Dr. Victor D. Herbert, a Harvard Medical School researcher who used himself as a test subject in the early 1960s to reveal the preventative powers of folic acid, died of cancer recently at his home in New York. He was 75.
As an associate professor at Harvard, Herbert set out to dispel prevailing notions about the causes of anemia, a blood disorder most commonly caused by a lack of iron.
Most physicians knew it resulted from a shortage of folic acid but thought that problem was confined to alcoholics who did not eat a balanced diet and to people with digestive disorders.
To prove his theory that the folic acid link was far more widespread, Herbert eliminated all foods from his diet which contained folic acid, which is normally found in green leafy vegetables and some fruits.
He started in October 1961, and 133 days later he had lost 26 pounds and developed megaloblastic anemia, a condition that causes weakness, fatigue, headache, loss of appetite and diarrhea.
“[Herbert] quadruple boiled all of his food to make sure that all vestiges of folic acid were removed from his diet,” said his colleague, Clive Rosendorff, chief of medicine at the Bronx Veterans Affairs Medical Center. “Sure enough, he became anemic and quite seriously so.”
Herbert’s experiment is credited with conclusively proving the link between a deficiency in folate and this type of anemia. And in 1998, four decades later, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began requiring that folic acid be added to all American food grains.
Herbert’s discovery also led to the realization that anemia found in pregnant women is due to a dietary deficiency. As a result, pregnant women now often take folate supplements to help the growing fetus develop properly.
Subsequent research has shown folic acid helps prevent a number of birth defects, including cleft palate, brain damage and spina bifida.
In addition to being an internationally recognized hematologist and nutrition scientist, Herbert was also a leading authority on the effectiveness of homeopathic medical practices, Rosendorff said, especially the use of herbal remedies and vitamin supplements marketed to uninformed consumers.
“His other interest was in the area of fraudulent claims by pharmaceutical companies,” Rosendorff said.
Herbert concluded that relatively few vitamin supplements and therapeutic health foods have been proven to be effective and found that some are actually harmful.
Herbert published more than 850 scientific papers and was the author of numerous books, including Total Nutrition, The Vitamin Pushers, Nutrition Cultism and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine Complete Book of Nutrition.
Rosendorff said Herbert regarded himself as a “quack-buster.”
Herbert also had a lengthy military career and served in four wars: World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf.