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Universities, like most businesses, cite glowing testimonials from grateful students, I doubt whether universities are any more honest than anyone else in their choice of what to publish. When I asked to see any letters that had been sent to the university, I was sent only one and extracts from it appear in the last post on Westminster. More dangerous nonsense from the University of Westminster: when will Professor Geoffrey Petts do something about it? But I knew (don’t ask how) that there had been more than that, and a slightly widened FOIA request produced some interesting results (though I’m aware of other letters that were not supplied -not good).

As always, the information came with the caveat

"Copyright in our response to your request belongs to the University of Westminster. All rights are reserved. This document is for personal use only and may not be copied, or stored in any electronic form, or reproduced in any other way or used for any other purpose, either in whole or in part, without the prior written consent of the University of Westminster.".

Why else would anyone ask for information but to make it public? And since the letter was sent in electronic form, it would be hard to comply with the second part. As always, I rely on the fair quotation and public interest defences to quote parts of the letters.

The main players here are Peter Davies (Head of herbal medicine and nutritional therapy), Julie Whitehouse (Course Leader for MSci Herbal Medicine and the BSc Honours Health Sciences), David Peters (Clinical director of Westminster’s School of Integrated Health), and the dean of the School of Life Sciences. Jane Lewis. There’s no woo about Jane Lewis. I suspect she’d have got rid of all the nonsense, given a chance. Who, I wonder, is stopping her?

Julie Whitehouse is, I see, a co-author of Brock et al. (2010) American skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora): an ancient remedy for today’s anxiety, British Journal of Wellbeing1 (4), 25-30. I had no idea there was such a journal. UCL does not subscribe so if anyone has a reprint I’d love to see it. Judging by the abstract it’s yet more ‘preliminary work’. That’s very typical. Next to no CAM research gets past the preliminary report.

Some testimonials

Here are some quotations from “a part-time student on the herbal medicine (HM) BSc course, currently in my 3rd year of study. I have first class honours degree in ecology, am a qualified staff nurse, and am an experienced performance and business manager."

cc Professor Jane Lewis, Dean of School: Biosciences

"Dear Professor Petts,

I hope you do not mind me writing to you personally. I am a part-time student on the herbal medicine (HM) BSc course, currently in my 3rd year of study. I have first class honours degree in ecology, am a qualified staff nurse, and am an experienced performance and business manager. I regard myself as scientist."

"I would like to express to you my disappointment and frustration with my own studies at Westminster. I thought (erroneously, I have since discovered) that I was paying for a Bachelor of Science degree, and that science and scientific thinking would underpin my studies. How wrong I have been.

Based on my experience at Westminster, two things really need to be done to restore credibility in the herbal medicine degree, viz. removing the antiscience and pseudoscience, and strengthening the scientific basis of both our core and herbal medicine modules. The current degree is confusing and infuriating in that it really does not know what it is."

"Here is a quote from a handout (on ‘The Galenic Constitutional System in Practice’) given to 3rd year herbalists last semester: ‘Treating particular disease/conditions is more successful if the disease can be analysed in terms on hot, cold, wet and dry’. If I showed this to any modern (not 17th century) doctor they would be rolling around on the floor in hysterics and condemning this type of nonsense in the strongest possible language. I am ashamed to tell anybody what we are being taught. Is this clandestine teaching or is the University actually sanctioning this pre-scientific view of medicine?"

Anti-science ideas need to be, not only banished from teaching material, but also robustly challenged every time they are raised by students (or lecturers) in the polyclinic or the classroom. But, constantly challenging anti-scientific and erroneous ideas is very wearing and wearying for me as a student, as I am sure it is for scientists on your staff. (I should say here that there are some excellent scientists who have supported and encouraged me in my studies at Westminster; Dr Gillian Shine in the core modules and Christopher Robbins in HM, leap to mind).
Your ‘You Tube’ video says that you hope we enjoy our studies at Westminster. I do want to enjoy my studies. I want to think that Westminster is a respected

academic institution. I should not feel threatened by challenging what I am taught when it is plainly pseudoscience or antiscience and my University should be supporting me in my challenge, which I am sure you will.

And from the same student, this time addressed to Julie Whitehouse and copied to the dean, Jane Lewis (in 2009) [some details removed to preserve patient confidentiality].

… a patient attended who had been treated with a Reiki [typo for Reishi] mushroom tincture and another herbal tincture (about 6 herbs) by an HM clinic supervisor. The patient had also been advised to do ‘body brushing’ which I understand was for ‘detoxification’. This lady is being treated by an oncologist for [***] cancer and is currently undergoing chemotherapy. I do not believe her oncology team were informed before we initiated treatment and the bottles of tincture were not labelled with what they contained.

I have serious ethical problems with treating anyone with cancer with herbs, but someone in the middle of chemotherapy?

Not only are patients’ lives being put at risk, but students are not getting clear messages about the limitations of HM or the professional ethics involved in treating someone with cancer. I have seen patient files with ‘anti-mitotic’ or ‘anti-cancer’ herbs written in the notes. I question whether this is also bordering on the illegal. At the very least it betrays a naive belief that herbs can treat cancer. I was ignored earlier this year when I queried students being encouraged to go to a herbalist’s cancer seminars in Bristol (and she claimed to cure cancer) and this case highlights to me the dangers of Wmin condoning and teaching the ‘we treat people not diseases’ mantra.

This second letter elicited a response from the university, and the response is worth looking at.

The response

2 What was done following the complaint

021209 Clinical Director met with the tutor. Reviewed notes. No indication that the patient was seeking ‘alternatives’ to chemo, nor that she was led to believe the prescription was designed to do other than support her coping with chemo which in her experience had previously been physically demanding and distressing. Procedures regarding communication with oncologists, informed consent, labeling of medicines need reviewing and reinforcing. Action by Course leader/herbal team. Report back to PC Exec 210110

151209 The student who (though she had not been present during this session, had objected to way this case was handled met with the course leader in the presence of the Senior Clinical supervisor and another tutor. The meeting was supportive rather than confrontational. The student was asked to reflect on the consequences of her (frequent) impulsive emailing and the time and effort she demands of others – and to consider the Code of Conduct she has signed.

So the whistle-blowing student seems to have been patted on the head and told to shut up. Nevertheless the complaint had some effect, though not much.

050110 Course leader proposed to review current Polyclinic policies and procedures, and discuss current practice in cases of serious disease and how doctors are informed and patients consented

The response included "Extracts from Smith J, Rowan N & Sullivan (2000) Medicinal Mushrooms: Their therapeutic properties and current medical usage with special emphasis on cancer treatment” from Cancer Research UK."

In almost all the examples that will be discussed in this chapter the polysaccharides act mainly as immune- stimulants with little or no adverse drug reactions. Furthermore, several of these extracts have been shown to stimulate apoptosis in cancer cells (e.g. Fullerton et al., 2000). While there are examples where the mushroom polysaccharides have shown efficacy against specific types of cancer as monotherapy, the overwhelming successes have been demonstrated when they function together with proven and accepted chemotherapeutic agents.

I could not find that document at Cancer Research UK though there is a similar report, dated May 2002, "Medicinal Mushrooms: Their therapeutic properties and current medical usage with special emphasis on cancer treatments" by Smith, Rowan and Sullivan. It can be downloaded at the Cancer Research UK page, Medicinal Mushrooms and Cancer. That page, last updated 7 August 2006, lists John Smith BSc MSc PhD DSc FIBiol FRSE as Emeritus Professor of Applied Microbiology, University of Strathclyde. amd Chief Scientific Officer, MycoBiotech Ltd, Singapore, and Richard Sullivan BSc MD PhD as Head of Clinical Programmes, Cancer Research UK (a job he left in 2008). Professor John Smith is still Chief Scientific Advisor to Mycobiotech Inc, based in Singapore. This company sells various mushroom products. They are all marketed as “nutriceuticals” or “functional foods”, not as pharmaceuticals. These descriptions are a very common way of making medicinal claims for products, while describing them as foods to avoid the strict regulations about claims made for medicines.

It does not seem to me to be a good idea for Cancer Research UK to have advice on its web site from someone with a very obvious financial interest.

The quotations from the Smith report are obviously intended to defend the practice of prescribing mushrooms to people on chemotherapy. But the fact that in 2011, five years after the CRUK page, Mycobiotech still has no approved medicine approved for cancer speaks for itself. They sell Shiitake Herbal Soups. They also sell Essence of Shiitake which, they say, contains Lentinan, “which has been confirmed through research, to be an immuno-enhancer. Lentinan has been found to reduce tumour growth and to prolong the life of cancer patients”. That sounds to me like a rather strong medicinal claim for a “food”. Even Nutra-ingredients, the industry site for nutriceuticals, doesn’t claim much for it.

Now back to Westminster’s response to the student’s complaint.

I have found no evidence that herbal practitioners in the Polyclinic are making explicit claims to treat cancer.
However, the use of the term ‘anti-tumour’ in the notes implies an ambivalent rationale for prescribing. It also illustrates the potential for ambiguity in the clinical notes. However, there is substantial research – both laboratory and clinical – to support the ‘anti-tumour’ and ‘immune stimulant’ properties of certain mushroom species. p222 see appx 2

And, from David Peters.

DP**There is one item in the notes however which I think we need to comment on. While the paper-trail in all other respects shows that the herbal prescription was supportive, one herb in the prescription is categorised as ‘anti-tumour’. Although I am convinced after reviewing the notes and talking with the tutor involved, that the aim was to support the patient through her chemotherapy, this part of the prescription nonetheless signifies some ambivalence at least, about whether the aim was or was not to treat cancer

But then, from Julie Whitehouse

JW Yes there is antitumour as an action for many herbs and nutritional components – and several relevant actions including anything as general as anti- oxidant even – it doesn’t mean we are suggesting they are being used as treatment

It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to see the tension between Whitehouse and Peters. The former is very reluctant to give up the myths, the latter is slightly more cautious about claims to treat cancer.

Let’s be clear about one thing. The student was dead right. There is so little reliable information about mushrooms that neither Cochrane Reviews nor NCCAM has anything relevant to say about them. Antioxidants are a myth, much beloved by marketing people and "boosting the immune system" is the universal mantra of every advocate of magic medicine when they can’t think of anything else to make up. Why can’t Peters and Whitehouse admit it?

More complaints

This one is from a member of staff who teaches on the herbal medicine course. It was addressed to Julie Whitehouse and copied to the dean and vice-chancellor.(10 July 2009).

"During last week (5-9th May) I witnessed a member of the Herbal Team and a student dowsing with a pendulum to divine herbal drugs to prescribe for the student. When I approached and spoke, they defensively hid the pendulum and were clearly embarrassed. I discussed what they were doing. They freely said they were prescribing herbal medicine and cited other staff as their ‘authority’ and ‘instructors’.

Diagnosing or prescribing by pendulum has no scientific credibility. Further, it is dangerous for prescribing as it both fails to identify any appropriate drugs (except by chance) and may select dangerous drugs for a patient.

I know other staff have raised with you the teaching or use of such mediaeval and unscientific practices on the Wmin HM course."

"I feel that such practice in the HM Course teaching or in the Polyclinic should be proscribed. I would like to suggest that you address and resolve this matter urgently.

Dowsing is in conflict with the VC’s recent letter to SIH staff, specifically expecting more evidence of science within the teaching of CT Courses."

"I expect that were the Department of Health to be aware of the unscientific teaching and promotion of practices like dowsing, (and crystals, iridology, astrology, and tasting to determine pharmacological qualities of plant extracts) on the Wmin HM Course, progress towards the Statutory Regulation of Herbal Medicine could be threatened."

The writer seems to have overestimated the sense in the Department of Health. They were aware of these practices (I told them) but nevertheless went ahead with a silly form of statutory regulation.

The same lecturer wrote on 27 July 2009

"This happened with a supervisor, students and patient in the consultation room. The patient was invited to dowse her own "remedies" using a pendulum. A set of Bach Flower remedies (also proscribed in the HM Clinics) was placed in front of the patient and a pendulum was produced. On the basis of the dowsing, a prescription of ‘remedies’ was dispensed."

"Although Julie says dowsing has been proscribed, she has been unable to present and document saying as such. Bach Flower Remedies have been proscribed for HM Clinics."

Some of the replies were sent to me. Julie Whitehouse replied to the lecturer and Peter Davies on 10 August 2009

“I have written and circulated the text to be put into the handbook and have had approval from most members of the herbal team – but [the lecturer who complained] was not there at the time – hope he approves of the statement. It does not specifically say we do not dowse – but it does I think state clearly what we do – we surely do not want a list of what we don’t do – where would it end – there could be many things in a list of what we don’t do.”

So she explicitly refused to ban the use of dowsing in Westminster’s clinic. The lecturer replied, pointing out the unreasonableness of this attitude.

Dear Julie,

I am afraid that I have not received any copy (home or University) of your ‘statement’ so cannot comment. Please resend me another copy.

I don’t understand your not wanting ‘a list of what we don’t do – where would it end’. It is commonplace to have proscribed activities in both social and professional activities, and these are usually for clear reasons of safety and public good. Eg.: Herbal practice is constrained by the prohibitions in the Medicines Act 1968 and following, the maximum dosages under Schedule III of that Act, the prohibited herbal drugs under the MCA, Trading Standards regulations, etc.

It seems that, despite the vice-chancellor’s assurance that the courses would become more scientific, there are still apologists for diagnosis with a pendulum, and for treating cancer with mushrooms at Westminster University.

This saga sounds only top characteristic. Complaints through official channels usually get you nowhere with big organisations. Sadly, the only way to get change is public embarrassment.

Some action from Vice-chancellor Geoftrey Petts is long overdue.

Follow-up

A kind reader sent me a copy of Brock, Whitehouse, Tewfik & Towell,. (2010) American skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora): an ancient remedy for today’s anxiety, British Journal of Wellbeing1 (4), 25-30.. This is the paper that I described above, on the basis of the abstract, as "preliminary study".. Now that I’ve seen it I realise it isn’t study at all. They simply emailed 377 members of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists to ask what they thought of S. laterifloria. Only 62 replied (16%) and their anecdotes are listed in the paper. It is this sort of worthless information that gets herbal medicine a bad name.

10 August 2011. I notice that Professor Petts has replied to a letters sent to him by the Nightingale Collaboration. He said “Whilst I understand your concerns, colleagues of the School of Life Sciences where these courses are offered do not share them. They are not teaching pseudo-science, as you claim,…”. Well I know at least two member of the Life Sciences department who are very worried. One has now left and one has retired. The rest are presumably too scared to speak out. How he has the nerve to claim that they don’t teach pseudo-science all the teaching materials that have been revealed on this blog is hard to imagine. It is simply not true and he must know it. I find it deeply worrying when vice-chancellors say things which they know to be untrue.

The latest example to come to light is cited by Andy Lewis on his Quackometer blog

“There are some even odder characters too, such as Roy Riggs B.Sc who descibes himself as a “Holistic Geobiologist” and is “an “professional Earth Energy dowser”. He guest lectures at the London Westminster University’s School of Integrative Medicine and The Baltic Dowser’s Association of Lithuania.”

I do wonder who Professor Petts thinks he’s fooling.

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14 Responses to Freedom of information reveals some unusual testimonials for the University of Westminster: when will Professor Geoffrey Petts do something about it?

  • The Freedom of Information Act is wonderful – and as they say, the devil is is the detail. So hats off to you for your tenacious, forensic exposure of the stuff they want to cover up. I get the impression that there are two versions of Westminster alternative therapy courses. The first is the public image one -the official ‘respectable’ version paying lip-service to normative epistemology; and the second is the internal, covert one – conveying what lecturers privately assume to be true, more akin to New-age mysticism with remedies based on unsubstantiated beliefs rathen than proven testing. The university preaches what it doesn’t practise.
    There is an appalling lack of rigour in the defensive response from Westminster to the complaint. The idea that the use of the action “anti-tumour” entered into the herbal prescription case-notes is in any way “ambivalent” or “ambiguous” is ridiculous. It is clear that they are saying that they are attempting to treat cancer, so if the adjunctive chemotherapy works they can then conveniently notch up another “success” for their magic potions.

    There were/are many privately-run courses that teach all sorts of new-age beliefs and therapies, very often in a very idiosyncratic and fairly amateurish way. It was a Caveat Emptor deal where the courses satisfied personal predilections rather than professional training according to publicly accountable standards. But when these ‘schools’ chose to climb under the umbrella of a nearby university in order to gain respectability and start offering joke degrees, many of their tutors refused to think that they needed to alter their ways. Old-wives tales, superstition, mythic claims of miracles stayed as part of the baggage. Financially, it’s mutually beneficial for both the old alternative medicine school and the University. To maintain the arrangement, the University management turns a blind eye: the art of fudge and spin seems to be the weapon of choice for politicians. There is one inevitable conclusion. If the University were to require the course to meet the normal standards of an Honours degree in science, then there wouldn’t be enough surviving content to make the syllabus viable. The fact is that UK universities should not have lent their name to all the dippy spoon-bending alternative medicine courses in the first place.

  • David,

    Two issues:

    i) The copyright in the text of the letters (notwithstanding what the University says) belongs to their authors. Copyright in the internal memos you quote probably belongs to the University.
    ii) With regard to the paper cited (sloppily) as, “Fullerton et al., 2000), I wonder if the paper meant is this: “Induction of apoptosis in human prostatic cancer cells with beta-glucan (Maitake mushroom polysaccharide)”.Molecular Urology 2000 Spring;4(1):7-13.
    Fullerton SA, Samadi AA, Tortorelis DG, Choudhury MS, Mallouh C, Tazaki H, Konno S.
    SourceDepartment of Urology, New York Medical College, Valhalla, New York 10595, USA.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10851301

  • “Here is a quote from a handout (on ‘The Galenic Constitutional System in Practice’) given to 3rd year herbalists last semester: ‘Treating particular disease/conditions is more successful if the disease can be analysed in terms on hot, cold, wet and dry’.”

    Allopathy!

  • I find your part time student interesting.

    I always assumed that the people signing up to this kind of course were willingly complicit in a conceit that got themselves a BSc, their tutors the status of teachers, their quackery a veneer of respectability and their university some cash.

    If people are actually being miss-sold degree courses that seems rather more serious. With the kind of time and money someone must invest in a degree, surely this is as serious as miss-selling a pension or a mortgage. I wonder if some form of legal redress is available.

    As a scientist I am uncomfortable with courts ruling on science. However I don’t think that is what is required here. The question would just be whether or not there was a sufficiently developed corpus of knowledge to justify a BSc course.

  • @pberry
    Yes but it costs £117 to buy the sub. I’m not that curious.

  • “a slightly widened FOIA request produced some interesting results (though I’m aware of other letters that were not supplied -not good)”

    So they broke the law.

  • Quote “I find it deeply worrying when vice-chancellors say things which they know to be untrue.”

    Usually how they became VCs in the first instance…

  • Matt
    Miss-sold is absolutely spot on. I’m yet another (ex) part time woo student (dowsing case study is rather familiar). I tell you there’s a big difference between leaving studies if it’s ‘not for you’, than having both your time, money and intelligence abused and wasted with misrepresentation and outright horseshite. Three years on and am still semi floundering for a career change. Class action? [Who said that]

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