Atkins, Robert Coleman
Atkins, Robert Coleman
(b. 17 October 1930 in Columbus, Ohio; d. 17 April 2003 in New York City), nutritionist and cardiologist who became a medical renegade with his highly influential and controversial high-protein, low-carbohydrate approach to weight loss, which he spent thirty years trying to get the medical establishment to condone.
An only child, Atkins was the son of Eugene and Norma (Tuckerman) Atkins, both of Russian Jewish descent. His father earned money peddling candy, while his mother stayed busy keeping a kosher home and doing secretarial work when money was tight. As a youngster Atkins often accompanied his father on business and boosted sales by entertaining customers with dead-on impersonations of his salesman father. In 1941 the family relocated to Dayton, Ohio, where Eugene Atkins opened a bar called the Four Aces.
Though Atkins was a model student, he did not meld with peers—a mild anti-Semitic attitude prevailed in Dayton at the time. He also skipped a grade and further alienated himself because of his self-confidence, which many took for arrogance. Atkins, however, was undeniably smart. During his senior year at Fairview High School he placed second out of 8,500 students on a state-sponsored scholarship test.
Despite his intelligence Atkins knew many prestigious schools would not accept a Jewish student, so he did not bother to apply. In 1947 Atkins entered the pre-medicine program at the University of Michigan and joined the Jewish fraternity Zeta Beta Tau. Atkins, with a natural gift for delivering impersonations and punch lines, became a campus icon for entertaining guests at parties. He graduated in 1951 and spent the summer as a comic waiter in the Catskills, drawing so much attention that a talent scout offered him a contract, which he turned down.
Atkins graduated from the Cornell University Medical School in 1955 and completed his residency in cardiology in 1959. At this time Atkins showed the first hint of his renegade tendencies. When starting their careers, most other young doctors went into research or joined a hospital staff in order to network before trying to open their own practice. Not Atkins; he forged ahead and opened his own practice in New York City, which got off to a slow start. To ensure a steady income, Atkins worked nights taking calls for established cardiologists. He also took jobs with corporations that paid him to watch over the health of their top-tier executives.
While this entrepreneurial spirit helped pay the bills, Atkins was dissatisfied because he wanted more ongoing patient contact. At night when people suffered heart attacks, Atkins saved their lives only to watch them return to their regular physicians in the morning. His career was not going as planned.
In November 1963 Atkins found another reason to be gloomy—he had become seriously overweight. Atkins had graduated high school weighing 135 pounds but now tipped the scale at 225. He decided to go on a diet but felt miserable as hunger pangs gnawed at him. Atkins, who spent his spare time burning through stacks of medical journals and studies, began focusing his attention on diets. He read a study that showed that people who fasted began to lose weight after about a day because their bodies went into ketosis, a state in which the body burns stored fat because the system lacks carbohydrates. He also read a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that showed ketosis could be initiated by eating a diet of protein and fat with no carbohydrates.
Using this knowledge, Atkins began eating a low-carb diet and lost twenty-eight pounds in six weeks. He was astounded that he could lose weight without feeling hungry and decided to change his focus from cardiology to weight loss. Atkins liked to read studies but preferred to learn through observation, so he put sixty-five AT&T executives on the low-carb diet. Of those, sixty-four reached their target weight. Soon, AT&T secretaries and linemen were clamoring to get on the diet. Patients flooded Atkins’s office as word spread about his weird-but-winning diet. The waiting-room time spent to see him reached two hours and still patients came, even though Atkins treated them like a drill sergeant, berating them if they strayed from his diet. Patients often left his office in tears.
Atkins was known as a womanizer and dated his own nurses. In his spare time he watched Star Trek, rarely missing an episode. He also liked art; his collection included abstracts as well as works by impressionists and cubists and pieces by Reginald Marsh and Thomas Hart Benton. He also kept a fuzzy, drooling English sheepdog at his side.
Atkins garnered national attention in the mid-1960s when comedians Buddy Hackett and Kaye Ballard appeared on The Tonight Show in much slimmer form and mentioned the Atkins plan. In time Harper’s Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, Mademoiselle, Vogue, and Fortune all ran stories about the diet. A book contract followed, and Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution was published in 1972. The publisher persuaded Atkins to target the average reader instead of the medical community. As such, Atkins left out citations, footnotes, and a bibliography. The book was highly successful, selling nearly a million copies in four months. However, by leaving out scientific documentation to back up his thesis, Atkins laid himself open for a lengthy and ferocious battle with the medical community.
After the book was published, the American Medical Association (AMA) denounced his diet plan and dismissed his ideas. This infuriated Atkins, who believed the AMA was ignoring its own previously published studies proving that the low-carb diet worked. Atkins was called to testify before Congress in a hearing on fad diets and was ridiculed for going against the prevailing low-fat dogma of the day. At the time most doctors believed that if you ate fat, you would get fat. To them, the Atkins plan seemed an impossible way to lose weight.
By the 1980s the Atkins revolution was all but over as the U.S. government urged citizens to eat a low-fat diet. Atkins tempered his disappointment by focusing on his practice and taking on patients with chronic illnesses like multiple sclerosis, cancer, HIV, chronic fatigue, and arthritis. He also began exploring alternative medicine and supplements.
While most of his colleagues practiced evidence-based medicine, Atkins liked experimental medicine, preferring to find out for himself what would work. He tried intravenous injections of ozone for cancer patients, which he had read European doctors were using. Seeking alternative treatments fit with Atkins’s medical philosophy. “People are told they need surgery, and it’s my job to reverse the illness without requiring surgery,” he once said. He went on to blame “high-tech, expensive intervention” as the cause of “most of the problems health care has inherited.”
While outsiders considered Atkins a quack, his patients considered him a superior doctor with good clinical instincts. One patient came to Atkins so weak he could barely walk. The man had seen numerous physicians, a podiatrist, and chiropractors. Atkins gave him a glucose tolerance test and found his potassium was low. After ten days of supplements the man was back to walking several miles a day.
By 1984 Atkins had renamed his practice the Atkins Center for Complementary Medicine and hoped it would rival the Mayo Clinic as a hub for alternative medicine. Atkins envisioned a center with acupuncturists, herbalists, and chiropractors working in conjunction with each other. In 1988 he published Dr. Atkins’ Health Revolution, which focused on complementary medicine. That same year he married Veronica Luckey, the ex-wife of a former medical school dean.
Atkins’s low-carb diet rebounded around 1996 after the chairman of the Harvard School of Public Health acknowledged that Americans, told to eat carbohydrates, were getting fatter. He said there was some truth to the Atkins diet. Doctors began putting patients on the diet, and several studies finally validated the science behind the diet.
By 2002 Atkins was finally getting the recognition he had sought for decades. An eight-thousand-word New York Times Magazine article described the failure of low-fat diets, complete with scientific evidence, and claimed Atkins might be right. The American Heart Association invited Atkins to speak, and Barbara Walters named him one of the ten most fascinating people of the year.
Atkins suffered a heart attack on 18 April 2002, which he attributed to an infection. He recovered and continued seeing a full load of patients. A year later, on 8 April 2003, he fell in front of the Atkins Center and was rushed to New York Weill–Cornell Medical Center, where doctors removed a blood clot from his brain. He remained in a coma on life support, dying on April 17. His body was immediately cremated, touching off a war between the Atkins people and the anti-Atkins faction, who argued over the meaning of his death. The anti-Atkins faction insisted that his death resulted from heart disease triggered by overconsumption of animal proteins and unhealthy fat as called for by his diet. In early 2004 a copy of Atkins’s death certificate and the report from the medical examiner were leaked to the media. The report mentioned heart disease, but the pro-Atkins people insisted his heart ailments were hereditary and not caused by his diet.
Despite the ongoing debate over the long-term effects of the diet, his philosophy altered the entire food market from grocery stores to restaurant menus, as Americans jumped on the low-carb bandwagon in the early 2000s hoping to shed a few pounds. In 2005 Atkins received more vindication when the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its revised “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005” and modified the carb-laden food pyramid adopted in 1992. The new guidelines recognized that all fats are not bad and that all complex carbohydrates are not good. Atkins was clearly a true pioneer of modern nutrition, and his ideas continue to spark dialogue and study.
Lisa Rogak, Dr. Robert Atkins: The True Story of the Man Behind the War on Carbohydrates (2005), is the most complete source of biographical information available. Other helpful resources include William Leith and Catrin Rogers, “The Diet Doctor,” the Observer (9 Feb. 2003); Sonia Reyes, “Marketers of the Year: Dr. Robert Atkins,” Brandweek (20 Oct. 2003); and Steve Fishman, “The Diet Martyr,” New York magazine (15 Mar. 2004). Obituaries are in the Seattle Times (18 Apr. 2003) and (London) Independent (19 Apr. 2003).