn’t exist.
Eventually, the California Medical Association was forced to respond to the inundation of contact it was receiving about Laetrile. The Association pressed Krebs, Jr. for his clinical data and proof of controlled studies. Krebs, Jr. claimed he had performed the studies but destroyed any related files. While conducting background checks on his former patients, the CMA found that 19 of 44 patients Krebs, Jr. had referred them to had died within two years of receiving their treatment. Some of them even seemed to be exhibiting symptoms of cyanide poisoning. The agency quickly condemned Laetrile, as did the California State Department of Public Health.
Finally, many years later in the 1970s, the federal government began seizing shipments of Laetrile that were being moved through the country. Despite the efforts of state and federal government to ban the substance outright, amygdalin and “vitamin B17” continue to find adherents today.
The Dangers of Quackery
The story of Krebs, Jr. and Laetrile is especially resonant because of the increasingly large portion of the public conscience occupied by pop-science and medical quackery today. A growing part of the populace chooses to remain unvaccinated, and is increasingly reliant on ineffective, unapproved “natural” remedies to treat everything from the hiccups to mumps.
Ineffective dissemination of public health information and government response to these individuals (who are health risks) has lead to recent outbreaks of illnesses that had nearly disappeared completely by the late 20th century, like measles. Though there are numerous securities in place today that didn’t exist 40 years ago to protect the public from Laetrile and people like Ernest Krebs, Jr., they seem ineffective at responding to similar medical misinformation occurring today.
That’s why the story of Krebs, Jr. is so important. The ability to identify misinformation tactics, as well as understand the difference between good science and bad, is an important skill in modern society. The Laetrile case is an enduring reminder of how sophisticated these crackpot misinformation campaigns can be, and the value of a skeptical, inquiring mind.
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