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From the Townsend Letter for Doctors & Patients
April 2003

Letter from the publisher:
History of the
Townsend Letter
by Jonathan Collin, MD
Our April 2003 cover
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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.

Those publications 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 Age Magazine. 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 discussion.

The calendar of events was one of the hallmarks of the Townsend Letter; 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,, 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



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