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.