By Eleanor Hoover
March 11, 1985 12:00 PM

Nathan Pritikin believed that to battle heart disease or cancer, the first thing one had to do was take charge: start exercising and eating right. But when he lost control of his own vigorous body, the 69-year-old guru of low-cholesterol diets decided life without health wasn’t worth fighting for. The chemotherapy he had been undergoing to treat his newly resurgent leukemia (the disease had been in remission 27 years) had brought on anemia, diabetes, kidney failure and intense pain. At 8 p.m. on February 21, his wife of 37 years, Ilene, found him dead in his Albany, N.Y. hospital bed, the veins in his forearms slit with a razor. “He was always in charge of his life. It rather followed he’d want to be in charge of his death,” says friend and follower Sen. George McGovern. “Suicide is never a pleasant course, but in Nathan’s case once he felt life wasn’t worth living, that would be it.”

Pritikin’s suicide rocked friends and the thousands of believers in his stringent program of diet and exercise whom he had helped to healthier lives. “In the eight years I knew him,” said Kevin Wiser, a vice president of the Pritikin Longevity Center in Santa Monica, “I can’t remember his ever being sick.” Only Ilene was aware he was being treated for leukemia. Swelling in his legs had made his daily four-to five-mile run impossible. Pritikin acquiesced to chemotherapy only after being assured he would run again. “He felt running made all the difference in the quality of his life,” says Wiser. “He was willing to try anything that might help him be able to do it again.”

He took the same attitude when he had an acute angina attack in 1957. Pritikin, who had previously researched the relationship between nutrition and heart disorders, went on a low-fat diet and aerobic exercise regimen. That cleared up his cardiac condition and convinced him that “the degenerative diseases are not diseases…they are environmental poisoning from the food we eat. Specifically, I refer to the toxic amounts of fat and cholesterol.” Pritikin advocated a menu limited mainly to fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Since 1976, when he opened his first center in Santa Barbara, 18,000 people have huffed and puffed through his puritanical program, while millions of others have absorbed his advice through such bestsellers as 1979’s The Pritikin Program for Diet and Exercise and 1983’s The Pritikin Promise, which has been made into a video.

The medical establishment was slow to credit Pritikin, who had no medical training or degree, and some doctors criticized his diet as being unnecessarily severe. But, says Dr. William Castelli, the director of the Framingham Study, which recently linked heart disease to high-cholesterol diets, “He was essentially barking up the right tree.” Many in medicine criticized Pritikin’s claim that his program could actually reverse heart ailments. Yet shortly before his death, Pritikin had developed a new machine that, in conjunction with his diet, would help clean the bloodstream of serum cholesterol. Doctors at Northwestern University will soon begin a yearlong series of tests with the device. “If he had completed his test with the machine, proving that heart disease is reversible with his diet, I think he probably would have been on his way to Stockholm,” says Dr. Monroe Rosenthal, a Pritikin endocrinologist. “It’s unheard of for a layman to receive a Nobel Prize in medicine, but I think he could have done it.”

The son of a Chicago sign salesman, Pritikin was already a millionaire before he tackled nutrition. Forced during the Depression to drop out of the University of Chicago, he became a free-lance inventor, developing a host of patents in physics, chemistry and electrical engineering for such giants as Bendix and Honeywell. “Nathan was a great researcher, a genius who was able to see clearly through mazes of information and come to conclusions that others overlooked,” says Rosenthal. Indeed, after the autopsy, Dr. Steven Inkeles of the Pritikin Center said the medical examiner was astounded at the superb condition of Pritikin’s heart. “He had the arteries,” says Inkeles, “of a preadolescent boy.” Even in death, Pritikin showed there is a better way to live.