The Shady Activities of Kurt Donsbach

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

I have been closely monitoring Kurt Donsbach's activities since 1971. His primary activity since 1987 has been the operation of Hospital Santa Monica, a Mexican facility which he describes as "the most advanced wholistic hospital in North America." The hospital's Web site has stated that he "has long been recognized as a world leader in charting effective wholistic treatment programs for chronic degenerative diseases; particularly, cancer, cardiovascular disease, candidiasis and arthritis, as well as for detoxification and rejuvenation." Donsbach's Web site states that he has produced more than 50 books and pamphlets that have sold a total of 14 milion copies. Most of these were booklets titled "Dr. Donsbach Tells You What You Always Wanted To Know About . . . ." Donsbach's other activities and enterprises have been so numerous and complex that no one—including Donsbach himself—can document all of them with certainty. The photo to the right, taken by Dr. Willliam M. London on March 27, 2010, shows Donsbach lecturing at the Health Freedom Expo in Long Beach, California.  


Donsbach graduated in 1957 from Western States Chiropractic College, in Portland, Oregon, and practiced as a chiropractor in Montana, "specializing in treatment of arthritic and rheumatoid disorders." From 1961 to 1965, he worked in "research development and marketing" for Standard Process Laboratories (a division of Royal Lee's Vitamin Products Company) and the Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research, headquartered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. While Donsbach worked for Lee, he lived in California, did literature research, and gave nutrition seminars, primarily to chiropractors who were interested in marketing the company's products to their patients. In 1962, while Donsbach was still employed, Lee and the Vitamin Products Company were convicted of misbranding 115 special dietary products by making false claims for the treatment of more than 500 diseases and conditions. Lee received a one-year suspended prison term and was fined $7,000. In 1963, a prominent FDA official said Lee was "probably the largest publisher of unreliable and false nutritional information in the world." Lee died in 1967.

After Lee became ill, Donsbach left his employ and opened Nature's Way Health Food Store, in Westminster, California, and Westpro Laboratories, in Garden Grove, California, which repackaged dietary supplements and a few drugs. In 1970, undercover agents of the Fraud Division of the California Bureau of Food and Drug observed Donsbach represent to customers in his store that vitamins, minerals, and/or herbal tea were effective against cancer, heart disease, emphysema (a chronic lung disease), and many other ailments. Most of the products Donsbach "prescribed" were packaged by Westpro Labs. Charged with nine counts of illegal activity, Donsbach pleaded guilty in 1971 to one count of practicing medicine without a license and agreed to cease "nutritional consultation." He was assessed $2,750 and served two years' summary probation [1].

In 1973, Donsbach was charged with nine more counts of illegal activity, including misbranding of drugs; selling, holding for sale, or offering for sale, new drugs without having the proper applications on file; and manufacturing drugs without a license. After pleading "no contest" to one of the "new drug" charges, he was ordered to pay a small fine and was placed on two years' summary probation with the provision that he rid himself of all proprietary interest in Westpro Labs.

In 1974, Donsbach was found guilty of violating his probation and was fined again. Donsbach then sold the company to RichLife, Inc., of Anaheim, California, for $250,000 plus a promise of $20,000 a year for occasionally conducting seminars and operating the company's booth at trade shows. The agreement also gave RichLife sole right to market Dr. Donsbach Pak Vitamins, among which were Arth Pak, Athletic Pak, Dynamite Pak, Health and Beauty Pak, and Stress Formula Pak. These products, which were marketed in interstate commerce, were unapproved new drugs and misbranded.

In 1975, Donsbach owned and operated Metabolic Products, a company that marketed supplement products with unsubstantiated claims. That year, he also began his fourteen years of service as board chairman of the National Health Federation, a group that promotes the full gamut of quackery.

In 1976, Donsbach acquired a license to practice naturopathy in Oregon, based on a document that was later revealed to be a forgery (see below).

In 1980, the District Attorney of Orange County charged RichLife with making false and illegal claims for various products, including some originally formulated by Donsbach. In a court-approved settlement, RichLife paid $50,000 and agreed to stop making the claims. In 1986, RichLife was charged with violating this agreement and was assessed $48,000 more in another court-approved settlement.

In 1979, Donsbach began operating Donsbach University, a nonaccredited correspondence school that awarded bachelor, master, and doctoral "degrees" in nutrition [2]. The fact that his "university" was not accredited did not deter Donsbach from stating that it was—by the National Accreditation Association (N.A.A.) of Riverdale, Maryland. An investigation by the National Council Against Health Fraud revealed that this "agency" was formed in 1980 by a California chiropractor and had "accredited" Donsbach University a few months later. In 1981, Dr. William Jarvis, President of the National Council Against Health Fraud, visited N.A.A. in Maryland and found that its "office" was a telephone in the living room of its executive director, who said he received $100-a-month salary. Although N.A.A. correspondence had designated the man as holding a "Ph.D." from the Sussex College of Technology in England, the British Embassy informed Jarvis that it did not consider the "school" or its diplomas valid. N.A.A. quietly disappeared after the California Department of Education warned Donsbach to stop misrepresenting the significance of N.A.A. "accreditation."

Donsbach also operated the International Institute of Natural Health Sciences, through which he marketed numerous misleading publications and a "Nutrient Deficiency Test" used nationwide by chiropractors and bogus nutritionists to defraud consumers.

In 1982, Donsbach formed and became board chairman of Health Resources Group, Inc., which sold supplement products to health-food stores through HRG Enterprises and a multilevel company named Nutrition Motivation. HRG also operated two clinics and a syndicated radio talk show, which Donsbach hosted. In 1984, Donsbach announced that he had repurchased from RichLife the rights to sell products with his name, and HRG began promoting such products as Orachel (falsely claimed to be effective against heart disease), C-Thru (falsely claimed to be effective against cataracts) and Prosta-Pak (falsely claimed to provide "nutritional support for the prostate gland").

In June 1985, the FDA sent Donsbach and HRG a regulatory letter indicating that claims made for Orachel made it an unapproved new drug that was illegal to market. A few months later, New York State Attorney General Robert Abrams had Orachel seized from several retail outlets in the New York City area and filed suit to block further sale and distribution of the product throughout the state. However, before either of these actions took place, Donsbach had transferred ownership of HRG Enterprises to a business associate. Marketing of Orachel was stopped, but Ora-Flow, an identical Donsbach product, continued to be marketed.

In July 1985, the New York Attorney General brought actions against Donsbach, his university, and his International Institute, charging that they lacked legal authorization to conduct business within New York State and that it was illegal to advertise nonaccredited degrees to state residents. Abrams also charged that the institute's "Nutrient Deficiency Test" was a scheme to defraud consumers. This test was composed of 245 yes/no questions about symptoms. When the answers were fed into a computer, a report of supposed nutrient deficiencies and medical conditions was printed out. The questions did not provide a basis for evaluating nutritional status. A scientist with the FDA's Buffalo district office who analyzed the computer program (in connection with prosecution of a Donsbach University "graduate") found that no matter how the questions were answered, the test reported several "nutrient deficiencies" and almost always recommended an identical list of vitamins, minerals, and digestive enzymes. The questionnaire also contained questions about the subject's food intake during the past week. However, the answers given did not affect the printout of supposed deficiencies.

In 1986, Donsbach and his Institute agreed to: (a) stop marketing in New York State all current versions of its nutrient deficiency questionnaire and associated computer analysis services, (b) place conspicuous disclaimers on future versions of the questionnaire to indicate that the test should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of any disease by either consumers or professionals, and (c) pay $1,000 in costs. Donsbach and the university agreed to disclose in any direct mailings to New York residents or in any nationally distributed publication that the school's degree programs were not registered with the New York Department of Education and were not accredited by a recognized agency. The university also agreed to pay $500 to New York State.

In 1987, Donsbach filed for bankruptcy, listing no assets and over $3 million in debts claimed by more than 100 creditors. The largest debt was for for more than $2 million in unpaid bills for satellite broadcasting of his HRG radio programs. During the same year, Jacob Swilling assumed ownership of Donsbach University, which was renamed International University for Nutrition Education but soon went defunct.

In 1988, the Arizona Naturopathic Physicians Board of Examiners revoked the license of a naturopath after determining that he had used a counterfeit credential to obtain it —a diploma dated "17st June 1961" from the "Hollywood College School of Naturopathy" in Los Angeles. The authorities concluded that no such school had existed and that the "diploma" had been created by making altered photocopies of a 1961 diploma from the Hollywood College School of Chiropractic. Authorities in Oregon then determined that Donsbach and four others had acquired their licenses in the same way. In 1990, Donsbach was prohibited from holding a naturopathic license based on the forged degree [3].

In 1988, a U.S. Postal Service Judicial Officer ordered Donsbach and his nephew Richard to stop misrepresenting in mail-order sales that a 35% solution of hydrogen peroxide is effective against arthritis and cancer. Under federal law, these representations also made the product an unapproved new drug and misbranded.

During the early 1990s, Donsbach operated Professional Products, Inc., of San Ysidro, California, through which he marketed a large line of "dietary supplements. Some of these, including Cardio-Eze, were unapproved new drugs and misbranded. Since 1993, identical or similar products (represented as Dr. Donsbach's "professional" line) have been distributed by the Rockland Corporation, a company with which Donsbach has been associated for many years as a "consultant" and lecturer.

A 1993 Complaint for Forfeiture in the 1996 case states that Donsbach obtained money from insurance companies by misrepresenting the nature and location of treatments he rendered there. That year, he filed another bankruptcy action for the apparent purpose of escaping civil liability in a libel suit by Victor Herbert, M.D., J.D. I do not know whether the assets seized or forfeited as part of the 1996 case were listed among his assets. If they were not, he would have been guilty of filing a fraudulent bankruptcy.

In February 1997, the Rockland Corporation announced that it had consummated a sale and stock swap with Donsbach and Kresburg, Ltd., for Hospital Santa Monica and its affiliates. It also announced that Donsbach became a Rockland stockholder, board member and full time employee of Rockland and that his primary duties would include "managing the hospital, working with patients, writing, lecturing, and acting as talk show host during his daily radio program."

In 1996, Donsbach pled guilty to smuggling unapproved drugs into the U.S. and not paying income tax on the money he made for selling them. In a plea bargain with the U.S. Attorney's office, he forfeited about $165,000 and paid an additional $150,000 in back taxes [4,5]. On Nov. 24, 1997, Donsbach was sentenced to a year in federal prison by a federal judge in San Diego, but the sentence was never carried out. Donsbach was scheduled to report to prison on April 27, 1998, but his attorney said that sentence might be modified after Donsbach testified in a trial scheduled for the following year in Texas. Although the trial was not held, the judge wound up changing his sentence to a mere six months of "house arrest," during which time he was permitted to conduct business as usual in Mexico and elsewhere.

In January 2006, Donsbach received media attention when it became known that Coretta Scott King, widow of former civil rights leader Martin Luther King, had died at Hospital Santa Monica. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Mrs. King had checked into the hospital under an assumed name and died in her sleep a few days afterward. The report stated that she was in the late stages of ovarian cancer and was being "evaluated for possible treatment" before she died [6]. In reponse to massive publicity, the Mexican Government ordered Hospital Santa Monica to shut down. However, in 2007, the San Diego Union Tribune reported:

During 2008, hospitalsantamonica.com became alphamedicalclinic.com and the facility began doing business as Alpha Medical Clinic. Both domains are registered to Cedar River Holdings, LLC, which is registered in Nevada and identifies Christine Mansfield as its manager. I don't know whether Donsbach has a connection with the Alpha Medical Clinic, but it doesn't matter. No "alternative" Mexican clinic should be trusted.

In 2009, Donsbach was arrested and charged with treating patients without a license, misbranding drugs for sale, grand theft, unlawfully dispensing drugs as a cure for cancer, and falsely representing a cure for cancer. The declaration in support of his arrest warrant states:

In 2010, Donsbach pleaded guilty to 13 felony charges: five counts of practicing medicine without a license, five counts of selling/distributing misbranded drugs, and one count each of of attempted grand theft, grand theft, and being a felon in possession of a firearm. He also admitted that he personally inflicted a great bodily injury on one of the victims related to the unlicensed practice of medicine. The Court agreed to sentence him to probation, which will include restrictions against practicing medicine and distributing dietary supplements, and possible custody in the county jail. In April 2011, the judge sentenced him to a year in prison to be followed by ten years of probation, during which he is prohibited from representing himself as any type of health practitioner. The judge also imposed a $60,000 fine [9].

I have never met Donsbach personally, but I have examined more than a hundred of his publications as well as depositions, videotaped interviews, and miscellaneous other materials. I know of nobody who has engaged in a greater number and variety of health-related schemes and scams.

References

  1. Eddington J II. Case resume: Kurt W. Donsbach, April 12, 1971.
  2. Barrett S. Stay away from Donsbach University "graduates." Quackwatch, Dec 30, 2005.
  3. Young DA. Letters to Kurt Donsbach, May 14 and June 4, 1990.
  4. Information. United States of America v. Kurt V. Donsbach. Criminal case no. '96 347B, Filed Feb 15, 1996.
  5. Plea agreement. United States of America v. Kurt V. Donsbach. Criminal case no. '96 347B, Filed March 18, 1996.
  6. Judd B and others. Clinic, founder operate outside norm: Holistic health practitioner has criminal record, dubious resumé. Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Feb 1, 2006.
  7. Crabtree P, Cearley A. Baja clinic shut down for unorthodox care reopens: Embattled founder's role open to question. San Diego Tribune, Sept 9, 2007.
  8. Bowles, E. Declaration in support of his arrest warrant. People of California vs. Kurt Walter Donsbach. San Diego Superior Court, April 8, 2009.
  9. Bonita man who posed as doctor sentenced, fined. San Diego News, April 15, 2011.

This article was revised on April 17, 2011.