Josef Maria Leonhard Issels, MD was born in Mönchengladbach, a city in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, on November 21, 1907.
His middle names came from a family tradition of naming children after a paternal grandmother and a favorite uncle. Josef’s mother taught him to read and say bed-time prayers. In those devotions he included not only his family, but also creatures of the earth - an early sign of his passion and sensitivity for all life.
The war years (1914-1918) were difficult times for the Issels, but the family managed to stay afloat financially.
Josef entered the Mönchengladbach Gymnasium (primary school) at the age of six. Because he was thin and small and bullied, he worked on building up his physical strength through swimming and other sports. From the ages of 8-15, Josef spent his school holidays on a farm, tending animals, sowing and reaping crops - further fostering his interest in nature.
During his teen years, he was tutored by a Dr. Hoven, who assisted him in Latin and French.
In 1927, Josef entered the Albert-Ludwig University in Freiburg. In 1928, he moved to Bonn to continue his studies at Rhein-Universität (now University of Bonn). There he intently studied medicine and became interested in surgery. After his studies in Bonn, he traveled south to Munich to Ludwig-Maximilian University. He studied general medicine, pathology, gynecology and surgery and was required to attend teaching rounds at the university hospital. He later transferred to the University of Würzburg, where he received his medical degree in 1932. The university had a long history of liberal tradition and Dr. Issels felt at home there.
In January 1933, Dr. Issels joined the staff of the Maria Hilf Hospital in Mönchengladbach. There he furthered his expertise in surgery.
Dr. Issels first achieved international recognition in 1936 when, against the captain's orders, he performed an emergency abdominal surgery in the poorly equipped operating room of an ocean liner under sail in rough seas. His patient, an Englishwoman, recovered, and newspaper headlines told of his heroism.
During the early war years, Dr. Issels often thought of leaving Germany for Zürich, Switzerland. By July 1939, however, it was too late. Exit visas from Germany were unobtainable. Dr. Issels continued to treat Jewish patients in the face of mounting hostility. His single-minded attitude later led him into conflict with the Nazi party when he petitioned to resign in opposition to Nazi insistence that he stop treating Jews. Because he continued to treat his Jewish patients, as punishment he was sent as a doctor to the Russian front.
While on leave, Josef married Irmengard Linder on May 15, 1941 in Stuttgart. Back on the Russian front, he was captured and held as a prisoner of war until August 5, 1945.
Upon arriving home, he found his wife had given birth to a son, Peter Has, on July 18, 1945. Unfortunately, the baby died three months later of an infection. The post-war years were a very difficult time for the Issels. Dr. Issels worked incessantly: by 1948 he was working 12-hour days, six days a week. Irmengard became pregnant again and on April 25, 1948 she gave birth to their son Rolf Dieter Maria Josef. By the end of 1948, Dr. Issels had an enormous practice, but the level of commitment was hard on the family.
Dr. Issels soon became interested in new developments in immunotherapy. He continued to treat a growing number of cancer patients, often for free. This placed Irmengard and the family at a financial hardship, allowing only for the essentials of life. Dr. Issels continued to try new therapies for cancer patients and decided he needed a clinic to perform his unique treatments. They found a run-down hotel (the Ringberg Hotel) for rent on the Tegernsee at Rottach-Egern. They changed the name from "Hotel" to "Klinik" and opened in 1951.
The Ringberg Klinik became the first hospital in Europe to offer treatment to "incurable" cancer patients who had been rejected by other doctors. Dr. Issels had been researching immunology and microbial aspects of cancer etiology since 1948 and established several research units in his hospital.
By 1952, the clinic and Dr. Issels work in oncology became widely known. By 1956, 1,473 patients had been treated at the Ringberg Klinik. By 1957, the clinic had doubled its original capacity of 32 beds. Eight staff cared for the patients.
Josef and Irmengard divorced in November 1956. They remained long-time friends.
Thereafter, Dr. Issels buried himself in work.
The Ringberg Klinik in Rottach-Egern, Germany, became the first hospital in Europe to offer treatment to "incurable" cancer patients who had been rejected by other doctors.
His “Ganzheitstherapie” (whole-body therapy) included fever therapy, anticancer vaccines, nutritional approaches, organ and cellular detoxification, removing sites of focal infection such as non-vital (dead) teeth and infected tonsils, homeopathic remedies and careful attention to the patient’s psychoemotional condition. Dr. Issels developed autologous cancer vaccines prepared from the patient’s own blood, thus being non-toxic and compatible with the patient’s immune system.
During the hospital’s early years, Dr. Issels and co-researchers developed cancer vaccines. These unique cancer vaccines were shown to intensify immune system response and enhance the body’s ability to fight cancer and are still used today in current Issels cancer treatment regimes.
From 1958 until 1973, Professor Franz Gerlach of the University of Vienna, researcher at the Pasture Institute, and Fellow of the Academy of Medicine on Paris, was director of research of the microbiological department of the Issels Hospital. They conducted groundbreaking research on mycoplasma in cancer and chronic degenerative diseases.
By 1959, Dr. Issels had treated approximately 2,500 men, women and children who had been deemed beyond further treatment. The majority had gained worthwhile extensions to their lives, amounting to several years in many cases.
Dr. Issels married Ilse Marie Klos in November 1959. She was 30 years old. Ilse became fundamental to Dr. Issels’ work and success.
Dr. Issels soon became a controversial figure; powerful opponents from conventional oncology had him briefly incarcerated by falsely accusing him of fraud and manslaughter. The trial, dubbed “the cancer trial of the century” by the German media, stretched from 1960 to 1964, only to conclude in complete acquittal and dismissal of all counts.
By 1970, the hospital grew from 85 to 120 patient beds, and expanded its extensive research facilities, including the microbiological, immunological, dental and hyperthermia units. Dr. Issels became regarded as the “Father of Integrative Cancer Medicine” because of his bold incorporation of alternative and complementary cancer therapies into standard management decades before their current popularity.
By 1965, a poll by the Demographic Institute of Allensbach found that Dr. Issels was known by more Germans than the then-current Chancellor of the Federal Republic.
Dr. Issels was the subject of a 1970 British Broadcasting Corporation documentary entitled “Go and Climb a Mountain”. The BBC filmed German Army helicopters delivering terminally ill cancer patients for treatment by Dr. Issels with his German Federal Government recognized protocols. BBC researchers concluded that the results of two independent epidemiological chart reviews had confirmed the cure of many cases of advanced cancer.
One of those epidemiologists was Professor John Anderson, MD, Chairman of the Department of Medicine, King’s College Hospital Medical School, University of London. In 1969, Anderson wrote,
He has contributed to our understanding of the whole-person approach to cancer therapy and the problems involved in controlling a serious whole-body disease. His patients have come from many countries and his extensive records have enabled him to produce data about his complete and long-term remissions in seriously ill cancer patients who had been rejected by other doctors.
Dr. Issels treated patients in Germany for more than 40 years, overcoming criticism to become a much sought-after speaker at international medical conferences, universities (including Oxford and McGill) and prestigious institutions such as Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
In 1981, Dr. Issels was appointed to the German Federal Government’s Cancer Commission, a post he held for nearly seven years. In 1996, at the age of 89, he and his wife moved to Rancho Santa Fe, California. He then became co-principal investigator and senior medical consultant to the Issels/CHIPSA/GRO Collaboration.
Dr. Issels continued to lecture extensively and to train physicians in the interdisciplinary management he developed - maintaining a schedule that would have been difficult for a younger man. Together with his wife, Ilse Marie, he established the Issels Foundation to further his medical accomplishments through education and research.
Up until his unexpected illness, he continued his writing and public speaking, and spent two days every week teaching physicians at the Centro Hospitalario Internacional Pacifico, SA (CHIPSA) in Tijuana, Mexico.
Dr. Josef Maria Issels died of influenza-caused pneumonia at the age of 90 on February 11, 1998. He was survived by his widow, Ilse Marie, sons Rolf, Hellmut, and Christian, daughter Ruthild, and six grandchildren.
Dr. Issels cured not just any cancer, but advanced, recurrent cancer that did not respond to conventional oncology treatments. He used biological regulatory approaches that were non-toxic and gentle and created groundbreaking protocols that are still used today.
Though he saved many lives, there were medical opponents who sought to discredit him through slander in the media and lawsuits. Consequently, he was arrested, jailed, tried and acquitted, but never gave up his humanitarian passion to help those in need.
After his death in 1998, Dr. Josef Issels’ legacy has been continued with the same integrity and dedication by his wife and collaborator for 40 years, Ilse Marie Issels, and their sons, Dr. Christian N. Issels and Hellmut J. Issels. They have since carried on his groundbreaking work with remarkable results.
Ilse Marie Issels