Jerome Rodale and the Founding of Prevention Magazine

“When you don’t need a doctor, you really don’t need one.”—Aaron Haspel, Everything (2015)

cover (17)When Jerome Rodale began publishing Prevention magazine in June 1950, the United States was a society largely governed by experts. The professions had grown from humble beginnings in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries into formidable institutions that commanded respect and even a certain amount of awe. The anti-elitist Jacksonian tradition, so central to earlier periods, was largely dormant in the first two decades of the post-war era. Muckraking was, likewise, a rather marginal journalistic genre during this period. For the most part, Americans had faith in their experts. Although much of what these experts did happened behind closed doors, few seemed to mind. These highly-trained men and women could be trusted to do the right thing and work towards the common good. Most Americans believed, as the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration put it in 1947, “that most manufacturers make sincere efforts to meet all legal requirements not only because they are the law of the land, but because it is the right thing to do.”

A series of public scandals tested America’s faith in its experts during the 1960s and 1970s. Watergate and the government’s mismanagement of the Vietnam War are only the most memorable episodes. The crisis in authority was widespread and affected multiple facets of expert culture from politics to science, but its effects upon regulatory agencies, health professionals, and food scientists are of particular interest. First, there were the cancers caused by thymus irradiation. Then the estimated five million pregnant women who—acting on their physicians’ advice—took the synthetic hormone diethylstilbestrol (DES) to avert miscarriage and preterm labor, only to discover later on that it severely deformed the reproductive organs of their unborn children. Then there was the swine flu fiasco and the sulfa drugs that gave people kidney stones. There was also the milk formula that was supposed to be better than mother’s milk, but which contained so little vitamin B6 that it caused convulsions and brain damage. Headline after headline suggested that perhaps the experts entrusted with the health of the American people were not doing a very good job. What if the experts meant well but did not really know what they were doing? Or worse: What if the experts did not mean well at all? What if they could not be trusted to work towards the common good? What if the experts were in fact in league with special interests whose aims were at cross-purposes with the public good? In the 1962 bestseller Silent Spring, Rachel Carson argued that government scientists entrusted with the public welfare were shirking their responsibilities and allowing private interests to poison the earth and sky. The book sparked a vitriolic debate over the merits and demerits of the widespread use of agricultural chemicals.

The controversy surrounding Carson’s Silent Spring launched two of the most influential, and most uniformly white middle-class movements of the late twentieth century: the environmental movement and the natural health movement. There were precursors, of course. For instance, Jerome Rodale—who actually coined the term organic in 1942 —made the same argument and raised all of the same concerns about pesticides and herbicides in his organic farming classics, Pay Dirt (1945) and The Organic Front (1948), which were both published long before Silent Spring (1962). Rodale reiterated the same concerns throughout the 1940s in Organic Farming magazine and its successor, Organic Gardening and Farming. In the 1950s and early 1960s, he hammered away at the same themes in numerous books, and in his health magazine, Prevention. Even so, for the most part, Rodale’s message had fallen on ears still attuned to the authority of experts. His ideas, as well as his publications, existed at the fringes of mainstream American society.

Rodale was nevertheless well placed after 1962 to focus the public outrage unleashed by Silent Spring. Carson lacked the will and the means to institutionalize her dissent. Moreover, she died of cancer less than two years after the publication of Silent Spring. Rodale, on the other hand, was in good health and had already amassed a small fortune, the result of several successful entrepreneurial ventures. He had two established monthly magazines as well as a publishing house, Rodale Press, which allowed him to get his message out to the health-conscious subculture on a regular basis. Prevention magazine was where all sorts of unorthodox health writers vetted their new ideas and wrote monthly columns that paid the bills; Rodale Press—located in Emmaus, Pennsylvania—also published many of their books when no one else would touch them. When an influential member of the natural health movement wanted to get out a message to the health conscious, he or she did it in Prevention. While Rachel Carson must therefore be credited with initiating the public debate that transformed the concerns of a quirky subculture into the ideology of a movement, it is Jerome Rodale, more than anyone else, who created and maintained the institutions that grew the natural health movement from a passing fad into a political and cultural force to be reckoned with.

Along with an institutional framework, Jerome Rodale possessed an aversion to expert culture that made him particularly attractive to a significant segment of the American population that was growing skeptical of expert opinion. Unlike so many health gurus past and present, he did not buy a mail order PhD, nor did he pretend to have any kind of specialized training in the science of nutrition. Adolphus Hohensee and Carlton Fredericks were not nearly as scrupulous. Hohensee, a health reformer whose popularity peaked in the late 1940s and early 1950s, described himself as a PhD in nutrition. He did have a doctorate. But it was worthless in the eyes of his would-be colleagues, for he had purchased it from a shady, unaccredited institution.

Carlton Fredericks, famous for his syndicated radio show “Good Health,” also pretended to have specialized training in nutrition, but he did so in a way that must have pleased his lawyer. Fredericks reinvented himself as a nutritionist soon after he legally discarded the name he was born with (Harold Frederick Caplan). A prolific writer of articles and books from the early 1950s until his death in 1987, Fredericks made a point of putting a PhD after his name. He studiously failed, though, to specify the discipline within which he had completed his graduate work. He wrote on nutrition extensively—and described himself as “a nutritionist” —so his readers assumed that he was a professionally trained nutritionist. This was not the case. His formal training was neither in medicine nor nutrition, but rather communications.

Jerome Rodale never felt it necessary to engage in this kind of duplicity. He did, like Fredericks, change his name (he was born Jerome Irving Cohen). But this was not an uncommon thing for an American Jew to do in the first half of the twentieth century. Aside from the name, Rodale was who he said he was. He flaunted his lack of formal education. His charm lay precisely in his down-to-earth persona. He was the little guy who made up for his lack of degrees with an extra helping of commonsense; a feisty, unpolished, five-foot-six-and-a-half-inch tall New York City Jew who refused to go on blindly trusting an Anglo-Protestant establishment that seemed to be doing such a terrible job. The emperor had no clothes, and he was going to shout it from the rooftops.

What Rodale abhorred, more than anything else, was language that was deliberately and unnecessarily abstruse, language that was intended to exclude the uninitiated. In his books and magazine articles, he often did little more than translate the specialized discourse of science journals into lay terms. He informed his readers about the results of medical experiments that had demonstrated, he believed, the harm done to the human body by certain chemicals or the good done by certain vitamins and minerals. His work is replete with references to prestigious medical journals. To a certain extent, therefore, he was a popularizer—that worst kind of heretic who dares to translate a profession’s jealously guarded esoteric knowledge into plain speech. “The scientist,” argued Rodale, “sits in his ivory tower”—and “invests himself in a phony cloak of omniscient authority.” He expects to be trusted implicitly and left alone. But health was far too important a topic to be left to the experts, especially when so many of those experts were being funded directly or indirectly by the food and drug industries; industries that Rodale believed did not have the public good in mind. “Matters have been in the hands of the scientific specialists long enough,” Rodale once wrote, “it is time for the public to take a vigorous hand in what is going on in science, or it will have to pay in the form of living shorter and less enjoyable lives.”

Before Prevention magazine arrived on the scene in 1950, the leading health magazine in the United States had only 10,000 subscribers. But Prevention’s first edition went out to 50,000 paid subscribers, making it—from its inception to the present day—by far the most widely read health magazine in America. Ever the astute businessman, Jerome Rodale had been drumming up support for his new venture months in advance. Subscriptions rose steadily in the 1950s and 1960s, reaching just over 400,000 in late 1969. The pace picked up considerably in the early 1970s. Between January 1970 and March 1971, subscriptions doubled to 800,000; by July of that same year, they had cleared the one million mark. Four years later, in 1975, subscription numbers had grown to one and a half million, and the magazine was being read by over four and a half million Americans a month. By decade’s end, in 1980, Prevention was going out to well over two million people a month, with an estimated readership of at least six million. Ten years later, in 1990, it had just over three million paid subscribers and a readership of close to eight million. In 2008, Prevention was reaching more than ten million readers a month, making it the eleventh largest magazine in the United States, and, by a significant margin, the country’s top health title. Furthermore, Prevention became the most widely read health magazine in the world, with editions in dozens of countries, including Finland, Poland, and twenty-two Latin American nations.

The dramatic upsurge in Prevention’s circulation numbers during the early 1970s corresponds remarkably well with a striking increase in public support for the natural health movement’s ideas, industries, and institutions. The demand for wheat germ, vitamin E (extracted from wheat germ oil), sunflower seeds, pumpkins seeds, ascorbic acid (the synthetic form of vitamin C), fish livers (a source of vitamin A), and other health-food products, had grown so large by the early 1970s that it often outstripped supply. Likewise, more and more Americans joined health clubs during this period, engaged in regular exercise, and worried about pesticides, herbicides, and food additives. With the natural health movement, the anti-nuclear movement and, to a lesser extent, the environmental movement, Americans began to put together new kinds of social movements, ones with weak or fragmented institutional structures and enormous diversity, but held together by a few fundamental principles, a connection to personal lifestyle, and a skillful use of the means of communication.

No one understood the historical significance of what was happening in the early 1970s more than the natural health movement’s two most vocal and vociferous critics, Harvard nutritionists Fredrick John Stare and Elizabeth Whelan. Assessing the situation in 1975, they wrote: “There was nothing gradual about the arrival of the modern health food movement. It struck like lightning during the early part of 1970.” Whelan and Stare correctly acknowledged that most of the movement’s central tenets had been kicking around at the margins of American culture for well over a hundred years—at least as far back as that moment in 1833 when the first Graham Boardinghouse was established in New York City. They quickly added, however, that Sylvester Graham and all the unorthodox health reformers that followed him—from John Harvey Kellogg and Bernarr Macfadden to DeForest Clinton Jarvis—“catered to the emotional needs of a relatively small portion of American eaters” and had little effect on mainstream American attitudes toward food, health, and disease. The difference was a matter of scale not novelty. Whelan and Stare adroitly noted that the health enthusiasms of the 1970s differed from those that preceded them precisely because they could no longer be accurately described as a passing fad; they were “becoming the material of a movement.” As they put it: “reasonably normal people”—“not just young, long-haired radical members of the lunatic fringe”—were shopping at health-food stores and reporting that they received “most of their nutritional information from Adelle Davis and the Rodale Press.”

The Rodales benefited greatly from the expansion of the natural health movement. And as the family fortune grew, so did their power and influence within the movement as a whole. Advertising in Prevention magazine became a necessity for any business that wanted to help meet the multimillion-dollar demand for vitamins and other food supplements. The magazine’s position as more or less the only game in town allowed the Rodales to keep the price of advertising high. In 1974, a one-page advertisement in Prevention cost between five and six thousand dollars, a great deal of money for a publication of its size. Ten years later, in 1984, a full-page black-and-white advertisement cost $15,047; the same page in color went for $26,550, while the highly visible back page cost $34,500. Advertisers clearly believed that they were getting a good return on their investment, for each edition of Prevention contained between sixty and one hundred pages of advertising out of a total of about two hundred pages. Prevention’s power and influence permitted its publisher, Robert Rodale, to command these handsome sums; it also allowed the magazine’s editors to keep its advertisers on a short leash, policing content in ways that would have made advertisers in other industries cringe in horror.

Getting on the wrong side of the editorial staff of Prevention magazine was tantamount to financial suicide for a vitamin manufacturer. Thus, while other magazines coddled their advertisers—removing offensive articles, firing offensive writers—Prevention magazine could (and did) dictate strict guidelines, to which its advertisers were obliged to adhere. Each month the editors ran a page-long column that piously discussed their exacting advertising policy. Rodale Press even went so far as to hire a private laboratory to spot check the products advertised in Prevention and ensure their strength and purity. Any advertiser found wanting was banned from advertising in Prevention. This stern approach towards advertisers reflects the character of the magazine’s founder.

Jerome Rodale was enthusiastic, quick-tempered and impulsive, and he was anything but careful and measured in his writings. Beyond the class and cultural motives that fueled Rodale’s assault on expert authority was a more visceral fear of death by heart attack. As the youngest child in a family with a serious propensity toward heart disease, he stood by and watched cardiac arrest kill most of his immediate family at relatively young ages. For obvious reasons this experience informed much of his obsession with health and wellness. Rodale claimed to live according to a rigorous regimen that included healthy organic food and plenty of exercise—and for the most part, he probably did. Nevertheless, it is hard to believe that he was quite as virtuous as he claimed to be. Photographs of him taken throughout his life suggest that his adherence to the Spartan ideal was spotty and subject to a fair amount of backsliding. He was not always the picture of health. Pudgy often, and sometimes downright overweight, Jerome Rodale had a prominent double chin, which was hidden from late middle age on by his signature goatee. An awareness of his own weakness and susceptibility to temptation could, perhaps, have been precisely what fueled Rodale’s apostolic fury. Regardless, while he was at the helm, a sense of urgency and anger pervaded Prevention magazine. This changed noticeably when his son Robert took over in 1971. Prevention became more respectable.

Robert Rodale was dignified, cautious, and reserved. He lacked his father’s mercurial temperament and short stature. At five-feet-eleven-inches tall, he stood nearly half a foot taller than his father. Robert was more moderate and more inclined to compromise. Even so, the populistic drive to make scientific knowledge available to a lay audience remained central to Prevention’s mission after his father’s death. In 1978, Robert Rodale declared that in “writing Prevention articles we try to use the bare minimum of technical terms. And when we do have to use them, we are sure to explain their meaning in a way anyone can understand.” Numerous articles were devoted merely to offering plain English definitions for commonly used medical terms. In short, Prevention writers sought to unmask the use of jargon for what it too often is: a cynically employed intimidation technique that silences the uninitiated and “perverts the purpose of language—communication—by creating confusion, ambiguity, misinterpretation, inadvertent humor or sheer tedium.”

—John Faithful Hamer, In Healthy Living We Trust (2016)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

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