Dr Stuart M Berger never exactly promised immortality; what he offered was that if you took his advice, 'you will be following the best, most scientifically sound attempt you can make at present to stay younger longer'. Here was a man millions of Americans knew from his column in the New York Post and his many best-selling diet books, The Southampton Diet, Dr Berger's Immune Power Diet, Forever Young, and the like. Hardly surprising, then, that much curiosity was aroused by his death last month at the age of 40. His corpse weighed 365lbs, or a trifle over 26 stone.
But Dr Berger's sad end, in a Manhattan double duplex, surrounded by Biedermeier, Hockney ('Lennie Bernstein and I bought that together') and acres of pale furniture, alone and sans his much-loved giant salt beef sandwiches and champagne, is not a cautionary tale about doctors or quacks, but about our own hugely fallible search for immortality. It was a generation of the gullible, the greedy and the hopeful that made this young man, born over a Brooklyn sweet shop, a millionaire many times over.
Dr Berger himself related the nightmare that led him into creating a life centred on diet. The compulsion has two parts: his own 6ft 6in frame, which weighed in at 420lbs when he got to medical school ('I was grossly, unbelievably fat') and his mother's trials with a diagnosed breast cancer ('Early in my medical career, I had a ringside seat at a major medical fuck-up'). But he was not so forthcoming on his training as a nutritionist.
Dr Fred Stare, who chaired Harvard's School of Public Health during Berger's time there, says that while 'Berger was a student here, he did not take a single course in nutrition and he did no research on the psychology of dieting', adding that he is 'offended and embarrassed that he used the good name of Harvard as part of his sales pitch.' Jean Mayer, the world-famous nutritionist who became president of Tufts medical school, Massachusetts, where Berger did his medical training, says: 'I hope that no future graduate of Tufts will exhibit as little knowledge of nutrition as did Dr Berger.'
Berger was never intimidated by adverse reactions. As he explained to one interviewer: 'Every time I sit down to start something new, I think to myself I've gotten away with murder, that this whole thing's a fraud.' Then he added: 'Look, they're wrong. The medical establishment is wrong, and I'm right.' Jean Mayer, he said, 'belongs to an antiquated and medieval school of tradition in nutrition'; as for misusing Harvard's name (which is plastered on his bookjackets and in his newspaper ads), 'The publisher took a liberty that I missed.'
Be that as it may, the young Berger's career flourished. In 1984, just turned 30 and whittled down to the sleek young man the public was meant to continue to think he was, Berger was already noted as a 'media shrink'. He appeared on demand wherever he could find a platform: on radio, on television, in newspapers. Despite his lack of real training, it all added to his image. And when he published What Your Doctor Didn't Learn in Medical School, he not unsurprisingly attracted a fair amount of adverse comment: 'He doesn't know bortsch about nutrition,' said one doctor. 'He's promoting health fraud,' said another. His most famous book, Dr Berger's Immune Power Diet, said the Harvard Health Letter, 'should have been listed in the fiction category . . . (It is) a collection of quack ideas about food allergies'. The US Food and Drug Administration described his basic diagnostic test, the cytotoxic test, as 'worthless in detecting food allergies'.
None of this means that Dr Berger did not have his backers. Well-known physicians sent him patients, many of whom, such as the former Congresswoman, Bella Abzug, swear by him: 'I know a lot of doctors who are able to help other people, who don't help themselves.'
His theory was that the ultimate villain, as to both health and longevity, was food allergies: 'The most frequent 'problems',' he wrote, 'are caused by an immune hypersensitivity response to many of the foods we eat.'
His solution has three steps: first, 'detoxify' by identifying these hidden food allergies and eliminating those foods; second, lose weight 'to break the immune-fat connection' (this consists mainly of eating steamed vegetables, hence his sobriquet of the 'Broccoli Man'); and third, 'rebuild' the immune defences with vitamins, minerals, and other food supplements. Berger supervised all three steps for a clientele that included, in his own words, 'film and television celebrities, major power brokers from Wall Street, heavy hitters . . . world-renowned artists, musicians, intellectuals, professional athletes, and members of the ruling families of several continents'.
In effect, he ran an in-house food-cure with a powerful promotional machine attached. Once you came to him and paid your money (dollars 3,000 to dollars 5,000), you had an investment in his method; and if you were famous, he had an investment in you. The procedure was simple: you got your allergy tests; you agreed to stick for two weeks to his tailored-to-you diet; and on your way out of his office you went by a checkout counter loaded up with the supplements you needed, and not exactly at bargain prices. In between times, you read his books and, at least so say his critics, starved yourself on a varying daily intake of between 950 and 740 calories (the average concentration camp diet was 600 calories), an amount that might sustain a human on a life-support system, but hardly anyone mobile. Weight-reduction, indeed, was the one part of his operation that actually worked: how could it not?
There have been a lot of questions asked about Dr Berger, not least a long-running and now-dead investigation by the New York State Board for Professional Conduct into allegations about the conduct of his flossy Central Park West practice in Manhattan, especially as he made claims that went well beyond dieting, asserting that his diet could cure a great number of immune deficiencies - bringing the Aids community down on his neck.
In fact, a close look at his career leads to the inescapable conclusion that even if he did no recognisable harm (the first of Hippocrates' laws), his stock-in-trade was more confidence, and confidence-trick, than medicine. His mother, for instance, was startled that he ever took up medicine. 'I never thought he would be a doctor,' she confides. She (to whom almost all his books are dedicated) thought her boy would be an actor: 'When Stuart comes into a room it's as if a light goes on.' It was his father, Otto, who gave him his path in life, even if he stated the vocation in terms that are retrospectively peculiarly apt: 'Be a doctor and you can do anything you want.'
As his literary agent, Scott Meredith, put it in the happy days of the Reagan era: 'Part of his drive is the drive to be a celebrity, not just a successful doctor. He's like anyone who grew up fat and unpopular. There's an overwhelming desire to be recognised in restaurants, to get the best table. And you should see him with his Rolls. I have seen Stuart actually fondle that car.'
The point is that Dr Berger offered faith to those who needed it most, and faith is a potent component in medicine. That he should die in a way to give a lie to his own hopes for others proves nothing beyond our need to believe what we want to believe. There are doctors like Dr Berger all over the world; they all have the same belief in themselves and in their own form of magic. Sometimes it works. Some of these 'charlatans' are genuine thaumaturges. You will lose weight if you eat mostly steamed broccoli - and you may even live longer. Dr Berger was unfortunate. His allergy was broccoli.
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