Posted tagged ‘Retinitis Pigmentosa’

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: .
What a daughter! ¡Olé mi niña! And what a mother and grandmother!


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 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.)

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

2 November 2011

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.


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.)

Helga Barnes plus bee therapy leads to Julia Owen

31 October 2011

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.

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

Julia Owen and bee stings in Bromley

14 June 2008

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 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.