Obituary: Dr Gordon Latto
Friday 02 October 1998
Portents of his colourful career manifested themselves in his boyhood and adolescence in Dundee. He ran a market garden, took up beekeeping, and hoped to become a golf professional. His father ordained otherwise and directed him and later his two brothers into a "proper" profession, namely medicine.
The brothers, all lifelong vegetarians, worked collaboratively in different fields of therapy, from "real" surgery - Conrad, the youngest, as Senior General Surgeon at the Royal Berkshire Hospital, the middle brother Douglas as a GP specialising in obstetrics and gynaecology - to the holistics of naturopathy as practised by Gordon.
At Southend, Latto set up in a panel practice - the forerunner of the NHS system. As a keen gardener he was also much involved in the beginnings of the Soil Association in Britain.
In 1930 he met Barbara Krebs at the convocation of a nonconformist Christian group called the Order of the Cross. She was German, half-Jewish, and medically trained, and she shared his growing interest in complementary medicine. They married in 1938.
As a vegetarian conscientious objector with a German wife, Latto began the war years under some suspicion. Vegetarianism had not yet "come out": it was a habit associated with Bohemians, Fabians and the Bloomsbury set. The bombing disrupted his practice, but his patients sought him out persistently, so he opened his consulting room on Sundays.
After the war, he developed a busy practice in London and Reading and did a great deal of travelling to patients around Britain. Barbara supported him through his life and introduced him to continental and Jewish organisations, in particular the Bircher Benner clinic in Zurich, and the Roh Kost ("raw food") salad-a-day and breakfast muesli influence, which presaged the five-a-day fruit-and-veg and Mediteranean-style latterly in vogue.
Over the years roughage - which had been disparaged - was reinterpreted as "smoothage", something that made your system work smoothly, and then elevated further, as various components and their functions were appreciated, to substantial factors in health and in the prevention of malignancy. Dogmas over first- and second-class protein rose and fell. The tables were turned on the nutritional authorities who had dismissed vegetarians as "full of wind and self-righteousness".
The Second World War had produced a Ministry of Food, a radio doctor dispensing dietary advice in frequent measure (prunes were esteemed as the "little black workers"), and increased disquiet over the nation's fare. Glimmers of interest in improved nutrition began to appear. Latto, the organic movement, and the "fibre-righters" began to gather support.
In the 1930s Gordon Latto had been among those calling for the extraction rate of the national loaf to be raised - i.e. for it to be less refined, so more of its natural goodness was retained. Eventually this was done during the Second World War, if only to conserve supplies. Bread was on ration after the war and the Government came under pressure to relieve some of the austerity by returning the national brown loaf to white.
In the Cabinet Ernest Bevin argued for the restoration of the white loaf, while the ascetic vegetarian Sir Stafford Cripps, Chancellor of the Exchequer and adherent to the principles of Latto and Bircher Benner, fought for the retention of the brown. Bevin won. Severely overweight, he was troubled with constipation, piles, and the agonies of sittings at high-level conferences, all of which increased roughage would have assuaged.
Latto later endorsed the Campaign for Real Bread launched in 1976. He had, as in many matters, been ahead of his time. It seems incredible now that he and his followers had even had to campaign against subsidies disadvantaging sales of wholemeal bread.
From 1946 to 1952 Latto served at the Nature Cure Clinic in London as a voluntary practitioner. The clinic had been established in the mid-1930s as a charity that ran what would now be termed complementary therapies, such as osteopathy. Unusually, it was run by orthodox-trained doctors. It had been bombed during the war, but recovered, albeit with the loss of its hospital.
Diet played a major role in its treatments. The clinic's dietary and other teachings sit harmoniously now with modern trends, but the doctors in those days risked being struck off for their collaborations with lay practitioners. Latto later sat on the management committee.
He was a practitioner of the old school. He listened to patients' histories and with a few acute but simple tests allowed them to furnish most of their own diagnoses. Likewise, the cures depended on the patients' resolve to embark on regimens of fasting, new food diets, and healing crises and to suffer early consultations at 5am - the Latto family were all early risers. Patients whom orthodoxy had failed came to Gordon Latto - and were visited - as did as those with leanings against vivisection, vaccination, and an oppressive medical and nutritional establishment. His fees were always less demanding than his treatments.
Latto attracted an international list. Some of those who mocked - or failed to support - alternative medicine publicly would consult in private. His dispensations of confidence extended particularly to children brought by parents. He was a master at lifting the fear and stress from young and old. His practice was an extension of his own family and home.
One patient who publicly acknowledged Latto's treatments was Sir Francis Chichester. He had received dire diagnoses of cancer and spurned the surgeons' advice ("if in doubt, cut it out"), before taking up his wife's recommendation to consult Latto. Afterwards, he sailed single-handed round the world in Gypsy Moth, provisioned at various ports of call with vegetarian victuals. Plenty of fresh air and deep breathing were part of Latto's miracle cures.
Gordon Latto lived as he taught. He was a lean, approachable, energetic, family man with strong Scottish allegiance. For all the gentleness in his work and ministry he remained a fierce opponent at tennis, golf, and croquet, with skills of gamesmanship that matched his therapeutic talent. He was a superb raconteur and keenly in demand for speeches - never a line was fluffed in his droll jokes. As an early riser, he insisted on a brief after-lunch snooze to order the day.
A delegation of vegetarians returned a few years ago from a congress in India at which the entertainment had been lavish. Almost all of them were severely afflicted with gut troubles, but not Gordon Latto. He had sought advice from an Indian doctor, passed it on, and practised it himself - but was not heeded. He had partaken abstemiously and kept a clove of garlic in his cheek. Canny, as always. He will be a notable absentee from the world vegetarian congress in Thailand next January.
Of his and Barbara's five children, his daughter Rosemary qualified as an osteopath, and three of the four sons are now practising doctors.
Gordon Latto, medical practitioner and naturopath: born Dundee 25 June 1911; married 1938 Barbara Krebs (four sons, one daughter); died Reading, Berkshire 2 September 1998.
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