MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

We live in truly grim times! Let me therefore try to cheer you up a little. Here is a story that might make you smile.

In 1981, I moved back from London to Munich. While still in London, I had written an article on garlic for a German medical journal. It was published just as we arrived in our new home. Here is it’s English abstract:

Garlic has had a firm place in folk medicine since ancient times. More recent results are summarized here which show that extracts of the plant have an antimicrobial action, they are capable of lowering blood cholesterol and of reducing secondary vascular changes. They raise fibrinolytic activity and inhibit thrombocyte aggregation. Therefore the plant contains highly active therapeutic principles which appear to be particularly suitable for prophylaxis of arteriosclerosis.

Yes, you are quite right, this paper is nothing to write home about. So, why do I consider it ‘most consequential‘? Here is what happened:

My wife and I had barely arrived in our new home, when a man phoned (he had gone to a lot of trouble to find my number) and said: “I know you are the leading expert on garlic; I urgently need to talk to you”. Never correct a man’s mistake, if it’s in your favour, I thought, and we made an appointment for a meeting at the Munich train station hotel.

When I met him a few days later, he ordered me a coffee (which later I had to pay for) and explained that he had worked his whole life (he was about 50, I guessed) for the pharmaceutical industry and had now decided that this was enough. He thus planned to set up his own pharmaceutical company. He already had a photocopy machine in his basement, he proudly told me, and a wife who was willing to work as hard as he was. Specifically, his plan was to launch a garlic pill, and for that he needed my advice. I told him what he wanted to know, and we parted after about two hours promising to stay in contact.

The man’s name was Kuno Lichtwer.

During the weeks that followed, he often phoned me to pick my brain. One day, he told me that he had everything in place: he had found a supplier of the materials, a manufacturer to produce the pills and even registered a name for it:

KWAI

Then he popped the question that was foremost on his mind: ‘What do you think, Dr Ernst, should I risk it and go ahead with this or not?’. I had started to like that man; he was going to lose all his savings on a crazy idea, I felt. So, I told him: ‘If I were you, I would not do it. There are already plenty of garlic pills on the market. You are risking to lose everything.’ Then there was a long pause; eventually, he thanked me for my honest advice and hung up.

Weeks later he phoned again to tell me that he had truly appreciated my brutally direct advice, thought long and hard about it, but went ahead with his plan anyway. Would I now accept the position of ‘medical advisor’ to Lichwer Pharma? I was surprised, but accepted this new post. Thereafter, I advised him the best I could. We even conducted and published the very first clinical trial with his product. It was a rather flimsy study (we had no funds at all), but did suggest a positive result.

Each time Mr Lichtwer called me, he was elated; things were not just going well, they were booming! He was evidently hugely gifted in promoting KWAI. Then he invited me several times to come to Berlin where Lichtwer Pharma was based for business meetings. Proudly, he showed me that meanwhile his firm had moved out of his basement into a proper building. The next I knew was that he had a dozen employees. Lichtwer seemed unstoppable. This went on for 2 or 3 years, if I remember correctly.

During all this time, we had never talked about money, and my work for him had always been unpaid – that is, until one day just before Christmas he phoned and explained that he had moved his firm to yet a bigger building and hired yet more staff. He also realised that I deserved some renumeration for my advice; therefore, he had put a cheque in the post. When I told my wife about it, we both celebrated in anticipation of the substantial windfall. Two days later, his letter arrived. He very kindly thanked me for years of work and included a cheque of 500 DM (about 150 DM per year of work). A few months later, his firm had grown so big that a full time medical and research director was badly needed. He informed me that he had found a highly experienced expert and invited me to meet the new man, Prof Schulz.

No, I did not feel hard done by! On the contrary, I was happy that my prediction had been grossly wrong and that my friend Kuno was doing so well. In addition, I was also relieved, because my research at the University did not give me nearly enough time to look adequately after the now substantial firm of Lichtwer Pharma.

Thereafter, Lichtwer’s garlic pill went from strength to strength. Several larger studies confirmed our initial results that garlic positively influenced blood lipids (in 2000, our systematic review concluded: The available data suggest that garlic is superior to placebo in reducing total cholesterol levels. However, the size of the effect is modest, and the robustness of the effect is debatable. The use of garlic for hypercholesterolemia is therefore of questionable value). One day, I read somewhere that KWAI had become the most consumed pill in Germany (even beating Aspirin). Then Lichtwer Pharma went international and added several further herbal products to its portfolio. In 1991, Lichtwer Pharma was estimated to be worth 100 Million DM. Several years later, the firm had almost 400 employees and a yearly turnover of 353 Million DM.

To his credit, Kuno Lichtwer never entirely forgot me. When I had moved to the UK, he even came to Exeter, was entertained by my University, and made a donation of £100 000 towards a ‘Lichtwer Research Fellowship’ for my department. I am not sure whether Kuno Lichtwer is still alive. If he is, he would probably agree that, had I offered him 10 000 DM of my savings during our 1st meeting in 1981 (he did hint at that possibility), he would have gladly made me a partner in his enterprise.

But, as they say: money is not everything.

And a good story to tell is also not bad.

4 Responses to 40 years ago: how I almost became a very rich man

  • A great story, and certainly I recognise the brand. It was quite something, to have a photocopier in your basement, in 1981!

  • @EE

    “Several larger studies confirmed our initial results that garlic positively influenced blood lipids (in 2000, our systematic review concluded: The available data suggest that garlic is superior to placebo in reducing total cholesterol levels. However, the size of the effect is modest, and the robustness of the effect is debatable. The use of garlic for hypercholesterolemia is therefore of questionable value).”

    I don’t know what you used, where it came from, or if it would have made a difference in the studies. Just to add, that all garlic is not created equal.
    In fact, I will not purchase garlic from China, nor any food products that I know are from China… and they export much garlic to the world today.

  • Hippocrates soup contains lots of garlic, onions and leaks (+ potato and tomato). My wife notices the smell of garlic on me permanently – for the last two years! – that’s love 🙂

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