This Week in History: 1956 — A Socred MLA touts a quack cure for cancer

Lydia Arsens was also opposed to the pasteurization of milk and the fluoridation of water.

Social Credit MLA Lydia Arsens was constantly drawing headlines in the 1950s with her controversial advocacy for the Hoxsey cancer cure, which was widely denounced as quackery and banned by the U.S. government in 1960. Here are some of The Vancouver Sun and The Province stories featuring Mrs. Arsens, along with a society photo of her at a ball. PNG

There were 47 men elected in the 1953 B.C. election, but only one woman.

Lydia Arsens would only serve one term as an MLA before being defeated in 1956. But in her three years in the legislature she grabbed more headlines than many cabinet ministers.

Arsens had a knack for taking controversial positions, which the Victoria Daily Times dubbed “Arsenisms.”

She was passionately opposed to the pasteurization of milk and the fluoridation of water. But the biggest Arsenism was her support for Harry Hoxsey’s “natural” cancer treatment, which used herbs instead of traditional methods.

On Feb. 22, 1956, she had the legislature in an uproar when she brought it up in the House.

“With tears in her eyes and her voice breaking, Mrs. Arsens called on Health and Welfare Minister Eric Martin to set aside $1,000,000 for an educational program to inform people of the ‘known cure for cancer,’ ” The Vancouver Sun reported.

“Mrs. Arsens sharply criticized the ‘orthodox medical profession’ and said that chiropractors, naturopaths and osteopaths were ‘contributing far more than orthodox medicine’ to treating cancer. She added, ‘That is an established fact.’ ”

The medical profession disagreed.

“British Columbia doctors charged that Lydia Arsens’ cancer-cure preachings in the B.C. legislature could cause death,” said a second Sun story. “They charged Arsens, with the support of British Columbia Health Minister Eric Martin, is using the legislature to sound off on her ‘silly’ theories of cures for cancer, tooth decay, arthritis, polio, multiple sclerosis and other serious ailments.”

The MLA for Nanaimo was a doctor, and was furious.

“She doesn’t know a damn thing,” said Dr. Larry Giovando, adding that Arsens’ statement could drive “a lot of desperate people who would try anything” to quacks.

Former Social Credit MLA Lydia Arsens in the 1950s. PNG

Province columnist Jean Howarth found the controversy fascinating.

“Mrs. Arsens uses none of the mental processes beloved by politicians,” Howarth wrote. “With a graceful sweep of the hand she brushed aside the accumulated scientific wisdom of the ages. She and her womanly intuition, she gently indicates, are a match for Pasteur, Fleming, Banting and the entire B.C. Medical Association.”

Howarth found it “terribly funny” that the Socreds were stuck with Arsens and her theories.

“You can practically see the government biting its nails,” she wrote. “She belongs to the government. They can look elsewhere when she is speaking, they can shuffle their feet and rustle their papers. But she is theirs. They’re stuck.

“Are they for Pasteur and company? Or are they for Lydia? That’s what it boils down to.”

In fact, Arsens probably had deeper Social Credit roots than her colleagues.

Growing up in Alberta, her high school principal was William Aberhart, the founder of the Social Credit party in Canada. Known as “Bible Bill” because of his fundamentalist Christian views, he was elected Alberta’s premier in 1935.

Arsens was born Lydia Lammie in Didsbury, Alta., in 1906. She grew up on a farm in a family with 10 kids, where they all learned to do their share of cooking, sewing, washing and mending.

“My mother had the old idea that cleanliness was next to Godliness,” she told The Victoria Daily Times on July 14, 1953. “I can still hear her say, ‘A hole is a disgrace, but a patch is a badge of honour.’ ”

Social Credit MLA Lydia Arsens, right, with cabinet ministers’ wives Mrs. Wesley Black, left, and Mrs. Robert Bonner at a social event in 1955. PNG

She was a teacher in Alberta, but when she moved to Vancouver in 1934 she decided to open a confectionary store and doughnut shop. But it was tough going in the Depression, and she went to work at The Bay until she met and married James Arsens in 1942.

The couple opened a restaurant in Victoria, and in 1951 Lydia got involved with the B.C. wing of Social Credit. The Socreds surprised everyone by coming out of nowhere to form a minority government in the 1952 election and then won a majority in 1953, with Arsens winning a seat in Victoria.

Arsens was defeated by 500 votes in the 1956 election. But she was back in the headlines on July 19, 1957, when she criticized a B.C. government plan to send a University of B.C. team led by Dr. James Mather to investigate the Hoxsey cancer clinic in Texas.

On Jan. 28, 1958, the UBC team issued its report, which called the Hoxsey cancer treatment “useless and dangerous.” Two years later, the Hoxsey treatment was banned in the U.S.

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A March 6, 1954, Province photo of three kids ‘smoking’ candy cigarettes, which Social Credit MLA Lydia Arsens wanted to ban. PNG




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