Harry M. Hoxsey, controversial medical charlatan, naturopath, and oilman, the son of John C. and Martha (Bentley) Hoxsey, was born near Auburn, Illinois, on October 23, 1901. The youngest of twelve children, at an early age he began assisting his father, the owner of a livery stable and a veterinary surgeon (licensed under the grandfather clause of the Illinois Medical Practice Act of 1877). At the age of fifteen he quit school and began work as a coal miner, later selling insurance and working at other jobs. He completed a high school correspondence course by studying at night for three years.
According to Hoxsey's autobiography, You Don't Have to Die (1956), his family's healing saga began in 1840 when Illinois horse breeder John Hoxsey, his great-grandfather, watched a favorite stallion recover from a cancerous lesion on his leg. Put out to pasture to die, the horse grazed repeatedly on a clump of shrubs and flowering plants and healed itself. Experimenting on samples of these plants, John Hoxsey concocted an herbal liquid, a salve, and a powder. He used these medications to treat cancer, fistula, and sores in horses with such success that breeders brought their prize animals from as far away as Indiana and Kentucky. The herbal formulas were handed down within the family, and Harry's father, John, a veterinary surgeon, began surreptitiously treating human cancer patients. From the age of eight, Harry served as his father's trusted assistant, and his autobiography describes several individuals in whose treatment he assisted. His autobiography includes a dramatic account of Harry Hoxsey, at age seventeen, receiving the formula from his father when the latter was on his deathbed, with the admonition, "Now you have the power to heal the sick and save lives."
However, there is reason to question the family tradition about the genesis of the Hoxsey cancer treatment. The herbs in the Hoxsey formula were licorice, red clover, burdock root, Stillingia root, barberry, Cascara, prickly ash bark, and buckthorn bark; a similar formula was listed in the United States National Formulary, 5th edition (1926) and 6th edition (1936) as an official remedy. Known as "Compound Fluid Extract of Trifolium," this concoction was first described in 1898 in the King's American Dispensatory.
With no medical training, Hoxsey first opened a clinic in Taylorville, Illinois, in 1924, but numerous arrests for practicing medicine without a license, as well as hostile encounters with the American Medical Association (AMA) led him to move to Dallas. On March 9, 1936, he opened a cancer clinic in the Spann Sanatorium on Gaston Avenue. He soon established a clinic downtown at Bryan and Peak streets. But he had not left controversy behind. By his own estimate, between 1937 and 1939 he faced over one hundred charges of practicing medicine without a license. He avoided jail time by paying fines and appealing decisions. Finding themselves unable to shut him down, in the 1940s the Dallas district attorney's office stopped bringing cases against him. However, the AMA continued to attack Hoxsey in print, and in 1949, he sued the Hearst publications, the AMA, and Morris Fishbein, editor-in-chief of Journal of the American Medical Association, for libel and slander because of negative articles. When the case went to trial in 1952, the judge allowed a large number of Hoxsey's patients to give testimonials and found in his favor, awarding him only a token amount.
During the mid-1950s Hoxsey and his cancer treatment continued to be controversial, but he expanded his operation to fourteen clinics in seventeen states. He followed the example of Dr. John Brinkley in advertising extensively on powerful "border radio" stations in Mexico that were not subject to regulation by United States government agencies. In addition to promoting his herbal cancer therapy, on some of these broadcasts he hawked "bonded eggs," produced by chickens treated with his cancer cure to insure that they were entirely virus-free.
Throughout the post-World War II period he prospered, making significant investments in the oil business and becoming known in Dallas as a friend of prominent Dallas political conservatives. In 1956 the tide turned against him when the Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of the Hoxsey herbal treatment in the United States and posted warnings about it in post offices across the country. Within the next few years, Hoxsey was forced to close all of the clinics, with the one in Dallas remaining open until 1960. In 1963 Mildred Nelson, one of Hoxsey's nurses, set up a clinic in Tijuana, Mexico, that offered the Hoxsey treatment. Hoxsey chose to stay in Dallas and devote his attention to the oil business. In 1967 he developed prostate cancer and spent his last seven years as an invalid, dying in isolation, nearly forgotten. He was buried in late December 1974 without any obituary or tribute in the Dallas newspapers.