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Deceased diet guru Dr. Robert C. Atkins was criticized heavily for a scarcity of scientific data to back his theories on the benefits of low-carb diets. Now his widow, Veronica Atkins, is looking to change that. The 66-year-old is devoting the resources of the Robert C. Atkins Foundation, which she heads, toward research into obesity, diabetes, and the benefits of cutting carbohydrates. Skepticism still abounds: Critics question whether research from Dr. Atkins' eponymous foundation, which was started in 1999 to fund nutrition-related initiatives, will be impartial.
The foundation, which operates as a supporting organization under the umbrella of the National Philanthropic Trust, has increased its assets from $3 million in 1999 to $40 million in the wake of the October, 2003, sale of Dr. Atkins' business, Atkins Nutritionals. The foundation's endowment will grow substantially after Veronica's death: It will then inherit the remainder of Dr. Atkins' trust, a sum that will likely be in excess of $600 million.
BusinessWeek Reporter Jessi Hempel recently spoke with Veronica Atkins about her philanthropic endeavors. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Q: What do you hope to achieve with you philanthropy?
A: I would like for my philanthropy to somehow contribute to ending the obesity epidemic. And I'm concentrating on diabetes because it's so intimately associated with eating the wrong things. Dr. Atkins was very successful in treating both those conditions. But people always underestimated him. They know Dr. Atkins as the diet doctor. He hated that. He was a first-rate clinician.
Q: By focusing on nutrition, are you trying to prove your husband's theories were correct?
A: Dr. Atkins was not a scientist. Now I'd like to prove all of his work scientifically. We started to do this when we set up the foundation in 1999. I want it studied. I want to prove that he was right.
Q: You resigned from the board of Atkins Nutritionals after the company's sale. Was this to distinguish the Atkins name commercially from your philanthropic interests?
A: In part, yes. Other people -- it bothers them that our name is connected to the company. It doesn't bother me. The company has been sold. It was our baby, so I wish good things for it, but I'm busy with my own thing at the moment.
Q: Several critics have expressed concern that because Dr. Atkins was such a strong advocate of his low-carb diet, his funds won't be used objectively for research. How do you plan to separate the two?
A: Dr. Atkins was vilified all his life. Now he's vilified after his death because he wanted to give away his money? Frankly, I think it's idiotic. We don't put any constraints on the researchers. We don't see any research results until they're published. How can it be bad? Because Atkins Nutritional is called Atkins and so is Atkins Foundation? Did Rockefeller change his name?
Q: How do you want people to remember your husband?
A: I hope Dr. Atkins is remembered as a passionate doctor. The diet was only part of it. He was a physician. He believed basically that the physician should use all the healing arts. Herbal medication, vitamins, you name it -- both sides were very much part of him. Once the company was sold, the means were there to do some things, and maybe he would have turned more to alternative medicine. But he would have wanted [the scientific approach to his diet] to be investigated.
We were officially married for 15 years, but together for 20. In the last few years, I wanted him to start slowing down and retiring. He wouldn't do it. He absolutely loved to see his patients. I came second. I was sometimes jealous even.
Q: Will you continue to donate to the foundation during your life?
A: Yes, of course. I estimate that its assets will grow quite a bit in the future. The trust that was set up after the sale of the company will go to the foundation upon my death. As to whether any income I receive would go to the foundation as well or whether I would use it for my own philanthropy, I don't know. I may fund some of my own projects. I'm very much interested in children, but it's too early to tell.