Julia Owen and bee stings in Bromley
Apitherapy, the use of bees and their products in healing, is an ancient therapy. In the last hundred years the term has also been used for the more specific bee venom therapy, which has become a branch of alternative therapy and is currently offered by small bodies of practitioners (grouped into national associations) as a means of curing or alleviating the effects of arthritis, rheumatism, asthma and, more recently, Multiple Sclerosis. One of the major textbooks on this form of apitherapy, Bee Venom Therapy, was published by Dr Bodog F. Beck in 1935. The basis of most current treatment is by the injection of frozen bee venom. One of the most publicised practitioners and researcher appears to be Dr Michael (or Mihály) Simics of Canada, who has also written extensively on the subject (principally informative booklets on bee venom and Multiple Sclerosis and on bee venom collection. Another standard textbook is Dr Joseph Broadman’s Bee Venom Therapy.
On 16 February 1975, an eccentric self-promoting apitherapist was catapaulted into public attention by the quality British Sunday newspaper, The Observer. The title and photograph on the first page of Ena Kendall’s Sunday Magazine feature article, ‘Can bee stings cure blindness?’ were eye-catching. Nevertheless, the later account (and photograph) of 67-year-old Mrs Julia Owen’s celebrity patient, Jack Warner, the veteran British TV actor whose crippling arthritis was apparently cured by Owen’s bees’ stings, must have inspired an equal amount of mail responses from desperate people in UK and beyond. Readers were informed that the miracle-performing therapist was the Austrian widow of two British husbands and currently lived and practised her therapy in a leafy suburb of the prosperous Kentish town of Bromley (30 miles from London). She claimed to have successfully treated arthritis and asthma patients with her secret method for decades. Now, in her twilight years she had turned her attention to the dramatic field of Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), a degenerative eye disease with no traditional medical cure (then or now). She had begun to claim spectacular results unequalled by traditional or alternative medicine. This and later newspaper reports echoed these claims. (Encouragingly, thirty years on, several lines of traditional medical research are finally indicating the possibility of some degree of cure for the small percentage of RP sufferers in the world.)
For the next four years, Mrs Owen’s self-promotional media activities, and the enthusiastic reports from her RP patients were to seek and enjoy meteoric media attention in UK and abroad. Many desperate Retinitis Pigmentosa sufferers (from UK, Australia, some continental European countries and one or two other countries) with enough money to spend on the lengthy residential personal treatment offered by Julia Owen deluged her with letters. A small selection of them endured periods of several months of virtually solitary residential bee venom treatment in Bromley, eager to be stung and to endure the inevitable painful swellings in order to be relieved of the sentence of their degenerative condition.
It was in the early months of 1978 that I came into personal contact with Mrs Owen during a visit to Europe. This short contribution of my hitherto unpublished observations of this final period of Julia Owen’s largely undocumented career (apart from her three autobiographical books) is taken from contemporary research notes on many face to face and telephone conversations, as well as some follow-up correspondence with Mrs Owen and unofficial conversations with a few of her closely chaperoned patients. The thirty year gap in publication of these notes should exonerate me from any accusation of a wish to “rush into print” with what is a strange but tantalisingly incomplete story.
Bibliography of Mrs Julia Owen’s self-published books:
Treat yourself for your Rheumatic Disorder or Arthritic Disease and Avoid the Doctor
Clamouring at the Citadel
Doctors without Shame
In 1978 Julia Owen’s patients, who probably averaged a dozen at any one time, were lodged in small groups in two or three rented houses in suburban Bromley. Since RP strikes hardest and fastest during the upheaval of puberty and middle age (the menopause for both sexes), Mrs Owen’s patients tended to be in those two age groups, with a predominance of the younger set.
Before describing the venom treatment, it is necessary to offer some preliminary idiosyncratic methodological details for consideration when weighing up the possibilities of alleged cures which were not subjected to medical verification. Firstly, not only were the RP patients not encouraged to meet fellow patients in Mrs Owen’s other rented houses in Bromley, but they were subjected to quite deliberate indoctrination by her on her daily visits to apply the stings directly to their bodies. They were also under constant pressure to obey her strict instructions, not to gossip unless it was about a cure, and to admit both to themselves and to their anxious families (and, if possible, journalists) that they were beginning to see much better than before.
In Mrs Owen’s explanation of her work, there was no talk of farming, freezing and injecting the bee venom. For her the process was much more direct and intuitive – she would probably have added ‘scientific’. She kept swarms of specially bred and selected bees and claimed to feed them on secret (and expensive) herbal mixtures (“some from Switzerland”), blended to suit each patient’s needs. These needs included the flushing out of prescription drugs which had, as she maintained, made their eyesight worse, because of the ignorance of doctors. The main announced purpose was to produce a salutary cleansing effect on the glands rather than to treat the eyes directly.
Before her daily morning or afternoon house visits, Owen selected the requisite number of bees, rendered them semi-conscious and then, on arriving at the treatment houses, took them out of special boxes and applied them, one by one, in quantities ranging from 1 to 12, directly to the skin (usually the face, head, hands, neck and shoulders) of each patient. The patients were under strict orders to leave the stings in for one or two hours before removing them, to get the maximum effect of the medicated venom. With that instruction, and perhaps some words of advice, Mrs Owen would leave the house, carrying the little boxes of dead bees off with her. After the two hours were up and the stings had been removed by the patients, they were left to look after their swellings and themselves for the next 24 hours, although they also received phone calls at any time of day from Mrs Owen.
On the phone, as well as in person, she lectured them on their good fortune in receiving her miraculous bee treatment and insisted that they should be feeling an easing of their visual condition. In addition, they were scolded for perceived misdemeanours, forbidden to gossip and harangued about evil ignorant doctors and their conspiracy to discredit her treatment or to steal Owen’s secrets. Patients were also strongly urged – or told – to publicise the success of the treatment, especially to the media. The four RP patients I spoke to in 1978 (without Mrs Owen’s permission, of course) agreed that on her visits and in the frequent phone calls to their residences, she repeatedly attempted to make them agree with her assessment that they were seeing better and that their eyes were “clearer”. One young lady accused her of “bullying me into saying that I can see fantastically well when I haven’t noticed any change.”
However, some patients, who may have felt a subjective improvement, complied (out of gratitude or fear), and further newspaper articles duly appeared. Much later some of these stories were retracted. In fact, in the time I was in Europe, I was not aware of any clear case where the RP condition was cured or reversed. There was, however, as would be expected, some evidence that patients in this very special atmosphere did perceive a temporary subjective improvement, which subsequently dissipated. I was told that one grateful patient was driven up to the House of Commons in Mrs Owen’s chauffered car with the purpose of lobbying his local M.P.to publicise her claims in the House of Commons. Not only was the M.P. not available to see them but the patient abandoned Mrs Owen’s treatment shortly after. Such psychological pressures and expectations, on top of the physical pain and temporary swellings, were intense, especially to patients who were far from their families and, in a few cases, in a foreign land.
Mrs Owen was always willing to talk at great length (and with bouts of almost megalomanic incoherence) to anyone willing to listen. By listening to her over a period of 3 months in early 1978, as well as from letters and phone calls answering my questions, I was able to form a reasonably solid opinion. I was even allowed to read a draft copy of one of her books. The latter contained the same sort of mixture as her conversation: strong vehement claims, intemperate shrill tones and language when denouncing people for stupidity or the medical profession for their ignorance of bee venom and the harmful effects of all their drugs, as well as tales of patients and others who had let her down. The two books by Mrs Owen (one of them possibly ghost written) that I have since seen were self-published. They deal ramblingly with her biography and long struggle over 50 years. As for the new draft MS it was equally rambling and shrill and similarly reticent about specific biographical facts. Her main topics were again her bee venom method, diatribes against the medical profession, a catalogue of her impressive claims of success in treating arthritis and, more recently, at the end of this long and unrecognised career, eyesight terminally impaired by RP, which she obviously saw (or grasped at) in the mid 1970s as her possible crowning glory and chance for world recognition.
In the second half of 1978, which had begun so promisingly for Mrs Owen, not only did the success stories dry up but murmurings of discontent from patients and families began to be heard. Julia Owen, who had always been prone to emotional outbursts, became more and more uninhibited with her shrill accusations and complaints against many people who, she maintained, were being unfair and nasty to her. Inevitably, she was more or less publicly discredited in a BBC TV documentary by Roger Cook (Nationwide) on 3 January 1979. Her own ranting interview was rather pathetic but also typical of other scenes that investigative documentaries are able to produce to educate or appease the public. The bubble had finally burst. As far as I am aware, the British media paid her no further attention and, if she continued for a while with her treatment, it was probably more discreetly and almost certainly with a return to more traditional apitherapy bee venom cures of asthma and arthritis, where the “flushing out” by the bee venom may be of measurable and lasting benefit.1