What does it take to become America’s foremost nutritionist? Shouldn’t you have to have at least some training in nutrition? Not if you have the gift of gab and your own radio show based in New York City! Then you can develop a devoted fan base and a lucrative relationship with a company that sells vitamins. The radio show provides a platform for you to market your books, thus making you even more of a household name. If you are really slick, you can even get yourself appointed to teach a course at a university for a few years, until the state department of education finds out. In the meantime, you can provide misleading and sometimes dangerous advice about food and vitamins.

Harold Fredericks Caplan received his bachelor’s degree in English (with a minor in political science) in 1931 from the University of Alabama. He had no training in dietetics or medicine. In 1937, he started working for the U.S. Vitamin Corporation, writing advertising copy and giving promotional speeches. He presented himself as “Director of Professional Education.” By the early 1940s, he changed his name to Carleton Fredericks, got some letterhead describing himself as the Executive Director of the Institute for Nutrition Research, and landed his own radio show, which was eventually syndicated. He also had a minor setback, pleading guilty to a charge of practicing medicine without a license.

In 1955, Fredericks got a PhD degree from New York University School of Education. The research for his doctoral thesis had nothing to do with any science related to nutrition or health. Instead, it was a survey to find out how much information some women had retained from listening to his spiel, and how it affected their food-buying habits. Yet this degree enabled him to transform himself yet again, into “Dr.” Carleton Fredericks.

The apogee of his career was when he got himself to be appointed assistant professor of nutrition at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, where he taught a course in “Health Education” that was required for the bachelor of arts degree. This lasted only a few years, until the New Jersey State Nutrition Council heard about the misinformation about food and nutrition that was being taught at Fairleigh Dickinson. The council prepared a confidential report to the New Jersey State Department of Education, and Fredericks left Fairleigh Dickinson soon after.

Fredericks also ran into trouble with the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Federal Communications Commission, because of his relationship with a company that sold vitamin preparations and his participation in helping them sell their wares. The company described Fredericks as their “Chief Consultant” and an “internationally famous nutritionist” who had spent "long years of research and practice in the field of scientific nutrition" and who "has either formulated or tested and approved” the formulations listed in their catalog. At one point, the FDA seized the company’s products, charging that the labeling, including the catalog, and the company’s marketing claims were false and misleading.

Some of the ideas that Fredericks promoted were not only untrue, they were dangerous, including his recommendation to use high doses of vitamin A to treat conditions like acne. In reality, vitamin A overdoses are useless and can cause permanent blindness and death.

Dr. Carleton Fredericks was a salesman, and his main product was Dr. Carleton Fredericks. He used that “brand” for his own greater glory and to line his pockets with money from the vitamin sellers. He knew nothing about health or nutrition, but he knew how to sell vitamins. People who took his nutritional advice did so at their peril.

Further reading

The Vitamin Healers: A Close Look at Carleton Fredericks (1965), by Ralph Lee Smith