Is atherosclerosis really a symptom of scurvy?

Part 4: Reversing disease

Although it seems possible that very high-dose vitamin C might actually reverse heart disease, the only trials to test this theory were done 50 years ago by Canadian physician, Dr G.C. Willis.

Willis specialised in atherosclerosis; he actually pioneered angiography (the now widespread method of photographing arteries using X-rays). What he saw convinced him that the conventional explanation for atherosclerosis was wrong — so wrong, he said, that even a plumber could see it.

If the condition was due to a build-up of cholesterol in the blood, which is the mainstream dogma, the smallest arteries should be the first and most affected. In fact, the opposite is true in the body — it's the biggest arteries which tend to fur up first.

Willis made the crucial observation that atherosclerosis mainly occurs in the vessels near the heart. What was so special about them? Although wide and apparently strong, it was their very proximity to the heart that was the problem, he concluded. The sheer pumping force of the heart put those vessels under constant mechanical stress, thus weakening them. So, furring of the arteries may not be a pathological deposition of fat, he suggested, but a means of artificially thickening the arteries to prevent damage.[1]

Thirty years later, Drs Michael Brown and Joseph Goldstein were awarded the 1985 Nobel Prize in Medicine for the discovery that atherosclerotic plaques are deposited, not due to high cholesterol, but in response to injury of the blood vessel wall. Willis deserved a Nobel for his findings.

In 1954, patients were selected from Queen Mary Veterans' and St. Anne's Hospitals for a trial of vitamin C supplementation. All were men, varying in age from 55 to 77, with an average age of 64 years, and were those who had shown many of the clinical manifestations ordinarily considered to be associated with atherosclerosis. Their arteries were studied by bilateral femoral arteriography. [This technique is described in the paper along with remarkable pictures of plaque in human arteries.] Blood cholesterol was also measured.The patients were split into two groups, one to receive 500mg of vitamin C three times a day, the others were controls. Neither group (other than diabetics) was fed a special diet.[2]

In the vitamin C supplemented group, atherosclerotic lesions diminished in size in over 30% of his patients.This was the first — and, so far, only — evidence that vitamin C could reverse heart disease.

Further trials were required.

Willis knew that guinea pigs were the only animals to get heart disease. Using 77 animals, he fed vitamin C to some from the start. These were the controls. The others were made vitamin C deficient. Willis found no atherosclerosis in the controls; and when vitamin C was added to the C-deficient animals' diet later in the trial, the early atherosclerotic lesions were quickly reversed. "The advanced lesions are considerably more resistant to reversal, apparently because of the islands of lipid whose only contact with the resorbing process is at the surface."[3]

Willis made the connection between the atherosclerosis of the vitamin C deficient guinea-pig and that observed in man, and the results of a previous study of ascorbic acid therapy in human atherosclerosis.

Despite this evidence, no one else ever tried to repeat Willis's groundbreaking studies. Dr Linus Pauling declared that the vitamin C-heart disease connection was so self-evident that it didn't need clinical trials to prove it.


1. Willis GC. An experimental study of the intimal ground substance in atherosclerosis. Can Med Assoc J 1953; 69: 17-22.
2. Willis GC, Light AW, Gow WS. Serial Arteriography in Atherosclerosis in Human Beings. Can Med Assoc J 1954; 71: 562-568.
3. Willis GC. The reversibility of atherosclerosis. Can Med Assoc J 1957; 77: 106-8

Part 1: Introduction | Part 2: Rath & Pauling | Part 3: Supporting evidence | Part 4: Reversing CHD | Part 5: Better than statins

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Last updated: December 9, 2011