Archive for January 2012

Julia Owen, Retinitis Pigmentosa and the Media. Part 3

8 January 2012

Note: For new readers, this is the direct continuation of Part 2.

The BBC TV ‘Nationwide: Cause for Concern’ documentary, 3 January 1979

As a conclusion to this series on Julia Owen, I offer a summary and transcribed excerpts from an audio recording of the BBC TV Nationwide ‘Cause for Concern’ programme, broadcast on 3 January 1979. I am grateful to Roger Halhead for supplying me with an excellent mp3 recording (to replace my decaying audio cassette of a recording in circulation shortly after the programme was transmitted) as well as sharing his reminiscences and research. I am also obliged to Roger for his technical help in transcribing one of the revealing emotional segments in the audio recording.

I fully acknowledge that Copyright for this programme belongs to BBC TV or BBC Nationwide (1979) and I sincerely hope that my use of their material here will be considered “fair dealing” on a matter of public interest, namely the history of alternative treatments for disabilities in the United Kingdom (especially as there seems to be only one full recording of this old TV programme, not at the BBC but in the British National Film Archives – information from Roger Halhead, quoting Steve Bryant).

The title and first few words are missing from Halhead’s mp3 recording. A female announcer (Sue Lawley?) introduces the programme:

“ …. can cure blindness. She charges up to £4,000 but does the cure work?
It’s 6.20 on Wednesday, January the 3rd [1979]. We begin with a story from the world of fringe medicine. Roger Cook reports on a supposed cure for blindness that has not only proved highly expensive to those who’ve taken it but decidedly painful as well.”

The now legendary BBC investigative reporter Roger Cook (still flourishing 32 years later, after a unique career on BBC and ITV – see Wikipedia – in an Emeritus Professor avatar) then skilfully interweaves the stories of three dissatisfied 1978 RP patients and rigorous interviews with medical specialists and a bee venom researcher. He also interviews Julia Owen in her home, giving her the chance she craved to be on prime time TV to explain and justify her work. But the evidence and research are overwhelming and her ranting performance, all too familiar to her bee-stung patients, may have surprised even Roger Cook.

The first disgruntled patient interviewed is John Neil Smith, from Western Australia. His evidence is compelling. (My recent attempt to contact him has not been successful. I hope he sees this blog.)

Roger Cook: “John Neil Smith suffers from Retinitis Pigmentosa, a disease of the eyes that will eventually leave him totally blind. Six months ago, he came to England from Australia to spend his savings on a remarkable cure for blindness. In an Australian newspaper he’d read about a treatment being carried out by a woman in London, a treatment which she claimed had already successfully cured every one of her patients. The woman was called Julia Owen. The treatment involved being stung by bees, day after day for months on end.

Cook: “At Bromley in South London, John Neil Smith was installed in this house. Julia Owen has seventeen such properties [to be fair: she rented them or most of them, and never struck me as being particularly rich] in which her patients pay around £60 a week for a room. Once there, John, like all the other patients, was discouraged from going out or even speaking to the neighbours. The next day the agonising treatment began.”
[…]

Cook: “Bees are allowed to sting the patient about the face, neck and hands, ten or twelve of them, one after the other. The stings are then left throbbing in the patient for a further two hours. Just how this affects the eyesight is known only to Julia Owen, a remarkable 70-year old Austrian who has no medical qualifications and is at war with the whole medical profession.”
[…]
Cook: “Mrs Owen claims that the secret of her bees lies in what she feeds them: a cocktail of alcohol and herbs, which she claims affects the bees’ venom and enables her to cure anything from dermatitis to deafness.”

[Patient in background …]
Mrs Owen: “I feed them “fonguy” [fungi]. What “fonguy” I feed them is I use whisky, wine. I use the best – the very best – spirit and I ferment several herbs in it. And when the fermentation come on the top it does come up just like a mushroom, and when is coming a mushroom is a “fonguy”. Then I put it into the extractor and that’s what I put in wid de honey for them to feed.”

Cook: It says in your literature that you’re invariably successful.”
Mrs Owen: “Always, not invariably, Always!”

Cook: “But by September, John Neil Smith was a very disillusioned man. He’d already paid out £4,000, with no improvement in his sight at all nor, he says, in any of the other patients that he’d met. And there were more shocks in store: Mrs Owen demanded another £3,500 to carry on with the treatment, and much more money to cure a number of other illnesses she’d apparently discovered, including gout and rheumatoid arthritis.”

JNS: “This was news to me, but she had written to my wife giving a terrible picture of me as a possible rheumatic cripple and being useless to myself and everybody else. This terrorising of my wife naturally resulted in great stress for me.”

“One morning Mrs Owen came in, said she had bad news for me and proceeded to tell me that she wanted to cease the treatment because in her words if she continued with the present medication, it “would bust my liver” – to use her words. Then she suggested that I should go home, have a four months rest and then return to begin another course of bee treatment, using different medication and, of course, bringing the three and a half thousand pounds plus money for this rheumatic treatment she’d suggested. The amount for this was unspecified.”

Cook: “So what happened, John, when she suddenly said she was going to discontinue the treatment?”

JNS: “Well, I felt disinclined to come back because I [??] any improvement whatsoever in my eyes and so I asked for a refund of my money for the two month treatment which I had not received. This she emphatically refused and followed up with a stream of abuse in which she said if I didn’t come back, I would be crippled as well as blinded and as I carry my tape recorder around with me as a kind of notebook, I just switched on and recorded this conversation which utterly amazed me.” [Smith’s recording is not easy to follow here but it contains this important evidence.]

Owen: “What the hell is wrong with you, man? [you come all that far for your eyesight…you never get better if you don’t think straight].”
JNS: “I wanted to say that I’ve had four months of my treatment [which leaves the balance of two months].”

Owen: “Yes! If you don’t want to go blind […] trouble. I don’t want to have any arguments with you. You please yourself what you do […] do not stain my character.”
JNS “Mrs Owen, I’m not staining your character.”

Owen [Screaming]: “You DO! […] You are the most stupid man on earth!”
*

The second interviewee was Roger Halhead, who first went to see Mrs Owen in 1976 and finally left in May 1978 for a recommended “rest” for his body to recover from the upheaval caused by the venom “clearing out his system”.

[Background scene: serene Lake Windermere]

Cook: “Another patient of Julia Owen at the time was Roger Halhead, a trainee accountant from Grange-over-Sands in Cumbria. He has Retinitis Pigmentosa and likes to get out into the countryside he loves while he can still see it.”

RH: “In 1973 I was registered partially sighted and told that I had incurable eye disease but
two and a half years ago I heard of Mrs Owen and her bee sting treatment and [that] she offered a cure for Retinitis Pigmentosa so I wrote to her and she rang me up after she received my letter and told me a lot about the people she’d cured and said that she would be able to cure me and that I would be able to return to accountancy which I’d had to give up two years previously because of my failing eyesight.”

Cook: “You mean that she told you she could cure you without even seeing you?”
RH: “Yes. She said on the phone that she would be able to cure me and she hadn’t seen me then.”

Cook: “What happened then?”
RH: “Well, I thought very carefully about it because the treatment is very expensive. She did ask for two and a half thousand pounds at that time. Later we had to pay £3,000. And we decided to go ahead with it because there was nothing else and when you have an eye problem that’s getting worse, then you clutch at anything you can.”

Cook: “So you paid your £3,000 altogether. Did you get receipts?”
RP: “No, we didn’t, never got a receipt for the money and I went to start my treatment in September 1976 and it went on until the end of May 1978.”

Cook: “And, looking back on it, was there – is there- any improvement in your sight?”
RH: “No. There’s no permanent improvement because this September [1978] I went to see an eye specialist and my eyesight’s sufficiently bad to be put on the blind register now.”
*
Cook: “Yes. Roger Halhead and others signed statements which said they’d had remarkable cures, statements that soon found their way into the headlines.”
*
Cook: “But why would you want to do that when there wasn’t really any improvement? I mean, what made you feel you had to?”
RH: “Well, it’s very difficult because this Mrs Owen has a sort of, has a power over you and you feel that if you don’t please her then she’ll send you home. Then you wouldn’t have the treatment so you don’t get the chance. So you want to keep going with the treatment because maybe it’s going to work and you want to have it for as long as you can.”

Cook: “So if these cures are not by and large true, what is it that’s kept everyone from bringing this out in public?”
RH: “Well, mostly fear. Mrs Owen writes letters to them, threatening – well, I can only describe it as a threatening letter I received several weeks ago saying that if my scandalising got back to her, she would then take me to the High Court, and never mind who got busted. So, naturally, people are very frightened to take it out in the open.”

Cook: “We contacted six other people who’ve been patients of Mrs Owen over the past year. Not one of them, has been cured despite her claims of 100% success. Among them was seventeen-year old Maribel Steel, from Melbourne, Australia. She’d been brought over for the bee treatment by her father but he’d had to hurry back home when he heard that his wife was dying. Back in Australia, John Steel [=Brian. the present writer] would get letters from Mrs Owen telling him of Maribel’s fantastic progress.”

[Actor, quoting from a letter from Mrs Owen to Steel]: “She now walks in the street most beautifully and is capable of doing anything and everything without fumbling. She can watch anything and everything on television.”
Steel (by phone from Australia): “Maribel’s letters, which would often arrive the same day, would tell a rather different story, namely that Mrs Owen, every time she came round for the bee treatment, would ask her, ‘Can you see better?’ Maribel would reply, ‘No, Mrs Owen.” Mrs Owen would repeat the question. My daughter would say ‘No’ again, and in the end Mrs Owen would more or less scream it at her, trying to browbeat her, bully her into saying that there was an improvement which didn’t exist.”

Cook: “Why, then, didn’t you challenge Mrs Owen?”
Steel: “Why didn’t I challenge her? There was too much at stake. I obviously hoped for some improvement for my daughter. When you have any sort of hope, when you think that someone might be able to do something, you go all the way to cooperate. You see, the big problem here is that Mrs Owen has tremendous power over her patients. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone with such power over people – and abusing that power at the same time.”

Cook: “On the 17th of August this year [1978], Maribel was turned out into the streets by Mrs Owen, seventeen years old, practically blind, and all alone, 6,000 miles from home.”
*

Roger Cook follows these accounts with a number of specialist opinions.

Cook: “Stories like these come as no surprise to the medical profession, which has the gravest of suspicions about Mrs Owen and her wonder cure. Among the leading surgeons in the field is John Kelsey, who runs a Retinitis Pigmentosa clinic at Moorfields Eye Hospital [London].”

Kelsey: “It is a gradual, basically a rotting of the eye and eventually the patients will go blind. Um, it is very often, or mostly, inherited, by various ways, and depending on the type of inheritance, the blindness occurs sooner or later. Some will go blind in very early infancy, others will go blind at the age of 70 or 80. The problem is that we know nothing about the base of this condition, and we know no treatment whatsoever.”

Cook: “And what are the secret ingredients of the bee venom which Julia Owen claims does the trick? Biochemists at London’s University College have been analysing bee venom for years and reckon they know pretty well all there is to know about it. Special precautions are taken in the handling of it. Much of what is in it is a natural detergent called melatin, which destroys all human cells. And among other harmful ingredients is apimin, which, if injected in minute quantities, can kill.”

Female Researcher: “A lot of very nasty things are present in bee venom and we know quite a lot about them.”
Cook: “And therefore, presumably, that it’s pretty dangerous stuff to play about with.”
Researcher: “Well, indeed. I would never advocate that anybody was stung by a bee, whether singly and certainly not multiply.”

Cook: “Is there anything to substantiate claims that different kinds of bees, different species, behave in a different way or that by feeding them special things you can make them sting in a special way?”
Researcher: “All I can say about that is that there is no evidence of any change in the composition of bee venom, regardless of where bees come from. They can come from Mexico, or United States, or any part of Europe, and the venoms from these bees, from different species of bees, all seem to contain the same identified components. I believe that the treatment that Julia Owen is using is raising false hopes. She is using this treatment for a condition for which there is no known cure. She is using a treatment which we know to be potentially hazardous from everything we have discovered about the composition of crude bee venom.”
*
Cook: “Julia Owen’s honey bees have certainly become money bees. Every year scores of patients pay several thousand pounds each for the cure.”

Finally, somewhat reminiscent of the inevitable terminal phase of a bullfight, comes the pièce de résistance of Roger Cook’s [December] interview with Mrs Owen.

Mrs Owen: “My life is so wonderful! You fellows never understand it. I curse the doctors day and night because they’re killing me because I can do what they can’t. What I do is out of this world.”

Cook: “It seems, though, that when things go wrong, it’s always the patient’s fault.”
Mrs O: “Yes! Definitely. Always. One 100% always.”

Cook: “What happens if somebody’s allergic to bees?”
Mrs O: “Never. In my cases, they’re never allergic. Never, never, never.”

Cook: “Cos it could kill them if they were, couldn’t it?”
Mrs O: “No. Not these bees. They haven’t got any poison in them what could kill you,”

Cook: “You see, we’ve spoken to some people who’ve had your treatment who say they’re not cured.
Mrs O: “Who are they?”

Cook: “There are a number of people. […]”

When Cook offers some names, Mrs Owen launches into a tirade about the detrimental effect of sexual arousal on RP patients’ eyes, prompting Roger Cook’s alert objection:
“But that doesn’t send you blind, though.”
Mrs O: “Pardon. It does send you blind in many cases, many cases. Oh, yes, I know that. That’s the trouble. It’s a much bigger disaster to your eyesight, much bigger strain on it.”

Cook: “But apparently you told him you could cure him before you’d even seen him.”
Mrs O: [interrupting]: “Nobody told him they could cure him. No, no, no. They can make up any story they like. Nobody. If they say that, I want it in writing and I’ve got a wonderful case to bust them wholesale [i.e. for libel]. I’ve no worry.”

Cook: “You had him sign a statement saying that his vision had improved.”
Mrs O: “ No. I never asked him to sign a statement. He wrote it on his own accord. I don’t go on like that, thank you very much.”

Cook: “Are you saying that one of the foremost eye surgeons in the country and the foremost research laboratory, the only research laboratory, almost, in the world, into bee venom, are talking rubbish?”
Mrs O: “Talking bloody rubbish! Absolute rubbish! One hundred per cent, because, look, how are you going to tell me what is in the bee venom when the bee has got such a tiny little bee venom sac?”

[Conclusion by the “prosecution”:]

Roger Cook:
“Well, who do you believe? Julia Owen, with her whisky-drinking bees, or the doctors and the biochemists who’ve spent years researching the subject and say it’s all dangerous nonsense? Course, it wouldn’t be the first time in history that an eccentric has proved the whole medical profession wrong but the results in this case don’t seem to point that way.

“Despite Mrs Owen’s claims of 100% success, not one of her former patients that we contacted had been cured and she seems curiously reluctant to have her claims put to any sort of scientific test. I wonder why. Until she does, the only certain thing is that, one way or another, her patients will go on being well and truly stung,”

© 1979 BBC TV Nationwide
*

The BBC was not taken to the High Court by Mrs Owen. On the contrary, following that devastating investigative documentary on prime time Sunday TV, Julia Owen seems to have slipped instantly into the shadows. Her chauffeur and assistant, Geoffrey Button, is said to have left her employment at that time. Whether Mrs Owen reverted to her less polemical treatment for arthritis and asthma is still unclear but to my knowledge there has been no further news of her treatment of RP sufferers. Most of her prior and subsequent biography (she was born circa 1906) remains shrouded in mystery, awaiting the patience of a future investigator.

Other relevant blogs on Mrs Julia Owen can be found here and here.

Retinitis Pigmentosa Associations in many countries
The U.S. Retinitis Pigmentosa Association was formed in 1971. Information on national RP Associations can be obtained from The Foundation Fighting Blindness. It would seem reasonable to assume that the huge publicity about Julia Owen in the 1970s may have had an influence on the setting up of the UK RP Association in 1975 and the Australian counterpart (in 1979, according to Leighton Boyd, doyen of the Victorian RP Association).
*

One cloud’s silver lining

In spite of enduring over one thousand bee stings from Mrs Owen’s “medicated” bees, as well as five months of her bullying and cajoling, Maribel Steel actually benefited from the ordeal inflicted by her distraught but well-meaning parents because the months spent away from their (our) overprotection enabled her to begin to surmount her extreme disability. Although still no less blind, she has slowly gone from strength to strength and is now revealing parts of her fascinating life journey and is sharing her experiences as a disabled person, on her brand new blog: http://gatewaytoblindness.blogspot.com .
What a daughter! ¡Olé mi niña! And what a mother and grandmother!

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Julia Owen, Retinitis Pigmentosa and the Media. Part 2

6 January 2012

Note: This is the direct continuation of Part 1.

Caveat: In view of Mrs Julia Owen’s ephemeral notoriety in the 1970s for claiming dramatic cures for Retinitis Pigmentosa with the venom of medicated bees, it is necessary to highlight the long-standing use of apitherapy and bee venom for the treatment of arthritis, asthma and other conditions. (See, for example, Wikipedia.)
*
Since she had no official backing or recognition for her largely undocumented decades of unorthodox treatments for arthritis and asthma, Mrs Owen had always had to pay special attention to self-promotion (including three self-published books). Her exclusive concentration on RP and the pursuit of belated recognition of her life’s work followed the widely-read 1975 report by Ena Kendall in the prestigious UK Observer Magazine. From then on, Mrs Owen was naturally inundated with requests for treatment by desperately hopeful RP sufferers and their families, particularly from UK and Australia. In what was to prove both her heyday and her swansong, she worked indefatigably in the period 1975-1978 treating her patients and, with their carefully enlisted help, publicising her claimed miracle cures as widely as she could.

As an eye-witness bystander in the period February to May 1978, when I accompanied my daughter Maribel for part of her five months of unsuccessful treatment (1,000 stings) in Bromley, Kent, I have been able to call on my notes, newspaper clippings and my conversations with a few other patients resident in Bromley (a social practice discouraged by Mrs Owen). These experiences are supplemented by my daughter’s letters and her memories of the crucial months of June to early August, when she was finally evicted by Mrs Owen, and our subsequent experiences with the UK media. I also acknowledge the valuable contributions of my friends Roger Halhead and Queenslander Ben O’Rourke, two of Mrs Owen’s 1978 patients, and I belatedly express my gratitude to Bromley neighbours Anna-Liese Burton and her late husband, John, for their kindness and help during our somewhat bizarre stay in one of Mrs Owen’s leased mansions in Bickley.

A note on Mrs Owen’s shadowy pedigree and her treatment system.

She claimed not to treat the eyes directly but to work on clearing each residential patient’s glands by stinging them every morning or afternoon over a period of several months with the medicated venom of semi-conscious (specially selected and bred) bees fed with different combinations of herbs and alcohol to suit each patient’s changing condition. She claimed to be able to diagnose the condition and progress by visual examination of the patient’s face and retina and by periodic urine analysis. (In his memoir Ordinary Daylight, Andrew Potok relates one session – which might be comic in different circumstances – where she gave a favourable description of progress in his retina without switching on the ophthalmoscope.) Owen claimed that her Austrian family had performed bee venom research and therapy for several generations. (I was never able to verify the Austrian link, her original surname, or the claim that she had studied to become a doctor but given up in disgust at their use of harmful drugs a few months before graduating but, partly based on her very thick mid-European accent, I had (and retain) a suspicion that even here Mrs Owen may have been embroidering on the truth.)

Having seen the results of between one and twelve stings delivered daily to the face, head, neck, shoulders and hands of my daughter (to be left throbbing for at least an hour), it was interesting to read later in Owen’s books that after giving the bees their last feed, she “pinched them behind the head so that they are not quite dead but not suffering. I then apply them to the patient.” The need for a long and careful treatment was constantly stressed. “I must explain that I have to test new patients for several weeks, sometimes months, before I know which glands need feeding and how many different medicaments will be necessary [for the bees] and how long it is likely to take.” Some pages of Owen’s self-published books are also given over (as were many of her monologues), to indignant stories of patients who have not followed instructions or have given up the treatment prematurely. And of others who have not paid her. And of doctors who, although denouncing her, try to steal her secrets from her. From patients’ accounts, it has become evident that another aspect of her modus operandi was to send the patient home, after several months, for a long rest so that the body, disturbed by the stings and the hormonal interaction, could prepare itself for a further period of bee sting treatment – which almost invariably did not take place.

On arriving for the daily stinging session, stern Mrs Owen, who would tolerate no arguments, and encouraged sycophantic obedience as an insurance policy for continued treatment, was in the habit of quizzing her patients on whether they could see better. If, as expected, they admitted to a slight improvement, she was pleased; if assured that they could not, Mrs Owen either ignored or berated them, according to her mood. She would frequently lecture her patients and others (including myself) on the miraculous nature of her RP treatment, her guarantee of a cure and the duty of patients to proclaim their good fortune to the world, preferably via the Press. She encouraged them to write down their recognition of an improvement with her treatment and, better still, to send their testimonial to the Press. One of her best known patients, Andrew Potok reproduces a sample of a detailed printed “before and after” Questionnaire (which can only have been composed by Mrs Owen or her secretary), which she gave to him to study (in 1976 or 1977), along with handwritten testimonials from patients or their families. The contents of several of these patient testimonials were mentioned in the UK and Australian media in 1977 and 1978.

At the beginning of a patient’s treatment, Julia Owen also handed out copies of some of these handwritten testimonials and occasionally photocopies of those that had reached the Press. Typical of the handwritten testimonials was the one from the grateful parents of two teenage sons, which she gave me in 1978. The letter thanked Owen for her treatment which had allegedly reversed one son’s RP and another son’s severe asthma.

Although newspaper records for the 1970s are not commonly found on the Internet, I offer as samples the few that I saw during 1978, both in UK and Australia.

4 April 1978, Sunday Express:
Robert Chapman: ‘Youth ‘losing sight’ says bees saved him’

Daily Mail, 19 May 1978:
‘Sting Cure. Bees saving my sight says man’

Here a 45-year-old Cornishman (who had only just begun his treatment) is quoted as saying that Mrs Owen’s treatment was already halting and reversing the rapid mid-life acceleration of the RP process. He promises to lobby his MP and ask for him to publicise Mrs Owen’s marvellous gift via the debating chamber of the House of Commons.

This claim can quickly be dismissed, from my personal experience. In fact, Mrs Owen’s chauffeur had driven the two of them (and myself) up to the House of Commons in London in April or May but the MP was not available so it turned out to be a wasted trip. Mr Rice withdrew from the treatment shortly afterwards, mainly, I believe, because of a lack of money to pay for it. [My hearsay: I think the intended deal was that she would treat Mr Rice free of charge in return for the favourable House of Commons mention and the coveted subsequent media reports.]

The Age, Melbourne, 5 August 1978
‘Sight is the sting in this tale’
A Perth man, Mick Kilpatrick, claims RP cure after six months of treatment.

The Australian Sunday Telegraph, 6 August 1978.
A front page article: “Blind Man Sees Again”
This is a longer version of the claim by Mick Kilpatrick, from Perth. He had been making the claim since about April as soon as the treatment had begun. As far as I know, Kilpatrick never retracted that statement.
(More on Mick from news.google.com in the Melbourne Age of 28 August 1978.
Two letters claiming successful cures were circulated (coincidentally?) at the time of the callous eviction of Maribel Steel (a week after her mother’s death) by Mrs Owen’s assistant and the subsequent call for police assistance by our friends. (Maybe there was a small item in the Bromley Times?)
18 August: M.B., London,
22 August: The mother of two boys, one with RP, the other with asthma (Colchester, Essex)

But, along with the dissident voices of one or two brave RP patients in mid-1978, there had already been signs that not everyone in the UK greeted the media stories of claimed cures for RP with delight. For example, a caveat was issued by the secretary of the recently formed British RP Society: “We cannot recommend any non-medical treatment for retinitis pigmentosa.”

On 11 May 1978, on Michael Aspel’s Help Line on Capital Radio (10 a.m.), Miss Shirley Dixon, a sufferer from RP and a member of the British RP Association phoned in to explain the nature of the degenerative disease (or group of diseases) and to emphasise, unofficially, that, in spite of press reports, there is no known treatment of RP and that she personally would not contemplate bee sting treatment.

In late September 1978, I returned to the UK to pick up my daughter after our bereavement and her dramatic eviction from her rented accommodation about a week after her mother’s death. In October or November, we were contacted by an Australian freelance journalist, John Lisners. I later found out that he had already been in contact with John Neil Smith, who would later be the principal witness in the BBC TV Nationwide programme on Mrs Owen. Lisners was interested enough in our story to travel down to Hampshire to interview and photograph Maribel and to accept the longish written account I had prepared. I subsequently found out that John was also interviewing other dissatisfied ex-recipients of stings, including our friend Roger Halhead. According to Roger, the popular Sunday People newspaper got cold feet about publishing the story (presumably because of Mrs Owen’s threats of litigation).
(Incidentally, while researching this blog, I was delighted to learn in late 2011 that a John Lisners is about to publish a probable bestseller on a fellow Australian: The Rise and Fall of the Rupert Murdoch Empire, to be published by John Blake in early 2012. I now know that this is the same John Lisners and he has offered to pass on anything of interest about the gestation of his investigation when the pre-publication pressure permits.)

With the surfacing of this evidence of discontent and questioning, BBC TV also became interested and conducted interviews with ex-patients in November and December 1978, notably with John Neil Smith of Australia and Roger Halhead (on 3 December, beside Lake Windermere near his Cumbrian home. I also participated briefly via telephone from Australia.

At the time of my phone interview on 8 December, Roger Cook’s assistant told me that as a result of their investigations and the sensational interview with Mrs Owen herself, the programme would be much longer than they had planned.

Parts of it will follow as Part 3 of this series (which will really be Part 5 of my Mrs Owen blogging phase).

Meanwhile, in conclusion, here are a few other background facts and comments to prepare young and middle-aged readers for their imminent meeting with the formidable Mrs O. (Here is a rare preview of her in action in 1954, shot by British Pathe News).

Although the Observer article had quoted Mrs Owen as saying she gave the treatment free, in the 1970s, RP patients and their families were charged both monthly rent, house utility expenses (notably electricity, heating and telephone) and a global fee of a few thousand pounds for the months of treatment (allegedly just to cover the cost of the “special” herbs needed for each separate case). Indeed, money was one of the main topics of conversation during many of the lady’s home visits, but, oddly, she was always quite slow in presenting the bill!

Some figures:
Multiply by 4 for approximate 2012 values but remember that it would still have been cheap if it had worked!

Andrew Potok: He was quoted ₤7,500, paid ₤1,000 (or ₤2,000?). Mrs Owen said that if he could give her publicity in USA she would treat both him and his daughter for nothing. (HIs daughter decamped after a few weeks.) Although Mrs Owen never made it into the US market, she always treated Potock with unaccustomed charm, calling him “cherub” and “angel”, according to his account of the months he spent in London in 1976 or 1977.
Roger Halhead: ₤3,000.
Neil Smith: ₤4,000 (with ₤3500 owing).
Ben O’Rourke: ₤3,000.
Maribel Steel: ₤2,500 (of an original ₤7,500 estimate, later dropped to ₤5,500.)
(₤7,500 seems to have been a favourite initial estimate, but flexible.)

What tended to happen (to Halhead, Potok, John Neil Smith and Maribel) was that after several months and no major demonstrable improvement, Mrs Owen would suggest a long break in treatment for patients to recover and get maximum benefit from the “shake-up” of their system caused by the cleansing bees’ venom, before returning, fortified and ready for another long stay with her. This return tended not to take place.

During my stay in Bromley, I was allowed to read a draft copy a new book by Julia Owen, which I believe was never published. As for the new draft MS, it was, like her two previous publications, Doctors without Shame and Clamouring at the Citadel, rambling and shrill and similarly reticent about specific biographical facts. Her main topics were, as usual, her special bee venom régime, diatribes against the medical profession, a catalogue of her impressive claims of success in treating arthritis, asthma, and, more recently, at the end of this long and under-recognised career, her alleged success with sight-impaired RP sufferers, on the path to blindness – which in the mid-1970s seemed to constitute her serious bid for greater recognition. Her ranting style was unmistakeable, as we shall glimpse in the BBC TV documentary.

So, you may ask, WHY did all you patients and families tolerate and INDULGE this woman?
The easy and predictable answer is: Because we are talking about the loss of one’s eyesight. No one else could offer any hope and if the treatment had worked it would have been both a miracle and a blessing!

(Part 3 covers the 1979 BBC TV Nationwide documentary on Mrs Owen and her bee sting treatment for RP.)