For no great discovery has ever been immediately accepted. Rather, in medicine it seems that the reverse is true, and everyone must go through a period of trial and even censure before what seems the obvious truth is recognized generally…. But such slow acceptance prevents the real discoveries from being known and widely accepted earlier, and many lives are thus sacrificed needlessly.
Frank Slaughter, Immortal Magyar: Semmelweiss, Conqueror of Childbed Fever
“Silence! Debout, s’il vous plait!” With that cry from the bailiff, all in the tiny courtroom stood as Judge Jean-Louis Peloquin, in his black robe and white dicky draped with a crimson red stole, walked in to take his seat on the bench.
The trial of Gaston Naessens had begun. No, it was definitely not “Perry Mason,” in either the setting or the atmosphere. First of all, the court was arranged not to heighten, but to lessen, any drama. Witnesses took the “stand”—there was no witness box, so they literally stood at floor level— facing front, with their backs to the spectators. Since no loudspeakers were in use, spectators were hard put to hear their testimony or even the questions of the two opposing lawyers.
Jacques Lemoine, reporter for Sherbrooke’s Tribune, kindly made room for me at the press table, directly behind the prosecutor’s table, thus allowing me easily to hear nearly everything that was said, and affording me a view of Gaston Naessens and his defense lawyer, Conrad Chapdelaine.
Chapdelaine, in whom Gaston and Frangoise Naessens seem to place great confidence, is a short wiry man with a head of thick jetblack hair and a walrus mustache to match. Were he not wearing the black robe and paperwhite shirt-front and stiff collar, de rigueur for Quebecois attorneys while in court, he might seem to be not so much a member of the legal profession as a tough cavalry colonel in the horde of a Tamerlane or a Genghis Khan. The dark skin of his face is set with eyes that frequently flash with a foxy look as if he were about to uncork a “surprise.” All in all, he seems to radiate quiet confidence with no hint of arrogance or boastfulness.
One could gain the opposite impression of the mien of the Crown’s prosecutor, Claude Melangon, whose “styled” brush-cut hairdo and an often supercilious expression reflected a kind of effetely disdainful attitude. Melangon is taller by two or three inches than Chapdelaine, but that seemed to provide him no advantage.
Then there was the jury of eleven, five men and six women, mostly “simple” people—hardly an intellectual or sophisticate among them. Was this good? Probably. For they were likely to weigh matters with values and impressions untrammeled by too much “knowledge.” The age bracket went from the twenties to the sixties, or beyond. A few had perplexed, one or two even oafish, expressions; I focused on a woman with protruding eyes and wondered if she realized that she might hold the life of a man in her hands.
As the proceedings got under way, I found myself having to “cock my ears” to grasp all that was being said. Though I had been in the small French-speaking enclave of North America off and on for more than three months, I still had not fully adapted to the French-Canadian accent, which is difficult to describe to anyone who does not know standard French. There are unfamiliar diphthongs that have a weird ring: chaise (chair), for instance, comes out as “sha-ezz,” as if it were two syllables, instead of “shehzz” as in France. A Frenchman educated to speak standard American English—the kind spoken by radio or TV news announcers—would have the same difficulty in the Deep South, where a word such as the proper noun Anne is voiced as “Ahyenne.”
From the very outset, it might seem that not one but two trials were taking place or, more specifically, that the Crown prosecutor and his adversary were fighting, the one on a narrow fencing ground with an epee, against a single, and less skilled, opponent, the other in a vast arena with a mace, against a small legion of veteran soldiers.
In his opening remarks, Crown prosecutor Melangon set the tone of his case by making things as simple as possible. The main, and most serious, allegation on which he single-mindedly focused was Naessens’s supposedly false promise to cure completely a patient afflicted with breast cancer that had spread to her lymph system. By offering her treatment, unrecognized by medicine and unlicensed by health authorities, he had significantly contributed to her death and was, therefore, an accessory to what amounts to murder. Bluntly reducing the whole dire matter to a single sentence, Melangon intoned sternly: “What we shall prove is that Naessens lied, and knew he was lying.”
The hopefully fatal one-time thrust of the 6pee! Though judge, jury, and spectators would have to wait, interminably it seemed, for thirteen days of meandering, often highly technical, testimony by prosecution witnesses, a lot of it full of medical jargon and often seasoned with irrelevancies, to at last hear how the defense would counter it, we might as well, right at this point, offset the prosecutor’s simplistic case by summarizing what Chapdelaine was to put forward in his own opening remarks. “We shall try, as modestly as possible,” his tone was almost hushed, “to present to you the substance of our client’s whole oeuvre and make clear that that substance lies outside and beyond medicine as traditionally practiced. In so doing, we will also detail for you what he has accomplished over the years, how he has developed his research and interacted with people, and what have been his contributions to medicine and science.”
The hopefully decimating, whirling, mace!
A trial, the transcript of which runs to thousands of pages, is not easy to sum up in space as limited as that afforded in this book. Our task is to capture its essence, to cut fdm footage, taken over days, down to an incisive two-hour cinema drama.
Introducing the case for the prosecution was Luc Gregoire, a beefily handsome member of the Quebec Suiete, who, throughout the trial, sat at the prosecutor’s table to help him with his documentation. On 13 December 1984, Gregoire led a search of Naessens’s house and laboratory, accompanied by two “investigative commissioners” of the Medical Corporation, two other representatives of which sat sporadically in court throughout the trial, listening with dour faces to what witnesses, particularly those for the defense, had to say and, presumably, reporting it back to Augustin Roy. The search party was mainly looking for a pair of medical dossiers, the most important one of which was that of Madame Langlais, the patient to whose death Naessens had supposedly contributed. What they sought in her file was supportive material to back up an eight-page “Declaration” elicited from, and signed on 12 November 1984 by, her husband, Marcel, at the corporation’s instigation. It was to this document that the prosecutor repeatedly referred, so much so that I gained a strong impression that, had he not had access to it, his case would have been extremely “thin.”
Three assertions stood out in the declaration on which Melangon heavily relied to bolster his proof. The first was Langlais’s statement that “everyone addressed Naessens as ‘Doctor,’ and my wife and I took this title to mean ‘Doctor of Medicine,’ and, in particular, ‘cancer-specialist.'” At no time in his life has Naessens ever allowed himself to be called a “doctor”—in fact, he has taken pains to deny it whenever the term was used.
The second assertion to which Langlais put his signature was in the declaration’s wording: “He promised us that, after the first series of treatments, her cancer would be completely cured.” While, as the defense would make abundantly clear, Naessens at no time made such a promise to anyone, this statement, as we have seen, was used by the prosecution as a cornerstone in the edifice of its argument.
The third glaring assertion in Langlais’s submission to the Medical Corporation—whether willingly offered or extracted from him—was that, during the course of Madame Langlais’s treatment, “Naessens kept assuring us that she was making real progress.” The defense would ultimately convince the jury that this was an utter distortion of the truth.
The search party that raided Naessens’s house and laboratory was after bigger game than just the Langlais dossier, as evidenced by their seizure of some 150 additional medical files in Naessens’s possession. But because, to their sure dismay, they could find nothing incriminating in them, they were returned to Naessens a few months later.
Also seized were five vials containing the biologist’s 714-X product, each of them clearly labeled: “For Export: 5 ml. dose vial, 714-X, Camphorminium Chloride. For Intralymphatic Injection Only. Experimental Product for Sole Use by the Medical Corps. Experimental Center for Biological Research in the Eastern Townships, Inc., Rue Fontaine, Rock Forest, Quebec.”
The wording on the label is important if only to show that its precise meaning was distorted when, on 2 June 1989, only a week following Naessens’s arrest, Saute et Bien-Etre Canada (Health and Welfare, Canada, or HWC) issued an official bulletin: “Warning Concerning 714-X, A Fraudulent Anti-Cancer Therapeutic Product.” “The HWC’s Office for the Protection of Health,” the bulletin’s text began, “has today alerted the population to the fact that a product called 714-X, an injectable preparation, is offered as an anti- cancer treatment. Anyone who has procured this preparation is advised not to use it and to throw it out forthwith.” Going on to list what was printed on the label, HWC included only that part of it referring to: “714-X . . . Camphorminium Chloride . . . Intralymphatic Injection … Experimental Product… For Export,” but omitted the key phrase “for Sole Use by the Medical Corps.”
To this key “sin of omission,” the bulletin, in its eagerness to condemn a new product in the eyes of the medical community and the public at large, next added a “sin of commission”: “The selfadministration by injection, which is the method indicated on the label, presents grave risks.” How could Canadian officials, responsible for the health of all citizens, have intentionally informed them about a supposed method that nowhere appeared on the label itself? The answer to this question has, at this writing, not yet been clarified and, until it is, one may justifiably ask whether such officials did not grossly overstep their mandate in seeking to get rid of a product that might well be of enormous assistance to cancer patients.
And that was not the last distortion in the bulletin, which went on to read: “According to the laboratory analysis made by the Office for the Protection of Health, 714-X contains only camphor and not—as is written on the label— any camphorminium chloride.
There is no scientific proof of these chemical products, nor of their effectiveness, in cancer treatment. The Office, in collaboration with the Quebec Surete, is carrying out an investigation on the fraudulent sale and distribution of the product in question. All persons who have used any 714-X should receive appropriate medical care.”
Though Melangon would wait until the very last day of his presentation to introduce, as his last witness, the Office for the Protection of Health’s chemist, Michel Lefebvre, who said he had determined the chemical composition of 714-X, we shall take up the problem right at this point. This is because 714-X had, through willful distortion of the kind illustrated above, been falsely branded as “an aqueous solution tinged only with a trace of camphor,” or, worse still, “nothing but water,” and therefore of no therapeutic value whatsoever. *
Though Naessens had repeatedly been accused of inventing the name “camphorminium chloride” out of whole cloth as it were, the facts are otherwise. This name was given to the product not by its inventor, but by one of Montreal’s oldest and most respected patent firms, Robic et Robic (founded 1888), after one of that firm’s associates, Thierry Ohrlac, both a chemist and a patent lawyer, had completed investigative work on it with the cooperation, among others, of the United States Patent Office in Washington, D.C.
The key molecule in the preparation, both novel and complex, was synthesized to include nitrogen compounds that are crucial to its functioning.* * Together with the name assigned by the patent firm, the molecule’s chemical composition, as illustrated in a formula, was officially accepted on 16 February 1980 by the Canadian Patent Office, and thenceforth authorized, if not for domestic use, at least for export. So, far from being a “quack” product clandestinely circulated by a “charlatan,” it had won a status as defined by the above-cited governmental actions.
When the government chemist, Lefebvre, called as a prosecution witness, claimed that his analyses had revealed 714-X to be only an aqueous solution of camphor—”camphor and water’— his testimony was destroyed under cross-examination, during which he was forced to admit that, had he run other tests, he would indeed have found the important nitrogen-associated components.
*The false allegation went far beyond the frontiers of Canada. While in France, in the mid-1980s, I was present during a virtual TV “blitz” on prime time that focused on the Affaire Naessens, with the media’s accenting, with gleeful schadenfreude, news from Canada that Naessens was again in trouble with the law. I well remember how clips from the films he had made of the somatid cycle at the microscope were broadcast to the French nation while the commentator derisively announced that what viewers were watching were no more than “animated cartoons.” When I called a French Nobel Laureate in Microbiology, whom I had met at a conference in Pug-wash, New Brunswick, fifteen years before, to ask him what he thought might be the effective ingredients in Naessens’s product, he angrily replied, “C’est de l’eau. Monsieur, rien que de l’eau, vous m’entendez bien? C’est tout ce que j’ai a vous dire!” (It’s water, Monsieur, nothing but water, do you get me? That’s all I have to say to you!) And, with that, he hung up.
* *The nitrogen is carried to tumor cells so avid for the element they have been called “nitrogen traps.” By flooding the body with nitrogen and thus sating the cancerous cells, the same action also suppresses a secretion that, as Naessens discovered, paralyzes the immune system.
Precisely at noon on the first day of the trial, Judge Peloquin, who had been looking at his watch to get the timing exact, announced a lunch break, as he would on every succeeding day of the trial.
When court resumed session in the afternoon, Gregoire, under cross-examination by Chapdelaine, was asked whether he had gone back a second time to search the Naessenses’ premises in 1985 or 1986. His reply: “To my best recollection, I did not!” This answer seemed to establish for the jury that no thorough-going attempt had been made by the police organ either to inventory, or assess, all of the elaborate equipment in Naessens’s laboratory which, in turn, implied a total lack of interest in his research methods and technique