Julia Owen, Retinitis Pigmentosa and the Media. Part 2

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.)
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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.)

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