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One Man Alone:

An Investigation of Nutrition, Cancer, and William Donald Kelley

Nicholas J. Gonzalez, MD

Excerpt from Introduction 2010

Photo of Dr. Kelley and Nick GonzalezIt is hard sometimes to believe that 28 years have now passed since I first began my investigations of the controversial alternative cancer therapist and dentist William Donald Kelley. In July of 1981, after my second year of medical school at Cornell, a good friend and successful writer called me one afternoon asking if I knew anything about Dr. Kelley and his strange nutritional treatment for cancer. I had certainly heard of Kelley by that point. His name had been splashed across all the major and minor newspapers and TV news shows some eight months earlier, vilified as the practitioner supervising the treatment of the actor Steve McQueen who in November 1980 lost his battle with advanced mesothelioma in a Mexican clinic. The stories had continued for many months even after McQueen’s death, and though I hadn’t followed the case too closely and knew little about Kelley, I thought the vicious attacks against him somewhat peculiar. After all, McQueen suffered a malignancy that was—and still is—incurable in the conventional world. Kelley had tried, I thought, when I first read articles about him and McQueen, and hadn’t succeeded—hardly some grievous sin, since all practicing oncologists try and fail, with many if not most of their patients.

My friend, always looking for a hot new book to write, thought Kelley might make a good subject for a potboiler, given that he had for months been the subject of national and international press attention. She had been in touch with Kelley, and to her surprise, in her conversations she found him to be quite the opposite of what she expected: the celebrity chasing, money driven, greedy “quack” as he had been portrayed in the press and on TV, trolling for dollars among the most vulnerable, those diagnosed with incurable cancer. She instead found him very shy, painfully so, convinced his therapy had value and devastated by the mocking and relentless media assaults.

Apparently, my friend told me, Kelley himself had survived terminal pancreatic cancer in the early 1960s when he still practiced conventional orthodontics. With four young children to worry about and facing an early death, Kelley desperately sought some way to beat the disease. Through a trial and error process, using himself essentially as a guinea pig, he serendipitously put together the therapy that saved his own life. Once recovered, he began to apply what he had learned on others facing equally catastrophic fates with terrible cancer. The rest, she said, with some irony, was history.

At this point in his life, Kelley said he only wanted the chance to have his regimen appropriately and fairly evaluated in clinical trials. When she asked him to explain his treatment, a very complicated approach involving individualized diets, individualized supplement protocols, large doses of pancreatic enzymes, and coffee enemas, she said his comments about the biochemistry of nutrition went far above her head, non-scientist that she was. As she told me, she couldn’t be sure if Kelley was truly a genius onto something extraordinary, or simply an inarticulate peddler of snake oil.

At the time, Kelley maintained an office in Dallas, but in recent weeks had sequestered himself at an organic farm he owned in the middle of nowhere in Washington State. There he hoped to avoid the media, but some enterprising reporter had managed to track him down. In some frustration, Kelley had taken a long train ride across Canada to escape the press and a failed romantic relationship, the victim, apparently, of his new-found notoriety. He was scheduled to arrive in New York, where he intended to stay for several days before flying back to Dallas. My friend wanted to meet with him face-to-face during his stay in town, to explore further the possibility of a book, but wished that I meet with him as well, to size him up, to help her determine if he was simply crazy, or brilliant, or perhaps crazy and brilliant. I had seven years of journalism experience under my belt before going to medical school, including stints under some legendary editors, so she thought my unusual combination of reporting and scientific training might help her sort through Kelley’s level of authenticity.

Initially, I balked at the suggestion, having little interest in meeting some controversial alternative cancer therapist. But she persevered, even offering to pay me for my time. Finally, after considerable prodding I agreed to meet with him – for no charge, I might add. I was, in fact, looking for a change of pace. I had been spending the summer in the research lab of one of the professors who had taken me under his wing, the late Walter Riker, for years Chairman of Pharmacology at Cornell. Though Dr. Riker was a wonderful mentor, I felt restless, finding the laboratory work somewhat tedious. Journalist that I was at heart, I was looking for an adventure, even if only a minor one, and Kelley might just fit the bill. So several days later, I trudged out to the Forest Hills offices of a chiropractor known to my writer friend who had agreed to set up a lunch so we might all get together somewhat informally.

I remember so well my first glimpse of Kelley: he was tall, six foot two or three, with blue eyes, a narrow, haggard pale face topped by a mop of unruly thick gray hair. He wore a gray suit, white shirt and blue tie, and walked with a distinctive limp—the result, as I would learn, of the metastatic cancer that 20 years earlier had ravaged his body. (continued in the book)


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