The Faces of Miracles

William Nolen: the face of medical scrutiny

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Table of Contents

William Nolen and the face of medical scrutiny

William Nolen, like most surgeons of his generation (he earned his medical degree in 1953), was wary of treatments outside traditional medicine. At the same time, he was frustrated when his patients had ongoing problems like asthma, arthritis, or paralysis that he couldn’t cure. He hated having to tell patients there was nothing else he could do and they would just have to live with their condition.

Nolen recognized that this sometimes drove desperate people to non-traditional practitioners who promised to help them when doctors had failed. But Nolen believed no one without a formal medical education should be dispensing medical advice. It was a waste of time and money that would only lead to more disappointment.

He changed his mind in 1971 after reading an account by New York Times editor and columnist James Reston on Chinese acupuncture. “Now,” Nolen wrote, “it appeared that there was at least a possibility … I might sometimes have been wrong. Maybe — sometime, somewhere — I’d had a patient beyond my help, but not beyond the help of a Chinese practitioner or of someone else.”[1]

Nolen decided that based on Reston’s account he would take a more open-minded look at alternative healing practices the next time he heard of a non-traditional technique that promised to cure patients where traditional medicine had failed.

The Promise of Psychic Healing

The next year, during a tour to promote his book A Surgeon’s World, Nolen learned about a young girl he identified as Charlotte (all patient names were changed) who was paralyzed by an inoperable tumor in her brain stem. Her father, a successful executive, had heard of psychic surgeons in the Philippines who performed miraculous surgical procedures with their bare hands — no instruments and no anesthetic.

The father knew a woman with debilitating heart disease. She claimed psychic surgery had transformed her from an invalid in a wheelchair into an avid golfer. When the father asked his daughter’s pediatrician about these healers, the doctor said that the American Medical Association dismissed psychic surgery as nonsense, though they had never officially examined the practice in detail.

Nolen heard of another case of a woman with a tumor behind her left eye. Three specialists told her the eye would have to be removed. Instead, she had psychic surgery in the Philippines and returned with her eye perfectly normal. Though her doctor explained it as a regressive tumor, a one-in-five-million situation, she was convinced that psychic surgery saved her eye.

Charlotte’s grandfather flew to the Philippines to watch the most famous of the surgeons, Tony Agpaoa. Initially astonished at what he saw, the grandfather became skeptical, claiming that before he started operating, Tony hid a piece of cotton soaked in red liquid in his hand, only to reveal it later to make it seem like it was tissue removed from his patient’s body.

Desperate to do anything besides sit hopelessly by and watch his daughter die, Charlotte’s father took her to see Tony Agpaoa anyway. After four “operations” they returned home without any evidence that the trip had helped his daughter.

Both the claims of miraculous healing and the enthusiasm of desperate patients to try psychic surgery inspired Nolen to dig deeper. Travel agencies were organizing group tours to the Philippines for surgery and travelers were spending their life savings in hopes of a cure where traditional medicine had failed.[2]

Were these Filipino surgeons performing miracles as they claimed, and as the patients who supported them believed, or were they just clever stage magicians passing off parlor tricks as miraculous cures? Nolen decided to visit these healers himself and to watch their work with a professional medical eye.

Surgery in Thirty Seconds

Nolen knew that the American Medical Association frowned on its members taking any action that could lend respectability to bogus medical practices. He didn’t want the professional medical community to misinterpret his intentions or undercut his own medical reputation.

According to Nolen, the AMA reported that Tony Agpaoa “had separated hundreds of patients from their life savings and had cured no one.”[3] Agpaoa had been convicted of fraud, jumped bail in Detroit, and returned to the Philippines to continue his career as a miracle surgeon. The AMA considered Agpaoa’s claims fakery. The association added that Agpaoa and other psychic surgeons not only cheated desperate people out of their money but also caused delays in proper treatment that could prove dangerous or fatal.

Despite this negative verdict from the AMA and the thousands of people each year who traveled to the Philippines for psychic surgery, Nolen could find no first-hand account about these healing claims by a medical doctor. The AMA ultimately approved his independent research, evidently agreeing with Nolen that even if, as was likely, the Filipino healers were fakes, it was important for a credentialed medical doctor to examine and assess psychic surgery.

To prepare for his trip to the Philippines, Nolen watched a film of Tony Agpaoa performing psychic surgery. With a female patient on a table in the living room of a Filipino cottage, Agpaoa appeared to push his fingers into the woman’s abdomen using a kneading motion. Nolen wrote, “In a matter of seconds a red liquid that resembled blood welled up between his fingers, and immediately thereafter he seemed to be pulling out of the abdomen what appeared to me to be globs of fatty tissue. About thirty seconds after he had begun, the operation was completed. He pulled his hands away and there wasn’t a mark on the abdomen except for a thin film of this red liquid, which he quickly mopped up.”[4]

Nolen found that non-doctors watching the film were readily convinced they had seen a surgical miracle. Patients who had undergone psychic surgery insisted they could feel the surgeon’s hands inside them and that what he seemed to remove was actual tissue from their bodies. Nolen believed they were sincere but naïve. These paople had never “seen the large intestine, or the inside of the knee, or a beating heart. I had, hundreds of times. I knew that an inflamed intestine isn’t cured by removing blobs of fat from the abdomen.”[5]

A Parlor Trick

In June 1973, William Nolen went to the Philippines to watch psychic surgeons in person. His objective was to form an unbiased professional opinion on whether they had genuine healing powers, supernatural or otherwise. His traveling companion and guide was Charlotte’s father, Manny. Landing in the Philippines, Nolen drove into the countryside and found himself in a hot, steamy, primitive environment with no paved roads or electricity.

The first procedure Nolan observed was by a healer named David Olgani operating on a patient diagnosed with blood clots in his legs. Invited to examine the patient, Nolen agreed that blood clots could be the problem, specifically postphlebitic syndrome indicated by inflammation and swelling.

To Nolen’s surprise, Olgani turned the patient on his stomach. Nolen knew from training and experience that the major veins draining the legs run on the front of the thigh. The area on the back of the thigh where Olgani was working contains only small superficial veins.

Apparently, without touching the patient, the healer made a scratch in the skin on the lower back. He then seemed to coax a little blood out of it by setting fire to a wad of cotton in a small glass inverted over the scratch, the heat drawing out the blood. Nolen noticed afterward that Oligani hid a tiny but sharp piece of mica in his other hand and had made the scratch with it while directing attention to his “operating” hand. That was the extent of the treatment.

For his next case, Oligani treated a woman with pain in her abdomen. Kneading the abdominal tissue, he seemed to reach inside and pull some bloody-looking tissue out. “Blood clot!” he announced, holding it up for everyone else to see. A minute later he displayed a second similar item. “Bad tissue,” he explained.  After the surgery the patient said all her pain was gone, and she only wished she had come sooner.

As a surgeon who had performed more than six thousand operations, Nolen could see that what seemed to happen had not actually happened. Oligani bent his fingers so that it looked like they penetrated the skin. In fact, he was only kneading the skin with his knuckles. The “blood clot” and “tissue” were wads of cotton he had hidden in his hands and the “blood” was the red juice of betel nuts.

Many observers thought they were witnessing a miracle, but none of them had ever seen a real operation. When Oligani held up a bloody object and called it a blood clot, many readily believed him. Nolen saw it as a parlor trick. “No one who had ever seen an operation would be misled for a moment,” he declared. This was the “miracle healing” patients had come for from all over the world, including Germany, Japan, Canada, and the United States. The whole thing was a fake.[6]

Nolen asked Oligani how he did what he did. David replied that a saint guided his hands and that diseased organs felt hot so that was how he knew what to take out.

In another village Nolen watched a woman named Josephine perform psychic surgery on a female patient with stomach pain. She had the patient lie on a table, swabbed her stomach with alcohol, then after about half a minute of “surgery” similar to what Nolen had seen before, held up some blood-soaked material. “Appendix,” she said with a smile. Nolen later wrote, “I’ve removed several hundred appendices in my surgical career. What Josephine was holding was a wad of cotton, not an appendix.”[7]

Days later Nolen had psychic surgeon Joe Mercado operate on him, saying he had high blood pressure and possible kidney trouble. Because he was too tall to fit on the kitchen table where patients lay down for surgery, Nolen underwent his surgery standing up. Nolen reported that Mercado “pulled out several wads of dark red cotton and held them up for me to see.” These were “clots.” Then he held up “a blob of reddish yellow tissue,” which Nolen could see was a wad of fat covered with whatever Mercado was using for blood. “Tumor,” Mercado announced. “Very serious. You are a lucky man.”

Having cut through the abdominal muscles ­— half an inch thick and four inches wide — on many occasions, Nolen knew how tough they were and how impossible it would be for anyone to penetrate them with bare hands. “Joe Mercado, reputedly ‘one of the best of the psychic surgeons’ and ‘one operator who never has to fake it,’ had just performed a sham operation on me.”[8]

Duped

In the town of Baguio, Nolen interviewed Dr. Raúl Otillo, an American-trained surgeon who knew of Tony Agpaoa. Otillo estimated that Agpaoa took in about $40,000 per month for his psychic surgery, mostly from desperate foreigners. His wife had additional income from her travel agency that organized patient trips to the islands. (At the time the average per capita income for Filipinos was about $215 per year.)

As head of the local medical bureau, Otillo had asked Agpaoa to demonstrate his powers. Though he agreed to show members of the bureau his technique on three different occasions, he never kept his appointments. Otillo finally decided Agpaoa was a fake, and was especially upset because some patients flew long distances to see him and then died in the Philippines. Yet it was hard to charge Agpaoa legally unless an unhappy patient agreed to sue him. None of them wanted to sue because they were embarrassed at being duped and wanted to keep their visits secret.

Otillo told of a patient who came from Canada to see Agpaoa for treatment of a kidney stone. When Agpaoa operated and produced the stone, the patient grabbed it before it could be soaked with alcohol and burned (which was the usual practice) and later had it examined by a pathologist. It was a lump of sugar. The patient, a prominent businessman, was ashamed that he had been deceived and yet refused to press charges.

Nolen interviewed other genuine medical doctors in the Philippines, including Dr. Wilfred Marcos, an obstetrician and brother of the Philippine president at the time, Ferdinand Marcos. These doctors knew about the psychic surgeons and regarded them as fakers, but either ignored them, tolerated them as successors to the folk healers who’d practiced in the Philippines for hundreds of years, or accepted them because of the revenue they brought into the economy.

Charlotte’s father, Manny, was disheartened by the trip. In the excitement and optimism of the moment, he had given thousands of dollars to healers when they were treating Charlotte; now he saw that it was all wasted.

“I’d Kill Tony With My Bare Hands”

Back in the United States, Nolen tracked down fifty-three patients who had had psychic surgery in the Philippines. Typical of their comments was the father of an eight-year-old girl who died days after a “successful” operation by Tony Agpaoa: “If I could afford to go back to the Philippines, I’d go tomorrow; and I’d kill Tony Agpaoa with my bare hands.”[9]

None of them had evidence that the surgeons had done anything miraculous. One woman with cancer as well as kidney and bladder problems had gone to the Filipino surgeons to remove internal scar tissue. After eight “operations” they said she would be cured in three months. Nothing happened.

In another case, a man who’d had bowel trouble for ten years decided to see the psychic surgeons rather than risk a conventional operation. He came back delighted and even sent an additional donation to the healer. Months later an attack of diverticulitis perforated his intestine, requiring emergency surgery and a temporary colostomy. Earlier treatment would have meant one operation; delaying the treatment to go to the Philippines resulted in three operations instead.

Nolen’s other examples were further variations on these same themes, all demonstrating that, as he wrote, “intelligence and common sense don’t necessarily protect one from charlatans.” Patients in an emotional state and desperate to believe have no trouble suspending their “critical faculties and swallowing whole all the nonsense they are fed.”[10]

Charlotte died from her brain tumor in 1974 at the age of eight.[11]

From Surgery to Spiritualism

While he was researching Filipino psychic healers, Nolen heard that evangelist and healer Kathryn Kuhlman was coming to town. He decided that if he was going to research miracle healing, it would be worthwhile to learn more about Kuhlman and her ministry.

In the mold of Aimee Semple McPherson before her and Benny Hinn after, Kathryn Kuhlman packed giant auditoriums with crowds convinced that she had miraculous powers. She repeatedly insisted that God did the healing; she was only His instrument.

Conveniently for Nolen, a friend called to say she and her husband were recruiting ushers to work in the wheelchair section of the hall. Nolen volunteered. It was the perfect opportunity to watch Kuhlman up close.

At the event Nolen was saddened to see the horde of wheelchair-bound people who filled the area set aside for them. “Some of the afflicted were elderly men and women, drooling from a corner of their mouth, an arm lying loosely and uselessly on a paralyzed leg… Others were children, six, eight, or ten years of age, crippled by birth defects… There were men and women of middle age as well. Some had the pale, wasted appearance that a doctor learns through experience is associated with widespread cancer; others had paralysis or disfiguring defects.”[12]

Once the service started, Nolen instantly sensed what he called “presence.” Kuhlman appeared to him first and foremost as a master showman and a superb actress. He wrote, “You have to be there to see her stride across the stage; watch her gesture and pose with arms outstretched; listen to the emotion in her voice as she cries and prays; watch her face light up in rapture; and above all see her smile. You have to be there to fully understand how she captures and holds her audience.”[13]

Kuhlman began by acknowledging the terrible responsibility and burden of her calling. Was it her fault that some people there that day would not be healed? “Sometimes it seems like more than I can bear,” she said. Yet she admitted it was “worth the price when you see one cancer healed … one child made better … one woman get out of a wheelchair.”

Then she took up an offering, asking “twenty people out there to write out checks for one hundred dollars … fifty people to write checks for fifty dollars” and so forth.[14]

A Revolting Sight

Then the healing began. To prime the process, Kathryn said she knew of people with various disease being healed — cancer here, bursitis there, diabetes in the balcony. “I rebuke that heart condition!” she exclaimed, her sights on a far corner of the hall. When no one stood up right away in one section to claim a healing she would refocus her attention somewhere else.

Assistants or ushers patrolled the aisles looking for people who seemed drawn in, or confused, or otherwise approachable, and led them up front to say they were healed. People started to call out that they were being cured. At each declaration the audience shouted and clapped. Soon there were lines of people on both sides of the stage waiting to come up and tell the world about their healing miracle.

Even Nolen — the skeptical physician — wondered briefly if he had been healed from the bursitis in his elbow before realizing it was actually the power of suggestion when Kuhlman exclaimed, “I feel someone right now being healed of bursitis!” He imagined how much more likely it would be for sick and desperate persons, vulnerable and swept up in the emotion of the moment, to believe they were suddenly cured.

Nolen watched a steady stream of patients come forward, many in wheelchairs, to be “put through running, bending, or breathing paces, depending on the nature of the cure. Applause for each performance. Patient and wheelchair returned to the aisle. Asthmatics, arthritics and multiple-sclerosis patients all ran through their new tricks.”[15]

When Kuhlman called for someone to remove the brace on their leg because they didn’t need it any more, there was a restive pause. No one came forward at first. Then a young woman limped down front waving her brace in the air and stood in front of the crowd, one leg clearly withered and shorter than the other. The young woman had had polio for thirteen years, she said, and now believed the Lord was curing her.

Nolen was incensed by the sight. “The scene was, to my mind, utterly revolting. This young girl had a withered leg, the result of polio. It was just as withered now as it had been ten minutes ago… Now she stood in front of ten thousand people giving praise to the Lord — and indirectly to Kathryn Kuhlman — for a cure that hadn’t occurred and wasn’t going to occur. I could imagine how she’d feel the next morning, or even an hour later, when the hysteria of the moment had left her and she’d have to again put on the brace…

“This case shook severely what little hope I had left that Kathryn Kuhlman was, truly, a ‘miracle worker.’” Earlier he had “chalked it off to innocent error when the ability to take a deep breath was passed off as evidence of a lung-cancer cure (even though I knew most patients with lung cancer can breathe deeply); I had assumed it was simple overenthusiasm … to call a multiple-sclerosis patient ‘cured’ even though she obviously still walked with the multiple-sclerosis gait; but this episode involving the girl with the brace was pure, unadulterated, flagrant nonsense. For Kathryn Kuhlman to really believe that the Holy Spirit had worked a miracle with this girl, it seemed to me that Kathryn Kuhlman would have had to be either blind or incredibly stupid, and she was obviously neither.”[16]

Not a single healing that night involved curing an obvious organic disease such as a broken bone or a birth defect; all of those types of cases who approached the stage were turned back by Kuhlman’s assistants.

Sincere but Wrong

After the service Nolen interviewed Kuhlman. The evangelist was welcoming, courteous, and seemed to have nothing to hide. She said she got along “wonderfully well” with the medical profession. The doctor asked her if she thought any of the patients she cured were simply hysterical. “Of course,” Kuhlman answered. “Aren’t any of the patients you treat hysterical?” Nolen admitted that they were.[17]

He asked if she could cure organic diseases like gallstones or cancer. She said that certainly they were cured, though it was God and not she who did the healing. She also pointed out that many of her cures, including all the ones shown on her syndicated TV show, were documented. She added that miracles were Christ’s way of telling us to prepare for His return.

Nolen came way with the impression that Kuhlman was a sincere, devout woman who fervently believed God used her to heal. Even so, he doubted that whatever good her ministry did outweighed the pain of disappointment that followed when people were not healed or when their evident healing turned out to be temporary.

With Kuhlman’s permission, Nolen collected names and addresses to follow up with those who said they had been healed at her healing service. Interviewing them two months later, Nolen found that some continued to feel better but most either still had the diseases or conditions they’d had before, or those problems had improved in normal and medically predictable ways.

In any event, Nolen found not a single case of miraculous healing. A young man with liver cancer who came to be cured died twelve days later. A woman who pronounced herself cured of lung cancer actually had Hodgkin’s disease and was unaffected by the service. Another who claimed a cure of bone cancer that night was no better and had lost weight and gone on pain medication since the service. Another cancer patient had taken off her back brace at the service and jogged across the stage. At four o’clock the next morning she woke up in excruciating pain and spent the next week in traction. When she returned home from the hospital, she put the back brace on again.

Nolen concluded that he believed Kuhlman “sincerely believes that the thousands of patients who come to her services every year are, through her ministrations, being cured of organic diseases. I also think — and my investigations confirm this — that she is wrong.”[18]

No Miracle Healers Exist

In studying psychic surgeons and faith healers, William Nolen called on his training and experience as a surgeon to investigate the facts and see if either actually produced miraculous results. He started his investigation by attempting to rule out any preconceived notions for or against. As a doctor who sometimes failed to help his patients, he was eager for any effective therapies he could offer them when his medical training fell short. The healings he saw or read about were “cases like those every doctor sees in his practice: self-limited diseases, cyclical diseases, diseases known to be psychosomatic or hysterical in origin.”[19]

Miracle healers, Nolen says, use to advantage that fifty percent of illnesses are self-limiting. A cold will heal on its own. Another twenty percent (headaches, for example) are subject to the power of suggestion. This means that doctors and miracle healers alike will produce about a seventy percent success rate without doing anything.

Even for the remainder, Nolen reminds us it’s the body that heals and not the doctor. When a boy falls out of a tree and breaks his leg, a doctor aligns the broken pieces and puts them in a cast, but it’s the boy’s body that does the healing. “We put things back together,” Nolen concludes. “The body — God, if you prefer — heals.”[20] Nolen was an Irish Roman Catholic.

In trying to discover genuine miracle healing, Nolen admits, “I finally gave up. After doing my very best for eighteen months to find some shred of evidence that somewhere there was someone who had miraculous healing powers, I concluded that no such person existed.”[21]

Though written more than forty years ago, William Nolen’s account of his quest for miracle healing is still one of the most insightful and authoritative studies available. It’s valuable not only for its careful professional observation of healers in action but also for the meticulous follow-up that exposed fraudulent or mistaken healing claims.

At the end of his life, Nolen was himself in need of a miracle cure. After three heart attacks and a quintuple bypass, he died in 1986 at the age of 58.

Nolen doubted the claims of the healers he investigated because of his training and experience as a physician. James Randi doubts them because of his training and experience in the arts of illusion and sleight-of-hand. Like Nolen, Randi is good at spotting fakes when he sees them, and he’s seen plenty.

Chapter Notes

[1] Nolen, William A., Healing: A Doctor in Search of a Miracle. (New York: Random House, 1974), p. 10; Unless otherwise noted, all details and quotations are from this source.
[2] Ibid., pp. 14-19.
[3] Ibid., pp. 21-22.
[4] Ibid., p. 28.
[5] Ibid., p. 30.
[6] Ibid., pp. 182-184.
[7] Ibid., p. 192.
[8] Ibid., pp. 204-205.
[9] Ibid., pp. 244-245.
[10] Ibid., p. 258.
[11] Ibid., p. 224; see footnote.
[12] Ibid., pp. 53-54.
[13] Ibid., p. 61.
[14] Ibid., pp. 60-61.
[15] Ibid., pp. 63-64.
[16] Ibid., pp. 65-66.
[17] Ibid., p. 69.
[18] Ibid., p. 101.
[19] Ibid., p. 267.
[20] Ibid., p. 270.
[21] Ibid., p. 268.