In both its mission statement and its IRS filings, the Washington, D.C.–based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) says it is "strongly opposed to unethical human research."
But the group is throwing a private Hollywood Art of Compassion bash Sunday night to hand out a major award named after Dr. Henry Heimlich, who has been condemned by mainstream medical organizations around the world for his 20-year program of trying to cure cancer and AIDS by injecting people with malaria-infected blood.
Among the critics is Paul Bronston, an L.A. emergency-room physician and national chairman of the ethics committee of the American College of Medical Quality. He says there is no medical basis for Heimlich's "malariotherapy" experiments.
"It's never been proven scientifically, and it's never been peer-reviewed in a medical journal," Bronston says. "He's been doing it for 20 years, but he can't point to a single success with it."
No one involved with the Heimlich Award will explain the contradiction between the PCRM's mission statement and the strange history of the man famous for inventing the Heimlich maneuver, an abdominal thrust used to expel stuck food or objects that can cause people to choke to death. The Heimlich maneuver has been universally credited with saving thousands of lives over the last 35 years.
Bill Maher and Alec Baldwin, the two biggest names listed as Honorary Committee Members for this weekend's compassion party, declined through spokespeople to comment to the Weekly.
"Bill knows nothing about this doctor or his experiments," Maher's publicist, CeCe Yorke, tells the Weekly. "And he will not be attending the party."
Baldwin was the master of ceremonies who introduced Heimlich as the man who had "saved thousands of lives" the last time the Heimlich Award was presented at an Art of Compassion bash in 2007. "Alec declines to comment," his publicist, Matthew Hiltzik, says. "I don't think he'll be at the party. ... He's been awfully busy this year and needs time off."
Many weeks ago, PCRM announced that the Heimlich Award for Innovative Medicine would be handed out Sunday night at the Malibu mansion of Michael Landon's widow, Cindy, during PCRM's 25th-anniversary gala. Last week, shortly after the Weekly sought comment from top stars involved, the venue was abruptly switched to the historic Warner Hollywood Studios, now known as the Lot. The night's theme is "Celebrating the Art of Compassion," complete with a silent auction and gourmet vegan meal. The $250, $500 and $5,000 "sponsorships" are sold out, but there's plenty available up to $50,000.
Heimlich won't respond to the critics — led by his estranged son — who are questioning the award named after him. Peter Heimlich says his father's malariotherapy research has been denounced as dangerous and irresponsible by the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. In 2002 the WHO called malariotherapy "an example of clearly unscrupulous and opportune research." Five years later, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, said: "It is scientifically unsound, and I think it would be ethically questionable ... and it does have the fundamental potential of killing you."
Now the younger Heimlich asks, "How can the PCRM reconcile all that criticism with its position against unethical research? Why won't my father or anyone at PCRM answer that question?"
Henry Heimlich used to crave media attention. Not anymore.
"I don't want to discuss the award, or my research," the 90-year-old Heimlich says today. "I don't think I'll be at the party. ... Please contact Dr. Barnard."
Neal Barnard founded PCRM in 1985, and still serves as president of the nonprofit organization, which has a $7.5 million annual budget and 35 paid staff. Barnard frequently appears on TV and radio as an advocate for animal rights in medical research.
Barnard declined repeated requests for comment.
Heimlich has not denied reports in the Cincinnati Beacon, an Internet magazine, that he is trying to resume the so-called malariotherapy experiments, which were first introduced in 1985 in Mexico — where he charged patients $10,000. The experiments were last conducted in 2005 in Gabon and Ethiopia.
After refusing to discuss his research in a phone interview from his home in Cincinnati, Heimlich said, "Sorry, but I've gotta go."
For more than two decades Heimlich was revered as a medical hero and an American icon, but in 2002 his son Peter, a former rock musician and now a wholesale fabric importer in Atlanta, began attacking him as a dangerous charlatan who didn't deserve credit for the Heimlich maneuver because a colleague had worked with him on developing it.
Peter has suggested that his father's colleague, Edward Patrick, had the original idea of forcing a cough in order to expel an object causing choking.
"My theory is that Patrick brought the idea to my father, and my father marketed it very successfully," Peter Heimlich says. "My father is such a brilliant promoter, he could teach P.T. Barnum a few tricks."
Interestingly, Patrick and his family called it the Patrick maneuver, until Patrick died last Christmas. But he never got any public credit until reporters, egged on by the younger Heimlich, began to ask Patrick questions.
Rather than answer them directly, he issued a press release in 2003, saying he was the co-inventor of the Heimlich maneuver and that he thought of himself and Heimlich as similar to aviation's Wright brothers.
Peter says the genesis of the Heimlich maneuver is a complex puzzle he is still piecing together. "The Heimlich maneuver works, and I've never disputed that," he says. "The problem is that my father used his fame to promote it for medical conditions for which it has no application, like drowning, cystic fibrosis, asthma and even heart attacks."
The younger Heimlich relentlessly uncovered damaging details about his father's career. A comprehensive, and in many ways damning, critique was first published in the spring of 2003 with two front-page Cincinnati Enquirer stories, which ran a month apart (they grew in part from anonymous tips provided by Peter Heimlich).
One of many strange aspects of this Shakespearean saga is that Peter hid his true identity for the first two years of acting as the source. He initially contacted the media about his father's controversial research practices using the alias Holly Martins, the name of the Joseph Cotten character in the 1949 film-noir thriller The Third Man. He says he didn't want to become part of the story.
In 2005, Cincinnati's Business Courier outed Holly Martins as Peter Heimlich and laid bare the festering family feud. But his unmasking simply emboldened the son. The story found its way to several alternative-news weeklies around the country, from Cleveland and Detroit to Salt Lake City.
It reached critical mass in June 2007, when Brian Ross, chief investigative correspondent for ABC News' 20/20, documented the elder Heimlich's attempts to find a cure for cancer, AIDS and Lyme disease through the use of malaria-infected blood injections.
Ross also reported how the doctor had pushed the Heimlich maneuver as a drowning treatment long after the Red Cross and the American Heart Association said that it was dangerous. In that 20/20 report, Barnard defended Heimlich against a wide range of mainstream critics.
Today, three years later, when contacted by the Weekly, Barnard wouldn't come to the phone in his D.C. office to defend Heimlich, who has remained on PCRM's medical advisory board since 1986.
Says Peter: "My father is radioactive in medical circles, and Dr. Barnard was the last one defending him. Now it looks like even he won't do it."
Tearing down his father's reputation has been a painful process, he says. He's writing a book about him, called Outmaneuvered. "I'm still turning up new information every day."