“Food Additives Changed My Son From a Happy Youngster Into a Violent Little Brat.”
The National Enquirer headline in the issue dated Dec. 30, 1975, fit the sensationalistic norm for the tabloid in that era. Still, the boy’s story focused on a study by Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in San Francisco that found chemical additives in foods had led to behavioral disorders in six million children.
Of course, even then, it all came back to Miami. Local physician Dr. Paul Pesce, who died at 90 on May 27 at his daughter’s home in Coconut Grove, had long been suspect of food additives. The California boy in the Enquirer’s story moved to Miami where he came under the care of Pesce who, through blood work, identified the additives that had caused the child’s bizarre behavior — yellow food dye No. 2, used in cheese, and sodium sulphide, a common food additive in breads.
Pesce’s discovery changed the boy from “a savage” into “a happy-go-lucky kid again” his mother reported.
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Pesce was always ahead of his time in matters of nutrition and healthcare, recalls his daughter Victoria Pesce Elliott, a freelance restaurant critic whose work appears in the Miami Herald. In 1976, he spoke out against the sale of chocolate milk in Miami-Dade County Schools because of the high sugar content. As a result, chocolate milk was removed from the cafeterias, except on Fridays. Pesce’s crusade didn’t make his daughter very popular at her school, Highland Oaks Middle, Elliott laughs. But, “he taught me to be a maverick and to look at the facts.”
She can still conjure the smell the homemade yogurt in her North Miami-Dade home, its pungent aroma that made the family’s kitchen so different from others on the block. “I remember him telling my mom, ‘Don’t make chicken cutlets with bread crumbs, do without the bread.’ He was anti-gluten 40 years ago. Who ever heard of gluten then?”
In 1974, Pesce flew to China to study acupuncture and brought the ancient practice to his patients. The American Medical Association almost revoked Pesce’s license to practice medicine.
“They thought he was practicing something [akin] to being a witch doctor, some kind of unlicensed medicine. They thought it was voodoo, putting needles in dolls — scary and dangerous,” Elliott said.
He was fearless in his opinions and yet the most charming lover of life you would ever want to meet.
Film/TV director P.J. Pesce on his father, physician Paul Pesce.
Acupuncture, practiced for centuries in China, is in common usage today in the U.S. for pain management. Pesce believed in the value of both Western medicine and alternative approaches.
“There are so many forms of medicine which are obviously ‘successful.’ We have medicine as we know it in the West, voodoo, herbalogy, acupuncture, psychic healing and nutrition. And they all work, so there must be something right in each of them,” Pesce said in a Miami Herald feature in 1976. “Someday we’ll find the right part in each and eliminate the wrong. And that will be medicine — the final method of healing.”
Today, we know that chocolate isn’t the culprit but the high sugar content of the milk “is more addictive than heroin, coffee or alcohol” Pesce said in the Herald article in 1976. He was already condemning white flour, refined foods and even cow’s milk because of its cholesterol count. Pesce promoted almond milk instead.
Most doctors didn’t stress nutrition, Pesce said then, “because they weren’t trained that way, and like most people, they don’t have the time or interest to learn.”
Pesce’s interest in medicine began early. He was 9 when his mother died and he was placed in a Catholic orphanage in Brooklyn. He saw the orphanage as as blessing for it exposed him to “great doctors” and “great teachers” he might otherwise not have known while growing up during the Depression. He also learned about photography in the orphanage. That love of film later inspired his son, Paul (P.J.) Pesce, who went on to become a film and television director (Quantico, Blue Bloods, From Dusk to Dawn 3.)
“When I was a boy he put a camera in my hands. He taught me to take pictures and taught me about lenses,” P.J. Pesce said. “Both my parents had a love of cinema and would go to film festivals all around the world. They gave us many gifts but my father handing me a camera when I was 8 or 9 — and I still have that camera — inspired what I do for a living.”
Pesce earned his degree in pharmacy from St. Johns College of Pharmacy in New York and served in the Navy during World War II as an X-ray technician. He met the woman who would become his wife, Eleanor, on a subway heading to Jersey City. They honeymooned in Miami Beach in 1952, and decided to stay.
Together, with her business savvy, they soon opened their corner drugstore, Paul’s Drugs on Miami’s Northwest Seventh Avenue, which, until its sale in the mid-’80s, featured a Western Union and post office, a beauty salon and an ice cream fountain. The couple were married until Eleanor Pesce died on Sept. 15, 2015, at 88.
In 1966, Pesce earned his medical degree at The Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and worked as a family physician in private practice. Yes, he did house calls. “I asked to be a doctor and that’s all part of being a doctor,” he told the Herald in 1976.
In addition to his daughter and son, Pesce is survived by his son Christopher and four grandchildren. Visitation will be at 6 p.m. Friday at Landmark Funeral Home, 4200 Hollywood Blvd., and funeral at 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Lawrence Catholic Church, 2200 NE 191st St., North Miami-Dade. Donations in his name can be made to the Alzheimer’s Association or Vitas/Hospice.