Famous Santa Rosa Vegan Diet Doctor John McDougall Dies

Heather McDougall said her father’s passion was fueled by a “desire to tell the truth,” a value he said was instilled in him by his parents while growing up in his hometown of Detroit, Michigan.

“He wanted to teach the word and encourage people to eat better and protect the environment. His greatest joy in life was helping others — and his family,” she said.

He had his skeptics and critics, especially early on, some of whom dismissed his diet as extreme or unsustainable. More recent research seems to support the health benefits of a plant-based diet. A study published in May by the University of California, San Francisco, found that men with prostate cancer could significantly reduce their risk of their disease getting worse by eating more fruits, vegetables, nuts and olive oil, and only small amounts of meat, dairy and fish.

A stroke of luck

McDougall suffered a massive stroke at age 18, which left him temporarily paralyzed on his left side and, he said in an autobiography on his website, would leave him debilitated for the rest of his life. He walked with a limp.

Still, he considered that incident “one of the greatest fortunes of my life,” which inspired him to go to medical school. There he met Mary, a surgical nurse, in an operating room in 1971.

“She was his surgical assistant. He just fell in love. He tried to get her to go on a date with him. She finally said yes and three months later they were married,” Heather McDougall said.

In 1972, the newlyweds moved to Hawaii, where they started a family and the young doctor completed his residency. He also worked as a family physician at the Hamakua Sugar Company. It was there that he discovered his life’s work.

“My plantation patients taught me how to eat,” the Press Democrat said in 2010. “The first generation of Japanese, Filipinos and Chinese ate the same diet. They were thin and never had heart disease, arthritis or diabetes.”

The second generation was a different story.

“Their children growing up in Hawaii were eating more nutritious food,” he said. “The children had gotten a little fatter and sicker.”

“Before my eyes I saw fully functioning seniors thrive on grains, fruits, and vegetables. With the addition of the other two basic food groups — meat and dairy — the offspring failed,” he would write.

After becoming a board-certified internist in 1978, McDougall began his own dietary medicine practice in Hawaii. He became a vocal advocate, pushing for the removal of talc from processed rice in Hawaii, California, and Puerto Rico, and led a successful fight to require surgeons to inform women with breast cancer about options other than surgery.

In 1986, he was recruited to lead the McDougall program at Adventist Health Hospital in St. Helena, a leading cardiac surgery center, and moved his family to Santa Rosa. In 1999, he also offered his program remotely from hotels in Minnesota for Blue Cross Blue Shield and for a grocery store company in Florida. In 2002, McDougall went independent with its own permanent location out of The Flamingo Resort, where people would come for 10 days to learn “a new way of living,” said Jill Nussinow, a Gualala-based dietitian, culinary educator and cookbook author who has worked with McDougall for years.

“He caused thousands and thousands of people to look at their behavior and make huge changes for their health and overall well-being,” she said.

The McDougalls lost their home in the Tubbs fire of 2017. That same year, McDougall stepped down from leading the program but remained active as a speaker and on his YouTube channel.

“He redefined the way I look at medicine,” said Dr. Anthony Lim, who took over as clinical director of the program when McDougall retired. What he learned in medical school and during his residency, he said, was how to manage diseases and conditions with medication. But McDougall’s legacy, he said, was showing people that they can not only manage symptoms but also regain their health through what they eat.

When not promoting health through nutrition, McDougall enjoyed windsurfing, traveling, fly fishing and spending time with his family.

“We spent our lives sailing when we lived in Hawaii,” daughter Heather said. “He loved adventure. He was a pilot.”

Heather McDougall said it was unclear what caused her father’s death. “He did have damaged arteries from his stroke. The ideal death is to just die in your sleep. It happened exactly the way he wanted it to. Earlier than we wanted it to, but the way he wanted to go. I find comfort in that.”

In addition to his wife, Mary, and daughter Heather, he is survived by sons Craig McDougall of Lake Oswego, Ore., and Patrick McDougall of Orinda; a brother, William McDougall of Brookings, Ore.; sisters, Linda Dupuy of Michigan and Kay McDougall of Ecuador; and seven grandchildren. The service will be private.

You can contact Editor Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or [email protected].

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