It started with an article in the Sun in 1947. The newspaper—cautiously warning readers not to accept any claims until proven—suggested that its reporter had found medical gold: “This man says he can cure cancer.” The man in question was John Braund, a 78-year-old self-described “quack”, living in a villa in suburban Sydney, Australia, who said he had treated 318 cancer patients, and cured all but one of them. The Sun’s journalist had also interviewed an anonymous “cancer specialist” who said he was baffled by Braund’s successes. Braund kept his method secret, but said that he gave no medicine and “use[d] no knife” to achieve his spectacular cures.
The “Braund controversy”, as the saga provoked by the Sun’s coverage was known, was one of Australia’s most prominent cases of medical fraud. Its consequences shaped cancer treatment in Australia to this day. You can read about the Braund controversy here.
Project 2: The Bristol Cancer Help Centre
In September 1990, cancer researchers in the United Kingdom published a study in the Lancet. The study purported to show that women with breast cancer being treated at the Bristol Cancer Help Centre were three times more likely to suffer a relapse of their cancer, and twice as likely to die, as women who did not go to the Centre. The Bristol Centre offered complementary cancer therapies: visualisation, relaxation, meditation, counselling, and laying-on of hands. The basis of the “Bristol Method” was a strict vegan diet and vitamin supplements.
The study made headline news: “Alternative therapy linked to breast cancer deaths” said one newspaper. “Study shows cancer patients at a holistic treatment centre are more likely to die,” said another. On its face, the Bristol study seemed to say that orthodox and complementary medicine had matched up—gone “toe-to-toe” in the glaring public arena of cancer treatment—and that orthodox medicine had delivered the knock-out punch: complementary therapy kills.
But in the weeks after the announcement, closer inspection showed that the study was seriously flawed. It was in fact impossible to tell from the results whether the Bristol method was helpful or harmful. My article “When Subjects Bite Back” shows how the women who had gone to the Bristol Centre dealt with the defective study and what the implications of this controversy were for medical research.