Merchandising -the most powerful force in the universe, according to Mel Brooks- can even restore the dead to life. On August 22 the New York Times carried an ad for a new book published by a division of Time Warner, Inc., called “Dr. John Lee’s Hormone Balance Made Simple.” The ad says the book features “up-to-date information about symptoms and their causes.” It includes a boldface plug from Dr. Christine Northrup: “John Lee has pioneered work in women’s health that has greatly influenced and enhanced the way I practice medicine.” John Lee died three years ago. The actual author of “Dr. Lee’s Hormone Balance” is medical writer Virginia Hopkins.
John Lee was an honest, brave doctor who warned women that hormone replacement therapy was dangerous long before the National Institutes of Health came to that conclusion. As a family practitioner in Mill Valley, he’d been unwilling to prescribe the drug companies’ synthetic estrogen to women with osteoporosis because he’d observed that it had serious detrimental effects (promotion of endometrial cancer among them). Lee began recommending progesterone made from plants, “And lo and behold it helped their osteoporosis,” he found.
Lee retired in 1989, after practicing medicine for 34 years, to write up and disseminate his ideas, which added up to a wide-ranging critique of how medicine is practiced in this country. He moved to an old farmhouse in Sebastopol. His first book, “Natural Progesterone: The Multiple Roles of a Remarkable Hormone,” was written with doctors in mind and brought out in 1993 by Ajalon Press, a small local publisher. It soon built up an underground reputation among women seeking to educate themselves on menopause and hormone balance; the edition of 5,000 copies sold out. In May, 1996, Warners published a version for the lay reader (written with Virginia Hopkins), “What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Menopause.” When I interviewed Lee that October the book was in its third or fourth printing (without the stimulus of advertising), and he was getting phone calls and faxes every day, many from doctors whose patients had turned them on to the book. The ob/gyn establishment, however, continued to insist that the unwanted consequences of menopause are best treated by estrogen supplements.
Lee tried to tell the world that progesterone, which is produced by the body in connection with ovulation and serves to modulate the effects of estrogen, is the hormone most significantly lacking in menopausal women (as a result of poisons, including unnatural estrogens, in the food, air and water, plus the sedentary lifestyle forced on most of us in the name of progress).
Lee emphasized the distinction between natural progesterone and the various synthetic progestins (such as Wyeth’s Premarin) given to millions of women who opt for hormone replacement therapy. As a result of systematic miseducation by the pharmaceutical companies, he said, “Most doctors think the synthetics are actual progesterone… Doctors should recall that ‘synthetic’ means that it’s not found in nature -there’s no plant, no tree, no animal that makes it, it’s a compound foreign to the body- whereas real progesterone is a natural compound that’s synthesized in the body from cholesterol.”
Natural progesterone can also be obtained from Mexican yams in a form identical to the molecule found in the body; the pharmaceutical companies produce large supplies to use as the base material to make their synthetics. “The pharmaceutical companies prefer the synthetic versions for the simple and obvious reason that they are patentable,” Lee said. Natural progesterone has been on the market as a cream sold over-the-counter since 1936. Most doctors don’t advocate its use because, according to Lee, “It would diminish their control over their patients: no prescription is required.”
In 2002 the National Institutes of Health terminated a study of 16,000 women who had been taking an estrogen-progestin combination for “menopausal symptoms” because the drug(s) increased the incidence of breast cancer, heart attacks, strokes, and blood clots. On July 10, 2002, the New York Times ran a front-page story by Gina Kolata headlined: “Hormone Replacement Study A Shock to the Medical System” -as if Dr. Lee had never issued his well-documented warning and published a book read by hundreds of thousands of women. The head of the North American Menopause Society, a male doctor named Wulf Utian, called the study results “a bombshell” -which is like Claude Rains in Casablanca claiming to be “shocked, shocked that there’s gambling going on here!”
Alexander Cockburn has observed that a story doesn’t have real impact in this country until it appears prominently in the New York Times. When it comes to science, the NIH is the official arbiter of truth and importance. Findings by the most observant and humane doctors are dismissed as mere anecdotal evidence -and of course the drug companies don’t invite and pay them to conduct studies that would generate data leading to publication in “the literature.” In reporting the cancellation of the HRT study, Gina Kolata was able to overlook the warnings issued by John Lee, MD; his book may have been read by more than half a million women and men, but it didn’t rate as “scientific literature.” Thus the scientific and journalistic establishments re-enforce one another.