Investigating History 104: Dr Sebi, HIV, and Untangling Conspiracy Theories

In this series, I aim to give you guys tips and tricks for studying history. In the first installment, we backtracked a popular black urban legend. In the second installment, we discussed how to search for clues to provide context for general life in the past. In the third installment, we discussed the importance of etymology in the study of human history. In this one, I will teach you how to separate conspiracy theories from actual history. Evaluating conspiracy theories takes time, research, and an erasure of as much personal bias as possible. Here are the steps I took to find out the truth about Dr. Sebi.

1) Establish The Prevailing Claims of The Conspiracy

While doing this step, you may find it helpful to list out the claims in chronological order so that you can more easily find corroborating sources from relevant time periods. It also allows you to pinpoint when and how conspiracy claims begin. 

According to memes, rappers, internet forums, and hotep youtubers, Dr. Sebi (Alfredo Bowman) was a self-taught doctor who created a cure for cancer, AIDS, and other ailments that would have made Big Pharma lose  out on hella money, so they sabotaged his career and killed him.

Believers of this theory cite the following evidence:

  • Sebi proved he cured cancer and HIV before the Supreme Court of New York and "won", even bringing in 70 patients (some sources say 87 or 88)
  • Sebi died while being detained in a Honduran prison
  • "He won a case against the FDA for running an article claiming that he cures AIDS and many other diseases." - advocatesfordrsebi.org 

They killed Dr. Sebi, he was teachin' health - Blue Laces 2 (Nipsey Hussle) 
I believe in Dr. Sebi, I believe we must stop Willie Lynch'n each other- Pops Belief (Common)
The fight that he had with cancer was a brave one, Took Dr. Sebi's herbs instead of medication, Breathing heavy, he talked reparations- Little Chicago Boy (Common)
I know you ain't paying attention to that meddy, That's that medicine your doctor got you on heavy, Your mood edgy, Take them meatballs off your spaghetti, Rest in peace to Dr. Sebi - Alkaline Diet (Dizzy Wright)

2. What's The Official Word?

What are some things that mainstream, alternative, AND self-reported sources all agree on? By self-reported, In this instance I mean things acknowledged by Dr. Sebi or his conspiracy believers? This will make it easy to establish credibility for questionable events, provide more opportunities for research, and prevent bias. With digging, I found the following hardcore truths:

  • Sebi was born Alfredo Bowman in Honduras. He learned herbal remedies from his grandmother and this is how his healing career began. At the age of 20 he came to America briefly before returning to South America and other locations to learn about herbs. 
  • He founded Ogun Herbal Research Institute in Brooklyn NY in 1985
  • He never claimed to be a doctor
  • He believed the human body to be electric, and that mucus was the cause of all diseases. He was anti-meat. He also believed black people had genetic differences that made us vulnerable to foods or customs that originated outside of Africa.
  • He was rushed to a hospital in August 2016 while being detained in prison and died of pneumonia at the age of 82.
  • He claimed his herb remedies revitalized cells. He said his methods could cure all manners of illnesses, including AIDS. Below is an advertisement ran by Sebi's Ogun Herbal Research Institute claiming that an AIDS patient was cured from his treatments. 

  • On February 10, 1987 Dr. Sebi was arrested on two counts of practicing medicine without a license  and one count of dispensing medicine without a license. The latter (and less serious) charge was defeated in civil court in 1987. The more serious charges were leveled in front of the Supreme Court of New York in September 1988. It was reported that Sebi was acquitted on October 1st 1988.
  • Dr. Sebi stayed with Michael Jackson for several months in 2004, and eventually sued him for over $380,000 in what he claimed to be were unpaid "detox" bills.

4. What Evidence, If Any, Lends Credibility to The Conspiracy?

What evidence could be used to lend credibility?

  • Court documents from the 1988 trial that provide proof that he could cure HIV (and that atleast 70 witnesses came forward)
  • Peer-Reviewed Research from his "Research Institute"

Sadly, neither one of these things could be found (see below). There are, however, celebrities like Common, Nipsey Hussle, the late Lisa Lopes, John Travolta, Michael Jackson, and others who consulted with him at some point or endorsed him. There is an interesting conspiracy theory about a health writer Arnold Ehret (1866-1922), who said Sebi-ish things about alkaline foods and mucus during the late 19th and 20th centuries. He was either delivered a fatal blow or fell and hit his head in a rainy street, but either way he died at 56 and conspiracy theorists believe he was murdered because his ideas would disrupt the medicinal industry. 

5. What factual evidence, if any, discredits the conspiracy?

Because you're a bad bitch history buff, you've got a ton of secondary sources from the time period that can be used to sharpen (or disprove) theories. In the case of Dr. Sebi, I found several facts that cast clouds over the conspiracy. 

  • In the court documents and newspapers, it is made plainly clear that Sebi was on trial for practicing medicine without a license. At no point was he ever on trial to prove that his herbal remedies were effective in curing HIV or cancer.
  • According to the following article from New York Amsterdam News (August 13, 1988) , Sebi's lawyer Simeon Greenway said:
"The attorney general proceeded on the erroneous assumption that the products being marketed were medicinal compounds. The products in fact are vegetarian natural liquid compounds."

This explains why Sebi successfully "beat" the charge of practicing medicine without a licence. He was not actually practicing medicine as defined by law, as demonstrated when two undercover agents were sent into the institute to "entrap Sebi into making medical diagnosis", which he didn't do. (New York Amsterdam News, Oct. 1, 1988) Instead, his program was actually a dietary program. But that isn't the claim made by conspiracy theorists. The claim is that his dietary program could cure HIV and other illnesses. Which brings me to another statement by Sebi's lawyer:

"There is a total lack of proof that he was practicing medicine within the meaning of the statute. And the claim of a cure came from individuals that had these experiences and reported them. The institute merely echoed their sentiments."

This quote reveals that no actual research was being performed on the clients that would accurately monitor the cure of HIV, or any other illness. Claims of being cured were self-reported by Sebi's clients. That is not how medicine works.

6. What historical, cultural, and common sense logic discredit the conspiracy?

This is one of those times where I will remind you the importance of knowing a breadth of history and cultures, and always desiring to learn more because it'll stop you from being naive. In this step you are essentially placing the facts and the myths of the conspiracy into perspective, instead of forcing it down a narrow tunnel of vision. So what historical, cultural, and common sense logic discredits the conspiracy that Dr. Sebi was murdered by Big Pharma for developing cures to illnesses like HIV and leukemia? Let's count the ways:

  • Dr. Sebi began claiming that he could cure HIV in 1985. HIV was not fully identified until 1983. "The first HIV antibody test, developed in 1985, was designed to screen blood products, not to diagnose AIDS." (Source)The actual test to detect HIV didn't come around until the end of 1985, and from then until the late 80's, false positives and negatives were common.  These truths cast doubt on Sebi because it makes you wonder *how* he tested for HIV in the first place. How was he running ads for a cure in 1985 (and claiming in a 1988 article that "I don't have to ask them for permission to say that I cure AIDS,") if the first reliable tests weren't available until 1989? As we all know, AIDS can't be detected by physical symptoms, only by DNA sample. This is more proof that Sebi's clients were self-reporting, meaning it is likely they never even had HIV to "cure" in the first place.
  • Continuing on with the history of HIV/AIDS, its important to remember that there was a significant problem of medical quackery during the late 80s. Sebi was not the only person claiming to have a cure. An October 1987 article in the FDA Consumer reported that an estimated 1 billion dollars was spent on fraudulent AIDS therapies that year. Americans were doing what they do best: capitalizing. That same article reported that while a guest on Washington's Eyewitness News, Sebi said:
"We have always charged $250 for the first consultation to get the herbal compounds. On the AIDS, we increase it to $500, because of the psychological reason that goes along with the price. When someone invests enough money, they're going to go along with the program."
  • Dr. Sebi's belief that diseases are based in mucus dates back to an ancient (and discredited) ideology called Humorism.  His sense of science and medicine also neglected physiology, biochemistry, and how diseases function, grow, and mutate. This can be explained by the fact that he never went to med school or trained as a doctor. There is a reason trained professionals (of all races) in HIV and cancer medicine who submit to the order of peer review, scientific experiments, and fully funded research programs are fed up with accusations of staving off a cure.
  • Dr. Sebi (and his followers) claim(ed) that Big Pharma isn't interested in finding a cure for cancer because it's more profitable to not have any. This ignores the history of the War on Cancer. Officially ushered into policy by President Nixon in 1971, it brought 1.6 billion dollars in federal funding to cancer research over three years. When this "war" first started, Americans were optimistic that cures would be coming fast and loose... but they didn't. In 1971, knowledge about the (over 100!) different types of cancer was limited, and there were a plethora of  dead ends, including a whole period in the 80s where doctors thought cancer was caused by wayward genes that simply needed to be identified and weeded out or treated. Turns out cancer is complex- and unique in everyone. Said Dr. Victor Velculescu, cancer biologist, in 2015:
"Between everybody that has cancer today, to everybody that's probably ever had cancer since the beginning of humankind, [each person] has had different molecular alterations in this disease."
  • In 2016, after being charged with money laundering for carrying $37,000 in cash through the airport, conspiracy theorists claim Dr. Sebi was murdered by Big Pharma after he proved that he could cure HIV in 1987. As we've already established, he never proved he could cure HIV in a court of federal law, or in peer-reviewed research. But also? Sebi did not die until 2016, at the age of 83. I don't know, but 29 years a is LONG ASS time to wait to kill Sebi to prevent him from ruining the medical industry. During those 29 years he talked frequently of his ability to cure HIV and other illnesses, even after being banned from doing so by the state of New York. He also took on a plethora of celebrity clients and made good money. We can get a basic idea of his celebrity rate when considering it was reported in 2004 that he was suing Michael Jackson over 380K for unpaid fees. Another bubble-buster? The black male life expectancy in America is in the mid-70s, and in Honduras it's 73. It is entirely plausible that the 83-year-old Sebi died of natural causes because it was his time to die. Yes, he died after coming under pneumonia in a Honduran prison. But did you know that Honduran prisons are notoriously overcrowded and filthy? Inmates are slowly processed and the court systems are slow as well. 
  • If Sebi's cure is so precious and targeted by Big Pharma, why is it still available on his website for prices ranging up to $1500? Also, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of other holistic specialists and dieticians making similar claims that the right diet can drastically change one's health and prevent illnesses. What made Sebi such a target? And can he even be considered a target if Big Pharma took 29 years to kill him?

So there you have it.

That is how you effectively untangle a conspiracy theory. Doing so is always important because the truth matters. But in the case of Dr. Sebi, it is especially important because the false conspiracy theory that he was murdered for having a "cure" sows more mistrust between black people and doctors. It feeds other conspiracy theories, like the fallacious claim that HIV was created to destroy the black community, or that only gay men can get the illness. With the health of black people being pertinent to our progress in this country, everything must be factual! Martyrization of a man who falsely claimed to be able to cure illnesses with herbs and a special diet is already foolish, but even more so when you consider that his expensive ass treatments were largely marketed towards black people.  Either he was greedily scamming his own people, or he had deluded himself into believing that he could cure his own people of HIV and cancer with absolutely no knowledge of how those things functioned. His actions have butterfly effects- as there is currently a website in his honor that siphons donations to "spread the word" of Dr. Sebi, the conspiracy of his murder, and the complete failure of the medical industry to save human lives (even though, again, the average American life expectancy is in the mid-70s and was just 40 one hundred years ago). There is no telling how many people were, or will be, fooled into simply resorting to overpriced herbal pills and diet regimens when they should have headed to licensed professionals. 

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