On a cold and damp March day 20 years ago we launched a teeny newsletter which
we audaciously named the Townsend Letter for Doctors.
(The title change to
Townsend Letter for Doctors & Patients would
not come until 1995). It was a bold undertaking. Alternative medicine had not
really come into its own — those
doctors who practiced alternative medicine took shelter under various organization
umbrellas usually dedicated to one therapy, technique, or practice.
which did look at alternative medicine were byproducts of the hippie, New Age
thinking. We remember the old East West Journal as well as New
At the other extreme were the "vitamin" believers and health
food faddists. At that time old man Rodale championed the vitamin interest
with Prevention Magazine and the magazine featured nutritionists Carlton Fredericks,
Adele Davis, and the very popular column by Dr. Jonathan Wright. Yet for all
the nutritional press, no publication offered a forum for alternative medicine
nor directly addressed the concerns of physicians, practitioners and patients
embracing alternative medicine. Enter stage right — the Townsend
Letter for Doctors.
The first several issues of the Townsend Letter were newsletters of 8-12 pages,
hence the Letter title. Published in Port Townsend, Washington state, a small
Victorian seaport on the Olympic Peninsula, the Townsend name was appropriated
for the letter. The early newsletter offered in miniature form much of what the
larger magazine featured. The newsletter reviewed important topics in nutritional
medicine, naturopathy, alternative medicine and specialized treatments in the
alternative cancer arena. The early newsletters had letters-to-the-editor, editorials,
news items of political interest, meeting news, book reviews, and biochemistry
The calendar of events was one of the hallmarks of the Townsend
meeting organizers, vendors, and doctors were able to depend on the calendar
for the only full listing of alternative medicine events. (The calendar on the
website, townsendletter.com, is perhaps the most complete calendar of alternative
medicine events published currently.)
It was the Townsend
Letter that often broke
the most important political, legislative and judicial news in the alternative
medicine area. One of the more memorable news stories was the effort of a Florida
US representative, Claude Pepper, to legislate policies restricting alternative
medicine practice, create a registry of "quacks" practicing quack
medicine, and to authorize police action by the federal government to discipline
such practitioners. This story released in mid-1984 led to one of the largest
outpourings of public protest to Congress in days long before email and the internet.
By mid-1984 the Townsend Letter had transformed itself into a paid subscription
base with advertising support.
The efforts of quackbusters Victor Herbert, John Renner, Stephen Barrett and
the National Council Against Health Fraud began to appear with frequency on these
pages. Additionally, the "protectors" of alternative medicine began
to report the unjust activities of state and federal agencies as well as reporting
the harsh disciplinary actions taken against alternative practitioners. It became
evident in ensuing issues of the Townsend Letter that the practitioner of alternative
cancer treatment had the greatest likelihood of facing sanctioning by medical
boards. In this light Congress was lobbied to address alternative cancer treatments,
chelation and other treatments.
Representative Molinari from Staten Island, New
York and 50 other legislators spearheaded an effort to investigate alternative
medicine in 1985. In 1986 the US Congress Office of Technology Assessment established
a committee to review alternative cancer treatments. Current Townsend Letter
columnist Ralph Moss and editor Jonathan Collin participated in this advisory
committee, ultimately writing a 300-page report providing the first federal framework
for understanding alternative medicine. This report and additional efforts by
congressmen including former Representative Berkley Bedell, led to congressional
authorization of funding by the National Institutes of Health to establish an
Office of Alternative Medicine.
In 1991 this Office organized a broad consortium
of alternative medical practitioners, researchers, educators, economists and
analysts to a think-tank in Virginia. Out of this think-tank the OAM was first
appropriated $2M and later $20M. Eventually Congress authorized further funding
for a much larger department at the NIH, leading to the current Center for Complementary
and Alternative Medicine. The Townsend Letter was given the privilege of participating
in the advisory phases of this alternative medicine office; another alternative
medicine journal, Complementary and Alternative Therapies, was the brainchild
of another advisory member of the Congressional review of alternative cancer
treatments, Dr. Larry Dossey.
Any writing about the history of the Townsend Letter
for Doctors & Patients
would be incomplete without mentioning the tremendous contribution of our columnists.
It was a very important part of the early magazine's philosophy that we
needed contributing writers who would be independent of alternative medicine
organizations and supplement companies — who would freely discuss the advances
in alternative medicine. Prior to bringing columnists on board the Townsend
Letterwas limited in its editorial diversity.
Dr. Alan Gaby's literature review
and commentary, started in 1985, became the template for a later "generation" of
columnists not just in the Townsend Letter, but also in other publications. Our
earliest herbal reviewer, Dr. Donald Brown, was ultimately succeeded by Kerry
Bone as well as Bob Flaws and Gina Nick. Melvin Werbach offered a terse look
at medical conditions from a nutritional standpoint. Tori Hudson's examination
of women's health from a naturopathic standpoint offers one of the best
arguments for legitimacy of natural medicine. The Ullman's column on homeopathy
opened the public's eyes to homeopathic diagnosis and treatment. Perhaps,
most controversial, Dr. Morton Walker reported on the "unproven" and "commercial" aspects
of alternative medicine practice. While unproven, the Townsend
Letter felt the
need to report on these treatments if for no other reason than to report on what
is being practiced, by whom, and for what reason. Too many "peer-reviewed" journals
refused to report such therapies without automatically condemning them. We feel
very honored to have our columnists and look forward to their contributions in
the years to come.
The most recent change for the Townsend Letter has been the featuring of a theme,
a special topic of inquiry. Many of the readers recall the first theme issue
dedicated to lupus in August/September 1999. The theme has obligated the Townsend
Letter to focus on individual conditions from the vantage point of multiple disciplines
in alternative medicine. Our theme this month was meant to take a break from
the focused theme: spring and springtime activities, "winter" cleanup
and detoxification, spring tonics. It appears that the columnists were more interested
in the "break" from the theme; this month we offer a potpourri
of different topics for your interest.
Happy spring cleanup!
Jonathan Collin, MD