Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Fred Gey, father of the antioxidant hypothesis

Alun Evans
Belfast, United Kingdom

Fred in his well-organized office. From the author’s collection.

Fred Gey was a German scientist who developed the concept that antioxidant vitamin deficiency caused certain diseases. He qualified as an MD at the University of Basel in 1952, having first researched clinical biochemistry. He then spent two years in the biochemistry section of the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen, Germany, and two more in the biochemistry department of Oxford University. In 1956 he joined F. Hoffmann-La Roche in Basel as head of its Research Unit for Metabolic Diseases & Human Nutrition in 1956, remaining with the company until 1989. His interest in antioxidant vitamins led him to produced atherosclerosis in birds and rodents in order to assess whether these vitamins could reverse the process.

In 1967 he became a lecturer in biochemistry at the University of Berne, where he was awarded an “extraordinary” professorship in 1971. In the early 1980s, he participated in further studies designed to substantiate his thesis. Over the next eight years, he published more than twenty papers describing the relationship of poor vitamin status to cancer and atheroscerotic heart disease, focusing in particular on vitamin E deficiency.

Personal note

Fred was an extraordinarily likable man whose early life was deeply entwined with the events surrounding Nazi Germany and World War II. He was born in Leipzig in Germany. His early life was lived close to nature in the Teutoburg Forest. It was here that the Romans lost perhaps 20,000 soldiers in a famous defeat in AD 9. Fred cherished those early days for the rest of his life. The family moved to Erfurt when he was just six, where his father was arrested by the Gestapo who came in the dead of night. Fred’s father was tried for “high treason” and jailed for several years. Even in old age, Fred would awaken from bad dreams in which huge black boots loomed over him. To escape poverty, Fred’s mother took to making corsets which she sold to well-heeled ladies. Fred attended the Humboldt School in Erfurt, which was progressive, science orientated, and with teachers who lacked sympathy for Nazism.

In 1943 Fred was conscripted and sent to Butzbach for military selection. Well-qualified young men such as Fred were designated as officer material. Fred often said that he owed his long life to a chain of lucky accidents, for he was assigned to a company which was critical of Hitler. He was posted to France, but when his fellow soldiers were sent to Spain, Fred was left to guard the barracks alone and eventually made his way back to Germany.

Once again good luck struck, because on arriving home he was not sent to the front but to a military academy in Austria. From there he was finally sent to the front for only a short while, but for long enough to lose good friends, and after one attack, he was the sole survivor. In 1944, Fred was called to his mother’s deathbed in Erfurt, where he was able to say his brief goodbyes.

Shortly afterwards, as the Russians were advancing on Vienna, Fred realized that many officers had discarded their uniforms. One officer ordered him and a fellow soldier to go into the forest with a hand grenade. But Fred threw his away, took off his uniform and told his companion to do the same. An officer then appeared and ordered them to put on the uniforms of two dead German soldiers lying nearby. They managed to bolt, and later to dress up as women. At the next farm, they assumed more appropriate garb. Later, when they encountered some Russian soldiers, Fred was able to convince them, thanks to his reasonable French, that they were French soldiers who had become separated from their unit.

They then stole two bicycles and were riding back to Erfurt when they were picked up, jailed, and made to chop wood throughout that winter, but they were well treated. In April 1945, Hitler delivered his final speech, and soon the pair were released and returned to Erfurt.

The first university to reopen was in Jena, so Fred enrolled there and tried to find his father. He located him in Whylen, near Switzerland. His father had remarried and was looking for work in Switzerland. Fred wanted to study in Basel, so he stayed with his father and stepmother, but they were penniless, and Fred had to fend for himself and find his own food. He traded in cigarettes, which were the currency of the day.

By now, Fred was often hungry, so, through a publisher friend, he acquired new medical textbooks and sold them in Switzerland. By dint of such efforts, Fred undertook a medical degree.

First published in the Irish Medical Times, February 21, 2023.

ALUN EVANS, MD, trained as a physician before turning to epidemiology. In 1982 he became Principal Investigator of the WHO MONICA (MONItoring in Cardiovascular disease) Project in Belfast. He was elected to the Steering Committee of MONICA in 1990 and chaired it from 1994–7. He led two EU-funded projects: one to complete MONICA; the other, a pooling of cardiovascular cohorts in twelve European countries; and was a partner in sixteen others. He published several hundred papers, in 2004 co-authoring the Third Edition of the WHO Monograph: Cardiovascular Survey Methods. His current focus is on the social history of medicine.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 16, Issue 1 – Winter 2024

Summer 2023



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