Famed doctor plans Portland visit; Son says he's dangerous, works to discredit him
Every now and then heartwarming father and son stories come to light. Stories about reconciliation. Or stories about how a son came to admire a father's contribution to the world. This isn't one of them.
Next week, the annual three-day Northwest Naturopathic Physicians Convention will be held at the Portland Marriott Downtown Waterfront Hotel.
Among the speakers will be Dr. Henry Heimlich. Yes, that Dr. Heimlich - namesake of the Heimlich maneuver for choking victims and arguably the best-known physician's name in the country.
His wife, Jane, is scheduled to accompany Heimlich. Their son, Peter Heimlich, will not be in attendance, but in a sense he will be there in spirit.
In fact, he will be dogging his father's every step. Because Peter Heimlich, a self-described 'research monster,' is convinced his dad is a fraud, and he's spending most of his time trying to get the word out.
'I realized I'd stumbled onto something absolutely unbelievable,' Peter Heimlich said, talking about how he began researching his father's career after a family argument in 2002. 'We inadvertently uncovered what may be history's greatest medical charlatan, who happened to be my father.'
A charlatan is one thing - Peter Heimlich alleges that Henry Heimlich did not even invent his famous maneuver, and that other techniques are better. Also, that his father has used his reputation to fraudulently gain research funds for his Cincinnati-based Heimlich Institute.
But the most serious allegation being made by the younger Heimlich and others is that, late in his career, 87-year-old Henry Heimlich has become dangerous.
The elder Heimlich, according to his son, has involved himself in radical ideas and experiments that include infecting AIDS patients in China with malaria in hopes of boosting their immune systems and curing them. It is only because of his father's ill-gotten fame, Peter Heimlich claims, that such projects have been allowed.
Peter Heimlich lives with his wife in Duluth, Ga., and maintains a small fabric importing business. But most of his time is committed to what he calls exposing his father.
He maintains a Web site that delves into every aspect of his father's career. He calls reporters in cities where his father is scheduled to appear and pushes them to write stories. And he continues delving into his father's past.
Peter Heimlich's second career began with that 2002 argument that happened while Peter Heimlich was living in Portland. Peter Heimlich said it involved his parents covering up family medical problems; a family spokesman said the parents consider it a private matter. At the time, Peter Heimlich was running a fabric import shop on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard.
Years later, Peter Heimlich has found allies for his campaign. Today, he isn't the only one who thinks Henry Heimlich is dangerous.
'I think some of his (Henry Heimlich's) ideas are delusional,' said Robert S. Baratz, physician president of the Massachusetts-based National Council Against Health Fraud, which is often critical of alternative medicine.
'This (Heimlich's career) is the biggest case of scientific fraud I've ever seen. The longest, the biggest and the most far-reaching, without a doubt. We're talking about a huge amount of money that's been raised for the widespread perversion of the scientific and medical process and fabrication of data. All of it, back to the maneuver.'
The list of charges the younger Heimlich makes about the elder Heimlich is long (and can be found on Peter Heimlich's Web site, www.medfraud.info).
• That his father stole the maneuver for dislodging airway-blocking food. A colleague should get the credit, Peter Heimlich said.
• That his father is promoting the Heimlich maneuver for a number of inappropriate situations, claiming it will help save asthma and cystic fibrosis sufferers, and that it should be used on heart attack and drowning victims rather than the conventionally accepted cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
• That his father has direct involvement in the experimental treatments on AIDS patients in China.
There's more, according to Peter Heimlich. 'I learned anywhere I followed my father's trail, something unusual and often criminal turned up,' he said.
Henry Heimlich declined to be interviewed for this story, but his wife, Jane Heimlich, spoke briefly before referring the Portland Tribune to a public relations executive hired to speak for the family.
'This is a tragic situation,' Jane Heimlich said. 'I don't know what happened exactly, but he (Peter Heimlich) has given all his time and energy to doing what he can to ruin his father's reputation.'
'This is a very sad situation'
Bob Kraft, the family's public relations spokesman, said the controversy over Henry Heimlich's work is really more about a soured father-son relationship.
'Peter is estranged from the family,' Kraft said. 'At some point in about 2002 there was a big argument which took place. He threatened his father. He said, 'I'm going to destroy you.' ' Kraft did not say what the argument was about.
'This is a very sad situation,' Kraft said. 'They're a dignified older couple, and to have this family feud exposed is embarrassing, and they are saddened by the estrangement.'
Peter Heimlich denied that the motivation for his campaign against his father is personal.
'I'm not a lunatic trying to tear down my father's reputation,' Peter Heimlich said. 'I feel like (the Unabomber's brother, David) Kaczynski. Once I found out what I found out, that my father was putting the public at risk, I wasn't going to go back to sleep and hope that nobody else was hurt.'
And putting aside the family feud, most of the allegations made by Peter Heimlich have merit, experts say.
Kraft acknowledged that Heimlich did 'guide' Chinese researchers who infected AIDS sufferers with malaria. 'His (Heimlich's) idea is that the immune system can be stimulated to repair itself,' Kraft said.
Doctors weigh in
Baratz of the National Council Against Health Fraud said he has looked into the research and discovered that several of the subjects died, and that Heimlich tried to do similar research in Africa.
'His ideas are insane,' Baratz said. 'Some of his ideas are delusional. He has been experimenting on human beings for most of his career, and he's no different than the Nazi experimenters. There isn't one iota of scientific basis for this except that Heimlich said so.'
Terri Schmidt, professor of emergency medicine at Oregon Health and Science University, said she has been aware of Heimlich's pushing to get his maneuver approved for drowning victims. 'I believe it's potentially harmful,' Schmidt said. The American Heart Institute agrees - clearly stating in its guidelines that CPR is preferred for drowning victims.
'I find this whole thing rather sad,' Schmidt said. 'Clearly his original Heimlich maneuver has saved many lives and is well-supported in the medical community. I don't know what's going on with the man, but these other ideas have no basis in science and are really kind of frightening.'
As for using the Heimlich maneuver on asthma or cystic fibrosis sufferers, as promoted on the Heimlich Institute's Web site, Schmidt said the therapy makes no scientific sense and might harm patients.
'I can't say that infecting somebody with malaria doesn't cure somebody with AIDS,' Schmidt said. 'But there's certainly no evidence for it. The same thing with the Heimlich maneuver and asthma. It doesn't make intuitive sense.'
Then there's the maneuver
According to Peter Heimlich, the Heimlich maneuver shouldn't even be called the Heimlich maneuver.
He said his research proves that another physician, Edward Patrick, brought the idea to his father. In fact, Peter Heimlich said, around the Patrick household the choking therapy is known as the Patrick maneuver.
Patrick was unavailable for comment, but in a 2003 news release he said he considered the maneuver a joint effort.
'There's no way he (Henry Heimlich) invented it,' Peter Heimlich said.
Kraft denies the charge, insisting that Peter Heimlich's father invented the maneuver. As for the other allegations, Kraft said some are open to interpretation.
'Dr. Heimlich's ideas are not commonly accepted,' Kraft said. 'I think Dr. Heimlich would happily describe himself as a maverick who marches to a different drummer. He's a maverick. That's not in and of itself crazy or unethical.'
Exactly what Henry Heimlich will speak about at the naturopathic convention that begins next Friday remains a mystery. Kate Wiggin, a naturopath from Vancouver, Wash., serving as the convention's chairwoman, said she was aware of some of the controversy surrounding Heimlich.
Asked whether she knew what Heimlich would speak about, Wiggin said: 'What I can say about Dr. Heimlich is I hold him in the highest respect. He is internationally known, and I would think that what he is promoting is well-validated material. He's a keynote speaker, and we're awfully glad to have him.'