Julia Owen, Retinitis Pigmentosa, and the Media. Part 1

Note
Apitherapy has a long tradition (especially in continental Europe and Canada) and there is a sizeable bibliography on it. As a preliminary source, see the relevant Wikipedia article and its External Links. Also the published work of Michael Simics.

Media Acclaim and Promotion 1975

Mrs Julia Owen had already spent decades studying apitherapy and treating arthritis, dermatitis and other ailments with bee venom. She had also self-published three promotional books in the mid-1960s. Following her return to UK from Australia in 1972, as a sexagenarian anxious for greater public recognition of her skills, she appears to have decided to concentrate on the much more emotionally appealing treatment of Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), a hereditary disease leading to blindness. Although I cannot trace any UK media articles about her in the early 1970s, this is mainly because such material is not available on the Internet. The fact is that Owen must have stirred up public interest in the years 1972-1975, possibly through her habit of encouraging British RP patients to spread the news of their claimed cures, especially to the local newspapers. Without some sort of similar growing publicity, there would have been no incentive for journalist Ena Kendall to have researched Owen’s controversial bee sting work in 1975 and no incentive either for the prestigious UK Sunday paper The Observer to have published Kendall’s nuanced but basically favourable article on 16 February 1975 in its Sunday Magazine under the title ‘Can Bee Stings Cure Blindness?’ (pp. 25-7).

This investigative article filled in some much-needed background to Mrs Owen’s life and work (supplied mainly by her) and focussed on her claimed success in the newish venture of treating RP sufferers, although the research included comments on her preceding success with arthritis and other conditions.

Kendall begins her article with brief but enthusiastic testimonials from three British RP sufferers (including an unnamed barrister) who claim that in a brief time Mrs Owen had improved their condition. Kendall also reveals the protracted antagonism between Owen and the orthodox medical profession by quoting her objection to medical examination of her (treated and allegedly cured) RP patients on the basis that such tests would be harmful and “…These patients can now see beautifully … what more proof can they want?” We are then offered the dissenting opinion of a consultant ophthalmologist that there is not only no evidence of cures of RP, but that the patients’ fleeting subjective conviction of improvement is a documented psychological phenomenon. He also adds: “One doesn’t want to raise hopes among people going blind.”

Mrs Owen then offers Kendall some sketchy biographical details: Her Austrian father and grandfather had been medical practitioners of bee therapy. She had come to London after the war, and settled a few years later in Bromley, a prosperous city 15 miles south of London. For 20 years she treated “people with arthritis and kindred complaints”, before emigrating with her second husband (presumably Mr Owen) to Australia between 1966 and 1972. (Details of the Australian sojourn and any healing work carried out in that country would be useful for this jigsaw biography with so many pieces missing. More interesting would be ANY details of her Austrian name, the identities of her apitherapy practitioner family and her work until 1947, aged 39). All we are told is that she is 67, married an Englishman (from Staffordshire) before WWII and that Mr Owen was her second husband and died in 1972.)

So, although Owen had used bee venom for 48 years to treat “arthritic and rheumatic diseases, skin afflictions …” etc., now, “through pressure of work, she concentrates on blind people and […] asthmatics”. As for the treatment itself, “Bee venom works on the glands. You find out which gland is limping. You clear this gland and the pain disappears. With retinitis pigmentosa I dehydrate the pigments, a form of fungus of the eye. The treatment for arthritis can take eighteen months to two years.”

As for the treatment itself, which Kendall is allowed to witness during an afternoon session, Owen claims to use specially bred bees fed on a secret mixture of fermented herbs. On treatment day she selects the bees she will need, possibly up to ten per patient, and pinches them behind the head to subdue them and make them more manageable and finally applies them to the patient’s head, neck and back [and sometimes hands]. The stings are left in for up to two hours for maximum effect. The article ends with the following triumphalist self-promotion by Julia:
“I’ve got healing bees.” “Darling, it is a heaven. You have a blind person coming in and you put your arm around her and say: ‘Don’t worry, darling. You will be seeing.’ It is the most wonderful thing on earth to give somebody back his sight. It is beautiful for me because I beat the best men in the land.”

The above alone would explain why Ena Kendall’s report in such a widely read and respected British newspaper attracted immediate attention from many RP sufferers and their families in UK and abroad. It would also show why the article was instrumental in many of these patients coming to see Mrs Owen in the following three years (including the artist and writer Andrew Potok, who has described his treatment and reactions in great (and very useful) detail in his memoir Ordinary Daylight). But in addition to the details already summarised, the article also introduces two celebrity testimonials, which further strengthen readers’confidence in Mrs Owen’s miraculous abilities. One is the mention of a contemporary British celebrity actor, Jack Warner, who is quoted as saying that Mrs Owen was able to help him with a severe arthritic condition which orthodox medicine had not been able to treat. There is even an appealing photograph of the avuncular Warner standing behind (a rather stern) Mrs Owen, with his hands on her shoulders.

The other testimonial is longer and may have had an even stronger impact on some readers, particularly on RP sufferers, since it appears to be freely and enthusiastically delivered by a consultant doctor at the famous Royal London Homeopathic Hospital (presumably to Ena Kendall). The consultant’s name is given as Dr Lambert Mount (see Google) “who is fully qualified in orthodox medicine and has made a study of natural treatments such as homeopathy, acupuncture and hydrotherapy.” As quoted by Kendall, this eminent specialist’s endorsement of Owen’s whole therapeutic practice runs to about a hundred words. This is the part which RP patients and their families would have found most encouraging:
“She’s getting remarkably good results with retinitis pigmentosa, sometimes within a week or even two or three days. She has cured arthritis successfully. […]”
“The balance of the glands is affected by her therapy, which is a deep systemic treatment, affecting the functioning of the whole body, and there’s a change in the metabolic reactions. She is producing the most outstanding cures I’ve seen in fringe, unorthodox medicine.”

A reminder: it seems very prudent to distinguish between the use of apitherapy for arthritis and its use for Retinitis Pigmentosa.

Postscript:

Having a teenage daughter with recently diagnosed RP, I was one of the many who tried to contact Mrs Owen in early 1975 via The Observer after seeing Ena Kendall’s article. In a letter dated 2 June 1975, the Secretary to the Editor of the Observer Magazine wrote to warn me that the response had been so heavy that Mrs Owen had stated that she was fully booked for three years. (Mrs Owen had finally succeeded in attracting attention on a large scale.) Persevering with my request a year later I was pleased to receive a lengthy reply from Ena Kendall herself expressing sympathy and revealing Mrs Owen’s home address. That much is anecdotal. Her further helpful comments to me will be of interest to some readers as they reveal her favourable opinion of Mrs Owen and her serious personal concern at being responsible for many people contacting Mrs Owen, not all them satisfied clients, to her apparent surprise. If Ms Kendall reads this I hope she will not object to my reprinting her words for which I thank her. If only she could add her view of later developments in 1978!

“When I first interviewed Mrs Owen and the group of people she was then treating for retinitis pigmentosa, I was very impressed, and still am, in many ways, although her methods, as applied to the larger cross-section of people who have now been in touch with her by no means meet with success in every, or even in most cases. In the past 14 months I have heard from people who cannot speak highly enough of her and of the improvements she has brought about in their sight, and others who say that they have not had any tangible improvement. It is only fair to say that many people have gone to her whose sight is in such a bad way in any case that the basics on which she has to work have been destroyed, and she cannot put these back. She is extremely fond of children, and claims her best results with young people because, she says, they have not been subjected to as many drugs as adults have — and by this she means any drug for any sort of ailment.

“She refuses to let anyone else into the secret of her treatment, despite repeated pressure from doctors, scientists and just ordinary people. If she would allow her patients to be examined or studied in any way, perhaps it would be discovered why some appear to react well and others not at all to her bees. Another point about her treatment is that it may go on for months, and she insists on people staying nearby, so it can be a very expensive business.”
*

(For more background to this thread, see:
‘Julia Owen and bee stings in Bromley’ and
‘Helga Barnes plus bee therapy leads to Julia Owen’ .)

(In Part 2 of Julia Owen, Retinitis Pigmentosa and the Media, the rest of the available 1978-1979 media articles and broadcasts will be listed, with some commentary, especially on the decisive 1979 BBC TV ‘Nationwide’ programme by Roger Cook, which must have mortified Ena Kendall.)

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