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Response to a threatening letter from Mr Holford

September 12th, 2007 · 28 Comments

I have received today (11 September 2007) a rather threatening letter from Patrick Holford. He says

“I am writing to you directly to complain about both your article in The Guardian of 15 August, in which you falsely claim that my advocacy that Vitamin C is better than conventional drugs to treat AIDS is “truly scary”, and in respect of the equally false claims you have posted on your website, DC Improbable Science, particularly in relation to Dr John Marks.”

He ends, more threateningly,

“I nonetheless believe it appropriate that you withdraw the allegations you have made and apologise for making these unwarranted and defamatory allegations. Provided that we can agree the wording of an apology and the removal of the false claims, I am prepared to leave it there. However, I fully reserve my right to take this matter further should my complaint not be resolved to my satisfaction.”

Here are responses to these two allegations.
(Some follow ups on this post have been added below)

Vitamin C and AIDS

What does Holford actually say about HIV/AIDS? On page 208 of his New Optimum Nutrition Bible (2003) we read (see Google books)

“Yet for the last 100 years, medicine has focused on drugs designed to destroy the invader -antibiotics, anti-viral agents, chemotherapy. By their very nature, these drugs are poison to the body. AZT, the first prescribable anti-HIV drug, is potentially harmful and proving less effective than vitamin C (23)”

This sounds to me like a pretty clear statement that AZT is “less effective than Vitamin C”. The interested reader may skip forward to page 544 to see what reference 23 actually says. The reference that they will find is this

You can read this paper here. If you get that far, you might well be surprised to find that it is not a study of people with HIV/AIDS, but merely shows that vitamin C can, under lab conditions, inhibit HIV in cells in a dish. You might be even more surprised that the paper does not compare vitamin C and AZT. In fact AZT is not mentioned at all (except for a brief reference in the discussion).It is true, that on his web site, as opposed to his book, Holford expands on this theme a bit. For example here he says. of reference 23,

“Ref 23. These in vitro studies on human T-cells shows that vitamin C suppresses the HIV virus in both chronically and latently infected cells, while AZT has no significant effect. It is a tragedy that this simple, non-toxic treatment hasn’t been further tested. ”

Harakeh S, Jariwalla RJ.Ascorbate effect on cytokine stimulation of HIV production. Nutrition. 1995 Sep-Oct;11(5 Suppl):684-7.

But the reference given here (which does use AZT) is not reference 23 (which does not test AZT at all). Holford himself acknowleges that his book cites the wrong reference in his book.

Holford also forgets to mention (or perhaps didn’t notice) that the concentrations of Vitamin C that are used in these in vitro studies are something like 10 times greater than can be achieved in man even with very high oral doses,

More recently he has backed off a bit. For example, here he says

“There is no doubt that anti-retroviral drugs save lives. So too may high dose vitamin C, but we just won’t know until the definitive research trial is done.”

Why, one wonders, has Holford not done studies in man himself? His name does not appear in the research literature at all (search Pubmed for ‘Holford PJ’ yourself). And Holford is not a poor man.

It still seems to me that anyone reading his New Optimum Nutrition Bible (2003) will be misled into thinking that Vitamin C is better than AZT for curing HIV/AIDS in man.

You can read more interesting stuff on this question at Holfordwatch.

What did Dr Marks actually say?

I’m accused of malicious behaviour, because I posted a letter from Dr Marks which set out his present views All I did was ask Dr Marks about what happened, and, with his encouragement, published his
answer. I also suggested to Dr Marks that he should write to Holford to ask for the basis on which Marks was quoted. When Marks received no reply, we decided to go ahead anyway.

I am, therefore, very grateful to Mr Holford for sending me a letter, dated 16 September 1997, that was sent to him by Dr Marks. The whole letter can be downloaded here.

It seems that in the ten years since that letter was written, Dr Marks has changed his mind a bit about Holford. but the main interest attached to the letter is the selective quotations that have been made from it.

In his 1997 letter to Holford, Marks says “On the basis of this I am entirely happy for you to quote as much or as little of the following comments as you wish. If you change the order of phrases or omit portions of sentences I am confident that you will not alter the general sense”.

Judge for yourself whether the general sense has been changed in this case.

Dr Marks said (in 1997)

“There have been dramatic changes over the past decade in our views about that area of health care which comes under the general term “alternative medicine” and Patrick Holford, author of this book has been right at the forefront of many of these changes, particularly those associated with our revised appreciation of human nutrition. I commend this book to you on the basis that it is well researched and written with a substantial backing ofreferences from reliable and peer reviewed scientific and medical journals.

I do not accept all his conclusions and I suspect that his other readers will not agree with all that he says. On the other hand there is considerable food for thought in each chapter and adequate arguments on which you will be able to make up your own mind about the ideas which he puts forward. The road to bad medicine and bad health is built on the foundation of dogma and it is very refreshing to have, in a single readable volume, much of this dogma subjected to fresh examination.”

Compare this with the quotation attributed to Dr Marks in the CV which was submitted by Holford to the University of Teesside.

“There have been dramatic changes over the past decade in our views about healthcare and Patrick Holford has been right at the forefront of many of these changes, particularly with our revised appreciation of nutrition. The road to bad medicine and bad health is built on the foundation of dogma. It is refreshing to have this dogma subjected to fresh examination.”

So what happened to the bit where Marks refers to the work as “Alternative Medicine”.

And what happened to the bit where Marks says “I do not accept all his conclusions and I suspect that his other readers will not agree with all that he says.”

They seem to have vanished without trace.

I rest my case.

Some comments that followed this post

At Holfordwatch “Patrick Holford Refers to Someone Else as Inaccurate”.

And at Quackometer ” Patrick Holford – No Comment”

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Tags: Anti-science · Bad journalism · CAM · Dangerous advice · nutribollocks

28 responses so far ↓

  • 1 wilsontown // Sep 12, 2007 at 11:14

    It seems that Holford has no case whatsoever. Well done for standing your ground.
  • 2 Shinga // Sep 12, 2007 at 11:34

    As a matter of interest, did Holford ever apologise to you for his erroneous allegation concerning your research funding or withdraw it?

    As for the rest, it’s rather like a criticial reasoning or reading comprehension test and I rather feel that an examiner’s crib sheet would support your interpretation.

  • 3 lecanardnoir // Sep 12, 2007 at 14:16

    Mr Holford has sent me an email saying that I should not post on your site anymore and agree with what you are saying.

    So, I had better be quiet. But good work anyway.

  • 4 SteveH // Sep 12, 2007 at 14:30

    There is nothing like a bit of good intellectual debate, and as usual Mr Holford’s contribution is indeed ‘nothing like a good intellectual debate.’


  • 5 David Colquhoun // Sep 12, 2007 at 14:49

    Uhuh threats to LeCanardNoir too. That sounds seriously scary. I hope that you disobey your orders.

  • 6 jdc325 // Sep 12, 2007 at 16:35

    I’ve been trawling your site for these “unwarranted and defamatory allegations” and I can’t see them anywhere. How disappointing.
  • 7 BobP // Sep 12, 2007 at 18:01

    Dear David,

    I would like to start a collection of my own threatening letters. How should I go about achieving this?


  • 8 Dr Aust // Sep 12, 2007 at 18:08

    Hmmm what’s that line…? “It’s deja vu all over again”

    This seems like a classic example of what Ben Goldacre calls “Legal Chill”, and is reminiscent of both the previous actions of “Dr” Gillian McKeith, and of the Red Clover vs. DC nonsense a few months back.

    CVs, of course, and their accuracy (or otherwise) is something that varies according to the business one is in.

    “Talking Up”, we are told, is supposedly endemic in British CVs.


    One respondent to this feature writes:

    “A CV is an advert; it is not a legal document, and as such it is not illegal to embellish it.”.

    Of course, professions regulated by statutory bodies – which include heatlhcare types like doctors, and dietititans, but NOT nutritionists – have to live by rather higher standards.

    UKdietitian wrote about this at:

    Patrick Holford’s CV: the strange case of Dr John Marks

    To give you an example of how it works in medicine: my wife graduated from a German University. She passed her state medical exams with the grade “good”, which is broadly taken as being in the top 10-15% of the graduating class – a bit like graduating in medicine “with honours” in the UK. However, since there are NO official stats released for this 10-15% figure, she will not include it on her CV when she applies for jobs, even as an explanatory footnote. And even though it might help her chances.

    The reason? In medicine, making false or misleading claims on a CV as part of a job application is grounds for being subject to disciplinary action for gross professional misconduct, up to and including being struck off the medical register. And Mrs Dr Aust says she thinks including an “unverifiable” statement could be viewed as “making a misleading claim”.

    I’m not sure where academia stands on the accuracy of CVs question. On the whole, you can trust things like job histories, professional memberships, and papers published (verifiable), but not always peoples’ stated skills and abilities (hard to verify)… or even how much people contributed to things they were involved in.

    Finally….I have to say that if someone quoted, on an academic CV, a couple of sentences from a refererence someone had written for them – let alone a comment in a letter – it would make me want to read the whole reference very, very carefully.

  • 9 Shinga // Sep 12, 2007 at 19:36

    Well, we’d point you to the pieces concerned (while differing in the interpretation of those pieces), jdc325, but some of us are under explicit orders not to do so…

    Haven’t checked whether I’m allowed to think about them. Hmm.

    Yes – the reach of Holford is long…

  • 10 David Colquhoun // Sep 12, 2007 at 20:46

    BobP says “I would like to start a collection of my own threatening letters. How should I go about achieving this?”

    All I can say is that it seems to be quite alarmingly easy.

  • 11 lecanardnoir // Sep 12, 2007 at 21:30

    Will I disobey Holford’s orders to me to shut up?

    There is something really important here, and it is not just my right to make fair comment on a blog. The issue of whether Vitamin C is better than AZT is not a trifling academic matter, and that millions of people’s live are being horrifically effected by such beliefs in countries where it is seen as being politically useful to officially endorse such nonsense.

    Without people like Holford making statements like the above, this would be much harder. Holford, if he truly now believes that Vit C is no substitute for proper medical care, should use his forthcoming South African tour to shout it from the rooftops and condemn the quackery in SA that is killing hundreds of thousands.

    Then, I might shut up.

  • 12 coracle // Sep 12, 2007 at 22:10

    I wonder if Patrick Holford remembers what happened over the Ann Walker issue? Perhaps we should encourage him to pursue applying this sort of pressure?
  • 13 Dr Aust // Sep 12, 2007 at 23:36

    I can’t see what Patrick H’s complaint can be about Vitamin C, since he seems to be being quoted entirely accurately, as DC sets out above. DC is saying that PH has made scientifically unfounded claims

    With the stuff about PH’s CV and bio… I suppose he feels it is “defamatory” if people are implying that the various inaccuracies identified on his CV/bio strain credulity as simply “oversights and omissions”.

    But… the counterargument would be that all of the CV/bio omissions / inaccuracies people have identified have tended to make PH sound more knowledgeable, scientifically respectable, and authoritative than we would say he is.

  • 14 JM // Sep 13, 2007 at 00:33

    To Coracle
    [i]”I wonder if Patrick Holford remembers what happened over the Ann Walker issue? Perhaps we should encourage him to pursue applying this sort of pressure?…”[/i]

    Remember the wisdom: “Don’t trouble trouble until trouble troubles you.” Too high price was paid for victory in mentioned conflict. So, “let sleeping dogs lie”.

    Moreover, I’m afraid Holford seeks a quarrel with us himself, i.e. “sleeping dog” awoke…

  • 15 LeeT // Oct 21, 2007 at 11:28

    Did Mr Holford follow up his threatening letter at all? Possibly, following last month’s ASA adjudication, he has decided it is not a good idea to accuse people of insulting his good character
  • 16 David Colquhoun // Oct 22, 2007 at 09:32

    Not a word.
    It seems that legal action is a rather unsuccessful way of suppressing truth (as we have seen even more dramatically with the Society of Homeopaths.)

    How very cheering.

  • 17 LeeT // Oct 23, 2007 at 21:46

    That’s excellent.

    Patrick Holford states that he has “reported on published trials that show that vitamin C outperforms AZT in in-vitro trials and that is a good basis for human trials to be carried out.” Above you say that “concentrations of Vitamin C that are used in these in vitro studies are something like 10 times greater than can be achieved in man..”

    Could you explain to people – like me – who know nothing about biochemistry what what happen if some one with HIV were to take a mega-dose of vitamin C? How much would a decent trail cost? Before commencing the trial perhaps healthy members of the ION would be willing to take the mega-doses!

    Incidentally, Holford says he has never had any contact with the notorious Dr Rath. However, the main source for his views on vitamin C/HIV appears to be Dr Raxit Jariwalla who is listed as a senior research associate at the Dr Rath Institute in California. Dr Jariwalla wrote two letters to “The Guardian” in support of Holford. Are we to believe they were done in a spirit of spontaneous generosity to a fellow persecuted scientist? Or perhaps Holford has had some contact with Jariwalla. All very strange …!

  • 18 Private Eye: may contain nuts « Holford Watch: Patrick Holford, nutritionism and bad science // Nov 9, 2007 at 00:41

    […] The article begins with a critical look at some of Holford’s statements on vitamin C and HIV/AIDS, and also discusses one of Holford’s disagreement with David Colquhoun. […]
  • 19 LeeT // Jan 3, 2008 at 23:30


    I thought you might find the following information from the ION (the body set up by our friend Patrick Holford back in 1984) amusing. The Nutritional Therapy Council – the supposed regulators of nutritional therapists – says holders of Dip IONs are going to have to do some post-qualification CPD. Apparently, they don’t understand “the factors affecting variability of responses to drugs [and] the principles of pharmacodynamics and pharmacokinetics relating to drugs.” Perhaps you could offer to do a series of lectures at the ION on pharmacology?



  • 20 Some myths propagated by the nutritionist Patrick Holford « Holford Myths: Exploring Some Myths Propagated by the Nutritionist Patrick Holford // Jan 5, 2008 at 02:27

    […] about Patrick’s credentials – including his the date of his undergraduate degree, the quotes that Holford used on his CV and the fact that the only accredited university-level qualification on Holford’s CV is a 2:2 […]

  • 21 Common Myths « Holford Myths: what is the problem with Nutritionist Patrick Holford? // Jan 5, 2008 at 14:57

    […] Professor John Marks was Director of Medical Studies at Girton College, Cambridge. Marks wrote a courteous letter to Patrick Holford in 1997 (pdf) saying he found Holford’s work interesting, and also describing some reservations. He gave Patrick Holford permission to use comments from this letter as long as they retained their “general sense”. Patrick Holford has used these comments as a ringing endorsement for his work and reproduced them extensively in publicity and marketing material: however, this includes endorsements for specific books which Professor Marks had never read, nor heard of, nor approved. Professor Marks and his endorsement even made it into Patrick Holford’s CV for his position as Visiting Professor at Teesside (pdf) that was submitted in 2007 (some 10 years after the remarks were made). You may judge for yourself whether his use of these comments alter the “general sense”. […]

  • 22 Professor Patrick Holford and the Mainstream Media: A Love Story? « Holford Watch: Patrick Holford, nutritionism and bad science // Mar 31, 2008 at 00:13

    […] the various contretemps involving The Society of Homeopaths, Dr Ann Walker, Professor Obi and even Professor Holford make […]
  • 23 The Pills ‘n’ Thrills & Bellyaches of Patrick Holford « gimpy’s blog // Apr 2, 2008 at 15:52

    […] ONB, especially as it was only last September that he was offering thinly veiled legal threats at Professor David Colquhoun for having the temerity to highlight inaccurate claims on vitamin C and AZT. It does appear though […]
  • 24 Professor Frizelle’s Instant Classic: Let’s hear your evidence not your legal muscle « Holford Watch: Patrick Holford, nutritionism and bad science // Aug 8, 2008 at 15:37

    […] threatening letters that bloggers receive on a regular basis. Professor David Coluqhoun wrote: Response to a threatening letter from Mr Holford Holford Myths published A Comment from Patrick […]
  • 25 The Tragic Human Cost of Political Idiocy and AIDS Pseudoscience « Dr Aust’s Spleen // Dec 13, 2008 at 00:17

    […] I would like to think that the next time dear old Patrick Holford says something mind-bogglingly dim […]
  • 26 Jeni Barnett admits that she failed to act as a responsible broadcaster, following ridiculous LBC broadcast about MMR: Update « Holford Watch: Patrick Holford, nutritionism and bad science // Feb 5, 2009 at 22:03

    […] Patrick Holford sends out blustering letters. See, e.g., Response to a threatening letter from Mr Holford. […]
  • 27 Legal Chill and Other Threats « Stuff And Nonsense // Jun 30, 2010 at 18:13

    […] Improbable Science* received more threats from media nutritionist Patrick Holford after he commented on Holford’s incandescently stupid remarks about Vitamin C, AZT and AIDS. […]
  • 28 Which? magazine: “…high street nutritional therapists are a waste of money” // Jan 16, 2012 at 12:22

    […] of Natural Nutrition: bizarre teaching revealed Nutriprofile: useful aid or sales scam?  Response to a threatening letter from Mr Holford Food for the Brain: Child Survey. A proper job? Teaching bad science to children: OfQual and […]

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