Helga Barnes plus bee therapy leads to Julia Owen

The same two Internet Search items will also lead you straight to Andrew Potok – but I am getting ahead of myself.

Until recently I had assumed that (prior to my 2008 blog, Julia Owen and bee stings in Bromley) the 1975 Observer article by Ena Kendall was the major written source of information about Julia Owen (apart from her two out-of print self-published books on her struggle against orthodox medicine for recognition, both highly subjective).

Extensive Internet searches failed to reveal much of value, except that apitherapy has a respectable pedigree. One intriguing little item to add to the hazy biography of Mrs. Owen is available in two brief wire articles in Canadian newspapers on 24 November 1960. In the Ottawa Citizen version of a Reuters dispatch from London we are informed that Dr Joseph Saine, a Canadian medical entrepreneur, gave a Press Conference to London journalists on his plans to invest one million pounds to set up a chain of clinics in Canada for developing and applying Julia Owens’s bee venom formula to treat arthritis, skin diseases and nervous disorders – the conditions that Owen had initially become famous for treating. The note goes on to state that the journalists walked out of the Conference when Dr Saine failed to satisfy them with his responses about the characteristics of bee venom. Nothing further was heard of the project.

My recent very belated discovery of Andrew Potok’s Ordinary Daylight. Portrait of an Artist Going Blind, offers a fascinating detailed account of a patient undergoing three months of bee sting treatment from Mrs Owen (in 1976 or 1977) in a desperate attempt to save his failing sight. The book was originally published in 1980 and in paperback in 1981 and has recently (2003) been reissued with a new Foreword and Afterword. A large part of the memoir is about Potok’s experiences with Owen, although other relevant aspects of his life are also interwoven. The reason Search Engines have not picked up the connection is entirely due to Mrs Owen’s bullying modus operandi, threatening to sue left, right and centre against any criticism of her work. To avoid this eventuality, Andrew (or Andy, who also has a Facebook page) sensibly changed all the names, including, naturally, that of Owen, who becomes Helga Barnes, as well as the name of her chauffeur and minder Geoffrey (Dirkson here), and even the names of Owen’s two self-justifying books, which reincarnate as Disgrace in the Clinic and Storming the Distant Tower.

In the 300-page 2003 paperback, there is only one belated mention of the name Julia Owen in the final pages of the Afterword, where Potok explains that his original publisher’s lawyers had insisted on the changes.

So although Googling Helga Barnes + bee therapy will produce some new information on Julia Owen, you will really have to buy yourself a copy to find out all that Potok reveals about Owen’s modus operandi: the pain of the stings, bravely borne because of his initial belief that his eyesight was improving; her paranoia, hectoring, ranting, and control tactics. And the eventual realisation that her methods were futile for him, a decision his similarly-afflicted daughter took a couple of weeks to make.

You will also be enlightened by Potok’s other investigative activities during his long “confinement” in London, interviewing medical experts on RP and bee venom, and tracking down the prominent homeopathic doctor who so strongly recommended Julia Owen’s work to the journalist Ena Kendall in 1975, whose article initiated Owen’s final flurry of activity related to RP.

And, although much needs to be added to flesh out Julia Owen’s scanty biography and antecedents (generations of Austrian apitherapists according to her), one thing is certain: Roger Cook’s BBC TV Nationwide programme on Julia Owen’s activities (3 January 1979), and notably her own self-indulgent contribution to it, had a strong impact on Mrs Owen’s activities. After a long career, 1978-1979 seems to have been both the zenith and nadir of her mentions in the media.

PS
Potok’s latest book is A Matter of Dignity: Changing the World of the Disabled.

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