The Legacy of Adelle Davis
Stephen Barrett, M.D.
Adelle Davis (1904-1974) was the first "health authority" among modern food faddists who had any formal professional background. She was trained in dietetics and nutrition at the University of California at Berkeley, and got an M.S. degree in biochemistry from the University of Southern California in 1938. Despite this training, she promoted hundreds of nutritional tidbits and theories that were unfounded. At the 1969 White House Conference on Food and Nutrition, the panel on deception and misinformation agreed that Davis was probably the most damaging source of false nutrition information in the nation. Most of her ideas were harmless unless carried to extremes, but some were very dangerous. For example, she recommended magnesium as a treatment for epilepsy, potassium chloride for certain patients with kidney disease, and megadoses of vitamins A and D for other conditions.
Davis's first publication ws a 1932 promotional pamphlet for a milk company. Then came two privately printed tracts, Optimum Health (1935) and You Can Stay Well (1939) and a nutrition handbook called Vitality through Planned Nutrition (1942). She also wrote about her experiences in taking the hallucinogenic drug LSD in Exploring Inner Science, which was published in 1961 under the pseudonym Jane Dunlap .
Davis's most popular book was Let's Eat Right to Keep Fit (1970). George Mann, M.D., Sc.D., of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine undertook the fatiguing task of documenting the book's errors and found an average of one mistake per page. In Let's Get Well (1965), Davis listed 2,402 references to "document" its thirty-four chapters. However, experts who checked the references have reported that many of them contain no data to support what she said in the chapter . In Chapter 12, for example, a reference given in her discussion of "lip problems" and vitamins was an article about influenza, apoplexy, and aviation, with mention of neither lips nor vitamins. Gordon Schectman, a researcher at Columbia University's Institute of Human Nutrition, compared 201 statements in Chapter 5 with the publications cited to back them up. He concluded that only thirty (27%) of these statements were supported by the references and that 112 (56%) were either contradicted or not related .
During the early 1970s, Edward Rynearson, M.D., emeritus professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, observed:
Let's Get Well is "dedicated to the hundreds of wonderful doctors whose research made this book possible." There are thousands of references in it (on one of her television appearances she said "jillions"). . . . One could guess that a large corps of helpers, each armed with scissors, read large quantities of literature, most of it published in the English language. It is credible that when a reference was encountered to vitamins, minerals, hormones, cancer, and so forth, the reference was snipped out and placed with hundreds of others . . . which were then used to support her often uncritical and unscientific assumptions.
On page 9 she says, "The hundreds of studies used as the source material for this book have been conducted almost entirely by doctors, perhaps 95 percent of whom are professors in medical schools." . . . I doubt if 10 percent were .
When Rynearson contacted 18 experts whose work had been cited in the book, all said they disliked the book and many said their views had been misquoted or taken out of context. Dr. Victor Herbert noted that in each instance where she referred to a scientific paper written by him, she misrepresented what he had written.
In 1971, a 4-year-old victim of Davis's advice was hospitalized at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco. The child appeared pale and chronically ill. She was having diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and loss of hair. Her liver and spleen were enlarged, and other signs suggested she had a brain tumor. Her mother, "a food faddist who read Adelle Davis religiously," had been giving her large doses of vitamins A and D plus calcium lactate. Fortunately, when these supplements were stopped, the little girl's condition improved.
Little Eliza Young was not so fortunate. During her first year of life she was given "generous amounts" of vitamin A as recommended in Let's Have Healthy Children (1951). As a result, according to the suit filed in 1971 against Davis and her publisher, Eliza's growth was permanently stunted. The estate of Adelle Davis settled in 1976 for $150,000.
Two-month-old Ryan Pitzer was even less fortunate . According to the suit filed by his parents, Ryan was killed in 1978 by the administration of potassium chloride for colic as suggested in the same book. The suit was settled out of court for a total of $160,000—$25,000 from the publisher, $75,000 from Davis's estate, and $60,000 from the potassium product's manufacturer. After the suit was filed, the book was recalled from bookstores, but it was reissued after changes were made by a physician allied with the health-food industry.
Davis's recommendation of potassium for colic was based on misinterpretation of a 1956 article in Nutrition Reviews about potassium metabolism in gastroenteritis . The article referred to a previous study of 653 hospitalized infants which found that the incidence of abdominal bloating and intestinal paralysis were higher among 67 who had low levels of potassium. The article noted that although potassium might improve these symptoms, giving it to a dehydrated infant could cause cardiac arrest . (This is what killed Ryan Pitzer.) The article had nothing whatsoever to do with colic and did not state that "most babies needed 3,000 milligrams of potassium chloride" to recover. The dosage was 1,000 to 2,000 milligrams administered over a 24-hour period, not all at once. The "immediate and dramatic improvement" to which Davis referred was in one infant (not 653) and took about a week. The potassium loss was caused by persistent vomiting and diarrhea, not "too much sodium."
In 1982, pediatricians at the University of California School of Medicine in Los Angeles reported a case of near-fatal overdose in a 3-week-old boy who had been given potassium for colic. In this case, the potassium was contained in a salt-substitute added to an acidophilus solution as recommended in another paragraph of the colic discussion. After four days, the infant became lethargic and irritable and had an episode of gagging after which he became limp and stopped breathing. The parents began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and immediately took him to an emergency room, where he was able to breath spontaneously. His potassium levels were extremely high but responded promptly to treatment .
In 1972, a group of distinguished nutritionists had an opportunity to ask Davis to indicate what scientific evidence backed up many of her speculations. Like most food faddists, she did not base her ideas on such evidence. To question after question, she answered, "I will accept your criticism," "I could be wrong" or "I'm not saying it does."  But she never told her followers that many of her claims had no factual basis or could be harmful.
Adelle Davis used to say that she never saw anyone get cancer who drank a quart of milk daily, as she did. She stopped saying that when she died of cancer in 1974, leaving behind her a trail of ten million books and a following that was large, devoted, and misinformed.
Her influence has faded, but not to zero. In 2005, an 11-month-old boy who was raised on barley water and goats milk as recommended in Let's Have Healthy Children wound up with severe anemia due to vitamin deficiency . The treating physicians said he was lucky to escape brain damage.
- Young JH, Obituary of Adelle Davis. In Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press (Harvard University Press), 1980.
- Adelle Davis's books on nutrition: Commentary by Edward H. Rynearson, M.D. Medical Insight, July/Aug 1973, pp 32-34.
- Schectman G. Adelle Davis and atherosclerosis: An in-depth critique. Aug 1974.
- Rynearson EH. Americans love hogwash. Nutrition Reviews 32 (suppl):1-14, 1974.
- Wetli CV, Davis JH. Fatal hyperkalemia from accidental overdose of potassium chloride. JAMA 240:1339, 1978.
- Schlesinger B, Payne B, Black J. Potassium metabolism in gastroenteritis. Quarterly Journal of Medicine 24:33-49, 1955.
- Potassium metabolism in gastroenteritis. Nutrition Reviews 14: 295-296, 1956.
- Oseas RS, Phelps DL, Kaplan SA. Near fatal hyperkalemia from a dangerous treatment for colic. Pediatrics 69:118, 1982.
- Knight G. Confrontation in Washington. AIN Nutrition Notes, Sept 1972.
- Ziegler DS. Goat's milk quackery. Journal of Pediatrics and Child Health 41:569-571, 2005.
This article was revised on October 13, 2006.