Mon. Jul 22nd, 2024

Famed 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 when he was growing up in his native Detroit, Mich.

“He wanted to teach the word and get people to eat better and protect the environment. His number one pleasure in life was helping others — and his family,” she said.

He had his skeptics and critics, particularly early on, some of whom dismissed his diet as extreme or not sustainable. More recent research nonetheless, seems to support the health benefits of a plant-based diet. A study released in May by the University of California at San Francisco found that men with prostate cancer could significantly reduce the chances of the disease worsening by eating more fruits, vegetables and nuts and olive oil and only small amounts of meat, dairy and fish.

A stroke of fortune

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

Still, he regarded that incident as “one of the great fortunes of my life,“ inspiring him to go to medical school where he met Mary, a surgical nurse, in an operating room in 1971.

“She was his scrub nurse. He just fell in love. He tried to get her to go on a date with him. Finally she 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 did his residency. He also served as a general practitioner at the Hamakua Sugar Company. It was there he discovered his life’s work.

“My plantation patients taught me how to eat,” told the Press Democrat in 2010. “The first-generation Japanese, Filipino and Chinese kept their same diet. They were trim and they never had heart disease, arthritis or diabetes.”

The second generation was a different story.

“Their kids raised in Hawaii were eating richer food,” he said. “The kids had gotten a little fatter and sicker.”

“Before my own eyes I saw fully functioning elders thriving on grains and fruits and vegetables. With the inclusion of the two other basic food groups — meat and dairy — the progeny failed,” he would write.

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

In 1986 he was recruited to run The McDougall program at The Adventist Health hospital in St. Helena, a leading heart surgery center, and moved his family to Santa Rosa. By 1999 he was also offering his program remotely out of hotels in Minnesota for Blue Cross Blue Shield and for a supermarket company in Florida. In 2002 McDougall went independent with his 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 dietitian, culinary educator and cookbook writer who worked with McDougall for many years.

“He got many thousands and thousands of people to look at what they were doing and make huge changes for their health and overall benefit,” she said.

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

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

When he wasn’t advocating health through diet, 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 wasn’t clear what caused her father’s death. “He did have damaged arteries from his stroke. The ideal death is to just go in your sleep. It happened just the way he wanted it to. Sooner than we wanted 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. Services will be private.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or

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