Patrick Holford Visited All the Major Nutritional Research Centres in the United States: or so he claimed in 1985

Visiting Professor Patrick Holford has his own dedicated chapter in Ben Goldacre‘s Bad Science: Chapter 9; pp 161-80. Both HolfordWatch and Holford Myths have commented that the CV which Holford submitted to the University of Teesside is riddled with a remarkable number of errors. Chronological errors undercut some of Holford’s implicit claims to have pursued supervised study in mental health and nutrition before starting to treat ‘mental health patients’ as an independent nutritional therapist. Goldacre elaborates on these inconsistencies and errors with some new information about Holford’s first job after graduation.

The original version of Holford’s CV stated that he had graduated in 1976. 1976 left a respectable period during which Holford might have pursued further studies or apprenticed himself to figures whom he lionised before feeling that he was fully prepared to start work in 1980 as a fully independent nutritional therapist, specialising in the field of mental health.

However, as Goldacre points out, there was no such period of grace during which Holford could have worked or studied under supervision while he acquired the requisite knowledge and experience before 1980.

[The CV states that Holford] was at York studying experimental psychology [until] 1976 before studying in America under two researchers in mental health and nutrition (Carl Pfeiffer and Abram Hoffer), and then returning to the UK in 1980 to treat ‘mental health patients with nutritional medicine’. In fact…Holford actually [graduated in] 1979, and after getting a 2:2 degree he began his first job, working as a salesman for the supplement-pill company Higher Nature. So he was treating mental health patients in 1980, one year out of this undergraduate degree. [pp. 173-4, Bad Science. Emphasis added.]

Holford has a standard story of his epiphany concerning mental health and nutrition that appears in various publications. Sometimes the details vary a little, but most of them contain some form of the claim that soon after the revelation in the final year of his degree, “Within months I was on a plane to America”. From around the 90s, this detail is typically associated with the disclosure that he studied with Drs Pfeiffer and Hoffer.[i]

Dr Aust offers some interesting background on Holford’s mentors and inspirations, including Drs Pfeiffer and Hoffer. One consistently gnawing issue is why Holford directs attention to his period of ‘study’ with Pfeiffer and Hoffer when neither of them was working in a recognised academic institution at the time[ii] and would therefore have been unable to offer academic credits or qualifications for whatever length of time Holford spent with them in between graduating, working for Higher Nature and then setting up as a nutritional therapist. One might question whether study is the appropriate word for what may have been a simple visit of what must have been a brief duration.

One might already have some misgivings about how much supervised study Holford was able to cram in, post-graduation and before starting to work as a vitamin-pill salesman, before he started ‘treating mental health patients’ in 1980, all while researching and writing the Whole Health Manual (originally published in 1981[iii]) so must have been in preparation during this interesting and somewhat hectic period. Any unease is amplified when one recalls that the Brain Bio Centre information pack (thoughtfully annotated by Holford Myths claims that Holford has been treating patients since the 1970s).

The story becomes even more tangled when one consults Holford’s juvenilia in search of enlightenment. It had seemed reasonable to assume that any biographical details written by Holford so soon after his graduation would be more accurate and reliable but biographical inaccuracy seems to have set in at an early age. Browsing through the biographical notes in Holford’s 1985 classic, Vitamin Vitality, we learned:

PATRICK HOLFORD started his academic career in the field of psychology. While completing his BSc in Experimental Psychology at the University of York he researched into the effects of nutrition and vitamins on mental illness and was astounded by some of the results, which were often more effective than commonly recommended drug treatments or psychotherapy.

After university, Patrick Holford started to study nutrition and visited all the major nutritional research centres in the United States. He has carried out extensive research into the effects of vitamins and diet on various allergies, athletic performance and premenstrual tension. In 1981 Parick Holford established a nutrition consultancy called Whole Health Programmes. [Emphasis added.]

One wonders what counts as “extensive research” by Holford’s standards for the above to be true although some of the research reported in Vitamin Vitality provides some clues). However, in subsequent accounts, Holford claims to have studied mental health and nutrition straight after university so it is conspicuous by its absence from this account of his post-university activities.

Beyond that, however, when did he have the time or resources to visit “all the major nutritional research centres in the United States“? How many centres did he visit? Was he just visiting and observing or working there? How long and frequent were these trips and how did he manage to explain his activities to the Immigration Officers? What did he do at all of these research centres to justify the boundless confidence in his expertise and competence to feel adequately prepared to ‘treat mental health patients with nutritional medicine’ with no more than a 2:2 in Psychology and some experience as a vitamin-pill salesman for Higher Nature to underpin his knowledge?


[i] This is easily falsifiable so we pledge that the next time that we are near a national library, we shall plough through a number of the earlier works to check for the first mentions of the time spent studying with Pfeiffer and Hoffer.

[ii] We should clarify that Pfeiffer was working in his own centre in Skillman, New Jersey, not Princeton University, despite the implied designation that Holford uses in several places of ‘Princeton Brain Bio Center’ or just Princeton.

[iii] The Whole Health Manual was published by Holford’s Whole Health Programmes in 1981; it was later reprinted by Thorsons in 1983.




Filed under Ben Goldacre, patrick holford

23 responses to “Patrick Holford Visited All the Major Nutritional Research Centres in the United States: or so he claimed in 1985

  1. tifosi246

    Pop quiz
    Construct a simple sentence from the following words:Holford, believable, his, and, consistent, tells, stories, about,past
    If you can now say that sentence out loud with conviction you are indeed a fine actor

  2. This is so exciting. It looks like you are almost there. The Holy Grail of Holford studies is to discover what he was up between 1979 and 1984. How did he become the legend he is today??

  3. Reading about Patrick Holford’s reinvention of his career and CV reminds me of L. Ron Hubbard. You can read all about Hubbard’s self-reinvention in “Bare-faced Messiah” by Russell Miller, sadly out of print, but available (legitimately) online at
    Hubbard makes Holford look amateurish!

  4. UKdietitian

    Perhaps Patrick really did ‘visit’ these places of nutritional research, just as we can ‘visit’ Magdalene College, Cambridge on a Saturday afternoon, if we care to look around.
    The clue is in his wording
    ‘Patrick practices nutrition’
    ie he doesn’t know much about it – just practicing!

  5. @Grumpy Bob, I recently saw a video of Holford in which he claimed that we rebuild our bones in 6 weeks and other such, “You’re a new person every X weeks” stuff. So – it is possibly reasonable for him to slough off complaints about his biographical details with an insouciant, “I was a different person with different realities, then”. (OT, but there is a new dating technique under development: very early, very small sample work suggests that in a 30-year old, bone cells are 10-15 years old (pdf), I’m just saying.)

    @Tifosi and Lee, who knows. But, the chronology that we know about is: graduated 1979; sometime 1979-1980, salesman for Higher Nature and presumably researching Whole Health Manual; 1981 sets up Whole Health Programmes and publishes Whole Health Manual; round about 1982, he is trying to find somewhere to study nutrition (various anecdotes in later introductions to books) but despairs of universities being close-minded about supplements; 1984 he registers Whole Health with Companies House and following a name change, this becomes ION Ltd at the close of the year: round about 1984-5 or so, he registers for a MPhil at Surrey; 1986, ION is already in a little trouble and Christopher Scarfe gets involved; 1987, the ION’s troubles continue and ION goes into liquidation; 1987 or thereabouts, Holford has his conversion viva for the MPhil that would allow him to continue for PhD but fails and ends up without even an MPhil; ION staggers on, in receivership and disappears from Companies House around 1989; ION does not reappear in Companies House until it is re-registered in 1992, shortly thereafter it is registered as a charity and education blah blah; 1996-7 ION is in trouble gain; 1997 trouble-shooter is brought in to ION; completely unrelated to that, Holford ceases to be a director of ION and retires to spend more time on his writing and research which brings us to 1998.

    There is some more but the time is not yet right.

  6. It is a circular argument. Holford decided that “the major nutritional research centres in the United States” meant two places: Carl Pfeiffer’s private treatment centre in New Jersey and Abram Hoffer’s private medical practise, which at the time Hoffer was likely running out of a storefront somewhere in Victoria, British Columbia.

    Anyway, if Patrick visited both of them, then he visited what were, in his own mind, “all the major nutritional research centres in the United States”.

    Quod erat demonstrandum.

    Once you have invented your own private (alternative) reality, it is pretty easy to make everything there be at least semantically true.

  7. Wulfstan

    Perhaps Patrick really did ‘visit’ these places of nutritional research, just as we can ‘visit’ Magdalene College, Cambridge on a Saturday afternoon, if we care to look around

    Claim: I was an invited speaker at the House of Commons.
    Reality: My MP invited me in to speak to him and some other MPs on a particular matter and they ‘treated’ me to tea in the Members’ Room.
    Claim: I have been invited to deliver workshops and lectures at Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford, SUNY and Carnegie-Mellon.
    Actuality: Yes, it’s true. But I was actually giving a workshop at a conference that was being hosted there or was asked to give a talk to a few people because I was in the neighbourhood.

    I know we’ve discussed this before but I’m still annoyed every time something like this comes up.

    At some time, I hope the time is right for the full, detailed chronology to come out.

  8. @Wulfstan, nice. Have there ever been times when you thought that your CV might look even more spectacular than it is if you went over to the dark side, sloughed your modesty and ‘did a Holford’?

    @Prof UK Dietitian, indeed.

    @Dr Aust, one little oddity, plausible though your, “They’re my semantics and they’ll signify what I want them to” scenario is – the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine was founded in 1973 but I have never seen Holford claim to have visited there in these early years (this is black swan contingent – some of Holford’s early work is so obscure that the national libraries don’t necessarily have a copy). Failing to visit there would be a notable omission for one claiming to have “visited all the major nutritional research centres in the United States“. Plus, it’s a small thing but, as you point out, Hoffer was in Canada, so that would involve Holford not only appropriating the right to re-map the semantics of language but also to re-map places and countries.

  9. gimpy

    Now I’m no economist but with respect to the Quackometer’s most recent post on the fortunes of Neutrahealth I can’t help but wonder how closely Holford’s financial situation maps with the fortunes of the British economy. The steady growth in GDP and income over the last decade is a boon to companies with a dubious business model, allowing them to be dragged along in the slipstream of more successful performers. Essentially what the CAM industry does is put an economic price on the aches and niggles of the worried well in a thriving economy and now it seems that price is not worth paying as the economy struggles.

  10. gimpy

    Sorry, that last comment in response to dvnutrix’s comment of October 5, 2008 at 8:31 pm

  11. @Gimpy, it depends. Last week I read that Waitrose is having a very bad time and its profits are down. In other news, Tesco profits are improving and both Morrisson and Lidl not only have improved profits but greater market share (although nothing to rival Tesco).

    Neutrahealth, with its Biocare range etc. is rather high-end, perhaps the Waitrose end, as it were. If people want to buy supplement pills, they may be dropping a label or so, and prepared to buy supermarket own brands, H&B own brands etc. A Holford basic package of supplements might cost nearly £6 per person, per day; you might be able to put together an approximation of this for 80p from Superdrug.

    It would be interesting to see if the supplements industry releases any figures on this that might indicate a substitution of brands rather than the collapse of a pill-swallowing market.

  12. Claire

    It would indeed be interesting to know if ‘own brand’ chainstore supplement sales mirror the decline in the more expensive sorts. On the question of demand for CAM in a harsh economic climate, I wonder if there are any data from the Great Depression in the 1930s? Though I’m not sure how safe it would be to draw any parallells, given the intervening advances in medical science and the advent, in the UK, of universal health coverage (otoh it might be interesting to observe if demand for CAM during hard times differs between the UK – where there is an NHS – and the US). There are examples of quacks who seemingly prospered during the Great Depression and I recall seeing something recently (BBC?) on how stress can cause the mind to create illusions and superstitions. Hopefully we’ve all learned a bit since then.

  13. I think there is obviously a sense that people feeling the financial pinch go for what they can afford. Homeopaths often like to crow that “lots of people in India use homeopathy”, when the primary driver for this is self-evidently that if real doctors cost money, and homeopaths a lot less, people with very little money will go to homeopaths. Of course, in countries like South Africa and Kenya
    where there is a ton of unmet medical need this means, sadly, fertile ground for dangerous quacks (examples too numerous to name).

    Anyway, I imagine both “withdrawal” and “substitution” trends trends will be visible in a harsher economic climate – so both a loss of income for AltMed in general, and people moving from expensive to cheaper brands of patent nonsense.

    I suspect the quacks that buck the trend and “grow” their business in such times will have certain distinguishing features, such as being cheap (or offering “life-changing treatment for one-off fee”), and playing on deeper insecurities (e.g. impotence in men and ageing in both sexes) rather than the “aches and niggles” Gimpy mentions. Dr Brinkley the goat-gland man certain meets this spec. People with everyday aches and niggles will probably just substitute herbal teas for the silly supplements and soldier on.

  14. Pingback: Patent Medicines in the UK: Entrepreneurs Remain the Same and Sometimes the Products Aren’t That Different « Holford Watch: Patrick Holford, nutritionism and bad science

  15. British patent medicine entrepreneurs and health obsessives with some interesting similarities to modern day figures.

    BBC on illusions and superstitions at times of stress.

    On the vitamin and mineral supplements front – I have an uneasy feeling that some of the hyperbolic coverage of what the credit crunch means for families is leading a very small number of people to think that they might be better off eating cheap, nutrient-depleted food and then supplementing (I can’t comment on the quality but some supplements are pennies). Plus, in times of stress, if smokers are feeling the pinch for their disposable income but they feel that this is the wrong time to give up smoking, I don’t know if they too might compromise on food as an ‘economy’ and try to make up for it in other ways.

    To quote Ben Goldacre‘s Bad Science, pg. 62: “We are human, we are irrational, we have foibles”.

  16. Perhaps ex-professor Holford’s life could be made in to a film?

    “He rose without trace. A man with a mission. A man with some pills. But could anyone stop him?” Appearing at a health food store near you soon!


  17. Claire

    Going slightly off-topic but it’s interesting that the Low Income and Diet Survey, as reported on the FSA site, found “Average daily intakes of all vitamins from food sources, with the exception of vitamins A and D, were above or close to the required recommended intake for men and women in all age groups”, whereas an article (in press) in the Journal of Public Health, based on the same data, concludes “Health professionals need to be aware that poor vitamin C status is relatively common among adults living on a low income”. ( don’t have access to the full text – paywall)

  18. Claire

    Continuing the health in times of austerity theme, I’ve often heard comments to the effect that children born during the food-rationing postwar years were better nourished than those born in more prosperous times. A bit of googling suggests this comparative study might be the source of such reports.

  19. Perhaps ex-professor Holford’s life could be made in to a film?

    Presumably with the soundtrack album to be called Pills and Thrills and Bellyaches” – though the real record deserves better.

    Of course, the question for the Holford version would be whether the Bellyaches were due to overdosing on Vitamin C or to colonic irrigation “detox-ing”.

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