Max Gerson immigrated to the United States from Germany. In 1938, after passing the New York state medical board examinations, he started a practice in New York City. While in Germany, Gerson had suffered from severe migraine headaches and developed a vegetarian diet as a way to cure his migraines. The diet was based on his study of the history of medicine and his respect for the writings of Paracelsus (1490–1541), who said that diet must be the basis of medical therapy; however, Gerson noted that diet is only one part of a treatment regimen.  The special diet cured his migraines, and after seeing its success in one of his patients suffering from lupus vulgaris, he prescribed the diet for others suffering from the same disease. He conducted a successful clinical trial in Germany using the vegetarian diet. His most noted patient was the wife of Albert Schweitzer, M.D., whom he reported curing. The accolades he received from Dr. Schweitzer may have persuaded the medical community to seriously consider the Gerson therapy and perhaps led to Gerson’s 1946 appearance with five of his patients before a congressional committee considering a bill to increase funding for cancer research.
When Gerson began prescribing his regimen for patients, he did not consider his therapy a cure for cancer. At that time he wrote that there was no conclusive evidence from his work that cancer was influenced by diet; however, he did think that diet was a useful supportive measure. In 1958, after treating patients with his regimen for more than 15 years, Gerson published his complete theory, including the results of 50 cases. He started referring to his regimen as an “effective treatment for cancer, even in advanced cases.”[1,4]
The practice of changing diet or fasting to cure or ameliorate the effects of disease has a long history, as does the practice of giving enemas to flush the body, thus keeping the body clear of toxins.  There are no reported results of clinical trials examining the efficacy of either of these practices in the treatment of cancer or how these practices would affect a treatment. Evolving evidence supports the idea that a plant-based diet plays a role in cancer prevention.
Gerson theorized that the use of pancreatic enzymes would reduce demands on the liver and pancreas, already in a weakened state, to manufacture the enzymes necessary to convert food into usable nutrients; this would help stabilize the nutritional needs of the body while it undergoes the detoxification process.[1,6] Gerson’s therapy was widely considered impossible because it was thought that pancreatic enzymes were reduced to their components in the intestinal tract. However, it has been reported that these enzymes are not broken down but are released into the bloodstream and used again in the digestive process.[7,8]
Controversy about the efficacy of the Gerson therapy continued throughout Gerson’s life. In 1946 and 1949, two articles in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that the treatment was of no value.[9,10] The National Cancer Institute (NCI) reviewed Gerson’s data from ten case histories in 1947 and 50 case histories in 1959. NCI concluded that in most cases, basic criteria for evaluating clinical benefit were not met. NCI concluded that the data demonstrated no benefit. In 1972, the American Cancer Society (ACS) published a statement summarizing the negative assessments of Gerson’s treatment. Another statement published by ACS in 1991 concerned various “ metabolic therapies” (defined as treatments that depend on changing metabolism through diet, enemas, and supplements given at clinics in Tijuana, Mexico) and reemphasized the lack of scientific evidence on the efficacy of the Gerson regimen.
Gerson died in 1959, leaving behind no systematic way to continue offering his treatment. His malpractice insurance had been canceled in 1953, and in 1958 he was suspended for 2 years from the New York County Medical Society. In 1977, his daughter, Charlotte Gerson Straus, who had continued to lecture widely about the Gerson therapy, cofounded the Gerson Institute with Norman Fritz. Located in San Diego, the Gerson Institute does not own or operate treatment facilities but maintains a licensing program for treatment centers such as the Centro Hospitalario Internacional Pacifico and Mexico’s Center for Integrative Medicine and the Gerson Hospital (CHIPSA) in Baja California, Mexico. CHIPSA refers to Max Gerson as the founder of “immunonutrition,” their term for Gerson’s idea of cleansing the body while building up the immune system through diet and supplementation.
- Gerson M: A Cancer Therapy: Results of Fifty Cases and The Cure of Advanced Cancer by Diet Therapy. San Diego, Calif: The Gerson Institute, 2002.
- US Congress, Office of Technology Assessment.: Unconventional Cancer Treatments. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1990. OTA-H-405.
- Gerson M: Dietary considerations in malignant neoplastic disease: preliminary report. Rev Gastroenterol 12: 419-25, 1945. Also available online. Last accessed August 10, 2012.
- Gerson M: The cure of advanced cancer by diet therapy: a summary of 30 years of clinical experimentation. Physiol Chem Phys 10 (5): 449-64, 1978. [PUBMED Abstract]
- Ernst E: Colonic irrigation and the theory of autointoxication: a triumph of ignorance over science. J Clin Gastroenterol 24 (4): 196-8, 1997. [PUBMED Abstract]
- Gerson C, Walker M: The Gerson Therapy: The Amazing Nutritional Program for Cancer and Other Illnesses. New York, NY: Kensington Publishing Corp, 2001.
- Rothman S, Liebow C, Isenman L: Conservation of digestive enzymes. Physiol Rev 82 (1): 1-18, 2002. [PUBMED Abstract]
- Isenman L, Liebow C, Rothman S: Transport of proteins across membranes--a paradigm in transition. Biochim Biophys Acta 1241 (3): 341-70, 1995. [PUBMED Abstract]
- Gerson's cancer treatment. JAMA 132 (11): 645-6, 1946.
- Council on Pharmacy and Chemistry.: Report of the council: cancer and the need for facts. JAMA 139 (2): 93-8, 1949.
- Unproven methods of cancer management. Gerson method of treatment for cancer. CA Cancer J Clin 23 (5): 314-7, 1973 Sep-Oct. [PUBMED Abstract]
- Questionable cancer practices in Tijuana and other Mexican border clinics. CA Cancer J Clin 41 (5): 310-9, 1991 Sep-Oct. [PUBMED Abstract]