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Atkins, Robertlocked

(17 October 1930–17 April 2003)
  • Dennis Wepman

Atkins, Robert (17 October 1930–17 April 2003), physician and diet specialist, was born Robert Coleman Atkins in Columbus, Ohio, the son of Eugene Atkins, a confectioner who later owned a bar and cigar store, and Norma Tuckerman. The great-grandson of Russian-Jewish immigrants on both sides, Atkins grew up in Dayton, Ohio, to which his family moved in 1941. He shared his mother's social ambitions and taste for fine art. A diligent student, he came in second in a statewide scholarship test in 1947. That year he enrolled as a premedical student at the University of Michigan where, in his sophomore year, he was elected to the honor society Phi Beta Kappa. He graduated in 1951, spent the summer as a waiter and stand-up comic at a resort in the Catskills, and went on to enroll in Cornell University Medical College in New York City, from which he received an M.D. in 1955. Atkins served residencies in cardiology at the University of Rochester's Strong Memorial Hospital and Columbia University's St. Luke's Hospital in New York City, and in 1960 he opened a private office in Manhattan.

In 1963, while struggling to build a practice, Atkins realized that he had become seriously overweight, having ballooned from 135 to 225 pounds since high school. In November he began a series of conventional weight-loss diets but found that these low-fat, high-carbohydrate plans all left him too hungry. He researched the literature and concluded that a diet high in protein and fat and low in carbohydrates would be both effective and easy to follow. Abstaining from bread, potatoes, and pasta, and eating as much meat, eggs, seafood, and butter as he wanted, he lost twenty-eight pounds in six weeks without ever feeling hungry. He began recommending such a diet to his overweight patients, restricting their consumption of carbohydrates to 40–50 grams a day. A test he organized for sixty-five executives at AT&T proved highly successful, and soon the telephone company's secretaries, operators, and linemen took the diet up. Atkins's private practice began to thrive.

His career took a sharp turn upward as celebrity patients began to report their success with his diet. In 1965 Atkins appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and articles on his diet plan appeared in such fashionable magazines as Harper's Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, Mademoiselle, and Fortune. An enthusiastic article published in Vogue in 1970 popularized it as “the Vogue diet” and created a national sensation. In the fall of 1972 he published Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution to instantaneous and spectacular success. Written in a lively, informal style, it immediately reached the top of the New York Times bestseller list, on which it remained for five years. By January 1973 it was selling more than one hundred thousand copies a week; at the time of the author's death, various editions of the book had sold more than 15 million copies.

From the beginning, however, Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution met with a generally hostile reaction from the medical establishment. In March 1973 the Medical Society of the County of New York condemned the book, and the same week the American Medical Association joined the attack. Nutritionists claimed that a diet so high in fat and so low in antioxidants could result in heart disease, brittle bones, damaged muscles, kidney stones, and liver problems. Atkins defended himself vigorously in the press and became known for his authoritarian, and sometimes confrontational, manner. “These are your orders,” he famously ordered his patients. “You are commanded to follow the diet” (Rapoport, p. 189).

In the early 1980s Atkins changed the focus of his practice. In 1981 he published Dr. Atkins’ Nutrition Breakthrough, outlining a series of nutritional therapies for a wide range of disorders beside excessive weight, and in 1984 he officially named his practice in New York City the Atkins Center for Complementary Medicine, offering both orthodox and alternative methods of treatment. That year he married Russian-born Veronica Luckey, the former wife of Dr. E. Hugh Luckey, dean of the Cornell Medical Center; the couple had no children. His next book Dr. Atkins’ Health Revolution (1988) further expanded his range of subjects, addressing all aspects of health. It incorporated many alternative therapeutic methods, including traditional folk remedies such as herbal medicine as well as such controversial procedures as acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy, chelation, and ozone therapy.

A strong influence on Atkins at this time was Carlton Fredericks, a popular promoter of health foods and nutritional supplements, who had hosted a nationally syndicated nightly radio show called Design for Living on WOR in New York since 1957. Although Fredericks had no training in either nutrition or medicine, Atkins was deeply impressed by his work and appeared often on the show. He took the program over when Fredericks died in 1987, renaming it Your Health Choices, and maintained it for the rest of his life. In 1988 he dedicated Dr. Atkins’ Health Revolution to Fredericks, identifying him as “my mentor and the mentor of many of the great minds in Complementary Medicine.”

Although devoted to his private practice, Dr. Atkins became increasingly entrepreneurial in the 1980s. In 1989 he established Complementary Formulations (renamed Atkins Nutritionals, Inc., in 1998) to sell a wide variety of food supplements by mail. The corporation's catalog offered nearly fifty products including pills, liquids, mixes, shakes, candy bars, and pasta. Himself a regular user of these products, the author reported in his last book, Atkins for Life (posthumously published in 2003), that he took sixty nutritional supplements daily.

To the end of his life Atkins continued to publish, with uniform success. He wrote or cowrote a total of seventeen books, three of them cookbooks. In 1992 he published Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution, an expanded version of his 1972 bestseller. Like its predecessor, it topped the New York Times list, and a second update did so again ten years later. By the time of his death, it was estimated that his books had sold a total of more than 25 million copies worldwide.

But as popular as Atkins was with the general public, he remained a controversial figure in the profession. He was successfully sued several times for making unsubstantiated claims for alternative treatments in his practice, and in 1993 his medical license was briefly suspended for his use of ozone therapy as a cancer treatment. He was not without support in the medical profession, however. Various independent tests conducted during the late 1990s were reported to confirm both the efficacy and the safety of his diet plan, and the studies were repeated in 2001 with the same results. In 1999 he launched the Dr. Robert C. Atkins Foundation to support and fund research and education on the benefits of a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet in the treatment and prevention of many illnesses.

In 2002 Atkins went into cardiac arrest at a business meeting. His critics seized on the event as a challenge to his nutritional theories, but he denied that his heart attack had any relation to diet, explaining that it was caused by an infection. The next year he died from a concussion after falling on ice outside his office in New York City. Again controversy followed; newspapers reported that he was grossly overweight at the time of his death, and some contended that his fall was the result of a heart attack caused by his high-fat diet. These claims were fiercely denied by both his staff and his widow, who refused to allow an autopsy. Although mainstream physicians remained divided, Atkins's impact on popular understanding of nutrition and the degree to which he revolutionized the way the public thinks about food are illustrated by the growing popularity of complementary medicine and by what has come to be known as the “low-carb explosion” in the early twenty-first century.

Bibliography

A full-length examination of Dr. Atkins's life and work is Lisa Rogak, Dr. Robert Atkins: The True Story of the Man Behind the War on Carbohydrates (2005). For discussions of his career and theories see Roger Rapoport, The Super-Doctors (1975), and Kurt Greenberg, Challenging Orthodoxy: America's Top Preventives Speak Out!: Interviews with Robert C. Atkins et al. (1991). His numerous diet books were widely reviewed in both the popular press and medical journals. Obituaries are in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and London Times, 18 Apr. 2003, and the Telegraph, 19 Apr. 2003.