By Frank W. Martin
June 27, 1977 12:00 PM

No, I’m not a hero,” says Glen Rutherford, a 60-year-old seed salesman from Conway Springs, Kans. “I’m just a little guy who sees what’s right and wants to make the right happen.”

Rutherford stands now at the center of an emotional nationwide controversy over the cancer drug Laetrile. His admirers celebrate him as a crusader who took on—and vanquished—the federal bureaucracy and the American medical establishment. In a landmark court test two years ago, he forced a crack in the total ban on Laetrile imposed by the Food and Drug Administration, which had found the substance unproved as a cancer cure—and possibly harmful. An American Cancer Society spokesman says, “By the time they discover that this drug is useless (providing it hasn’t poisoned them), their cancers may be so far advanced that they can no longer be controlled or cured.”

In Glen Rutherford’s view, that’s hog-wash. He joined the ranks of Laetrile proselytes in 1971, after doctors discovered he had cancer of the colon. Surgery was recommended which, he claims, would likely have left him with a plastic waste bag strapped to his side for the rest of his life. For Rutherford, the diagnosis “was like going outside in zero temperature and a 50-mile wind, and someone throws a bucket of water on you—that’s how you feel.”

From Charlene Pitcock, another cancer sufferer who was a neighbor, he learned about Dr. Ernesto Contreras Rodriguez’ clinic in Tijuana, Mexico, which prescribes Laetrile in cancer treatment. “Sure, I was skeptical,” Rutherford recalls. “People told me it was just a bunch of quackery, but I had to give it a try.” He called Contreras, packed his camper and drove south. “I was going to keep that appointment even if I had to crawl there.”

As Rutherford tells it, his recovery was miraculous. After five days of Laetrile in Tijuana, the bleeding in his colon stopped. After 14 days the growth had shrunk from the size of a plum to that of a small grape, and what remained was cauterized two days later. “From the time I left home until the time I was back with my cancer under control was exactly 31 days,” he says. It cost him $1,346.

Rutherford makes no claim that Laetrile has “cured” him. But with its other advocates, he subscribes to a theory that it can control cancer (just as insulin does diabetes). He believes cancer is essentially a nutritional disease and denies that Laetrile is a drug. It is found in many kinds of plant materials, he says, including apricot pits, from which Dr. Contreras’ pills are manufactured.

Under Rutherford’s program of cancer control, Laetrile (1,000 milligrams per day) is prescribed in tandem with a strict diet. Prior to Tijuana, he favored the traditional American red meats, fried foods and desserts. Dr. Contreras banned most of those plus salt, sugar, white flour, canned goods, pork, tea, coffee and carbonated drinks. “That’s when it really hit me,” Rutherford confesses. “It was the opposite of everything I’d done for 54 years. I walked outside the clinic, stood beside my camper and bawled.”

He has since become a health food freak. He eats natural grain cereals, fresh fruits, herbal tea, raw milk, occasional lean beef or chicken and one egg a week. Honey and molasses take the place of sugar, herbal spices replace salt. Every morning he has a mint drink which contains crushed dandelions. In addition, he pops an incredible 111 pills daily, most of them vitamins.

Until recently, there was no legal source of Laetrile in the U.S. As the result of the 1975 class action suit in Oklahoma by Rutherford and others, federal district Judge Luther Bohanon established the precedent that certain patients would be allowed to import Laetrile for their own use. Though the judge attached a long list of conditions, he expressed no opinion on Laetrile’s effectiveness.

There has been no such reluctance by the FDA and every major cancer organization to denounce Laetrile as a “fraud” and “cruel hoax.” Extensive testing with lab animals, these scientists say, has yet to produce evidence that the drug is effective. To arguments that Laetrile is at worst a harmless placebo that at least may ease the psychic suffering of desperate patients, the FDA notes curtly that it contains cyanide.

For advocates like Glen Rutherford, the issue goes beyond medicine into the area of constitutional freedom (which explains why right-wing groups have taken up the Laetrile cause). “My government was telling me the only choices I had were cut, fry and chemicalize,” he says. In a letter to an anti-Laetrile doctor, he wrote: “Give me the right to choose the way I want to die—it is not your prerogative to tell me how, only God can do that.” He has even gone so far as to characterize the FDA’s denial of Laetrile to cancer patients as “premeditated murder.”

In some ways, Rutherford makes an ideal David to go up against Goliath. Born and reared in Jacksonville, Ill., the gnomelike (5’3″, 144 lbs.) Rutherford attended business school, worked in an airplane factory and owned his own gas station. He and his wife, Jessie, have two grown children. The Rutherford home, which Glen has spent 20 years building himself, is made of steel-reinforced concrete.

Since his cancer was first diagnosed, Rutherford has read voraciously on the subject and rattles off medical terminology without stumbling. He misses few opportunities to lobby for Laetrile, speaking an average of three times a week, answering questions by phone and distributing literature. Last year his out-of-pocket printing bill came to $1,500.

That kind of zeal clearly helps to sway minds. So far seven states have legalized Laetrile and more than 20 others are debating the move. Legal or not, an estimated 50,000 Americans are using the substance, and even doctors who remain unconvinced are asking for new data to settle the question. The National Cancer Institute announced recently that the first Laetrile test with human volunteers is being “seriously considered.”

Glen Rutherford says he won’t be satisfied until Laetrile is freely available and believes that day is coming. “After all, I’m still alive and paying my taxes,” he says. “I’m just stubborn enough to stick around to see how this thing comes out.”