Dr Peter Landless brings with him a captivating history of transformation in his home country of South Africa, a history which had an impact on the whole world.
Having lived through social and political transformations, the abolition of apartheid, and scientific transformations—including the first successful heart transplant surgery—Dr Landless is now the Director of Adventist Health Ministries, and Executive Director of the International Commission for the Prevention of Alcoholism and Drug Dependency (ICPA). But Dr. Landless is also a very eloquent speaker who uses this gift to promote a healthy and responsible lifestyle around the world. In this interview, you will find out to whom he owes his eloquence.
You are from a great place: South Africa. I have been fascinated by this country ever since I was about 16, for a few reasons that I will mention. Tell us about your childhood.
I was born in South Africa, a beautiful country, with a chequered past, which has been fascinating, shameful, and even surprising, in the way that the changes that took place in 1994—the world stood aghast at that.
My own world and memories are framed so much by the background of a godly family. And I remember, from my earliest years, being brought up, molded, and encouraged within a family that loved God, honoured him, and a mother, particularly, who ensured my brother and I were understanding of the love of God, and also of the importance of serving and following Him.
Every morning our mother made sure breakfast was ready on time. And if we were late, we might have missed breakfast, but we never missed prayer and reading a passage from the Bible, and she would say, “Pray to the Lord to protect you from harm.” Shortly before she died, my mother told me, “Even after I die, the prayers I have offered for you throughout my life will have an effect, for they are logged at God’s throne for you.”
That means a great deal to me, because my parents—but especially my mother—helped us to understand, from our earliest years, the importance of wholeness, and wholeness not only physically, but spiritually, mentally and emotionally.
Looking back, because of the fact that I now meet heads of state and give lectures at prestigious universities and international television stations, I think the Lord had a hand in preparing me for these things as a child. One of the things our parents ensured that we do was to speak well, so they sent us to speaking training.
I did eight years of speech and exams which took us right up to a licentiate level in the Royal School of Speech.
That wasn’t part of your school curriculum.
It was not. I went to class after school.
This is the first time I’ve heard of such a thing. What were you learning, what were you practicing at that school? Probably not just to speak correctly, but also to form sentences, express yourself clearly, and modulate your voice?
I learned all of this. I learned to design and modulate my voice, to recite poetry, to read prose, and make impromptu speeches. Being Greek, my mother considered it important to learn Greek, so I went to Greek classes once a week.
My grandfather, who had a strong influence on my life, was originally from Europe, lived in Egypt for a time, and spoke seven languages, including Arabic, English, French, Italian, Greek, and Spanish. He told me that an additional language is like an additional soul—it’s another window into life.
Dr. Landless, I would like to ask you—when did you realise that society in South Africa was marked by injustice?
It’s a painful subject, but I’m glad you opened it. We were not wealthy, but we had what we needed and lived in a middle-class suburb. We had people of colour who helped us with our garden work, and we loved them and considered them part of our family. At that time, I did not realise that there were abnormal situations around.
During my high school years, I began to notice the injustices in society, although in South Africa censorship of the press was very severe, and history was studied from the colonial perspective of whites.
History was one of my favourite subjects, and the history teacher drew our attention to the fact that the school offered us a one-sided perspective on things and ignored the injustices, inequities and iniquities of the apartheid regime.
When I enrolled in medical school, it was as if the scales fell from my eyes. I attended the University of the Witwatersrand, a highly ranked university. During my student years, I attended lunch breaks where people talked about the black movement for civil rights and showed movies about Martin Luther King, so I had a final revelation about the problem we were facing in South Africa. This changed the direction of my life.
The whole world watched what was happening in South Africa with great interest, and there was a sense of relief and wonder when what could have become a massacre, or maybe a genocide, turned out to be an extremely peaceful process. What do you think is the explanation?
There were probably three factors. First, I believe that God, in His mercy and in His grace, guided the conduct of things, and people allowed themselves to be guided by Him. Prior to the 1994 elections, it was known that apartheid was coming to an official end and many prayed fervently for God to protect the country. Another factor was the work of Nelson Mandela, a larger-than-life figure who played a key role in promoting interracial reconciliation. It is wonderful that God caused the desire for forgiveness to take root in his heart.
Mandela’s worldwide influence remains amazing even after his death, and his influence in South Africa was seminal. He had a very firm attitude, as he met with much opposition from allies who did not agree with his nonviolent struggle. He did not want to take revenge or hate those who had done wrong. And people were amazed by this. I had the privilege of being near Nelson Mandela, as I was part of a team of doctors who worked with him. He was a modest, kind, very smart, engaging man who had a good relationship with everyone around him.
How did you come to study medicine?
I began to understand that a doctor can help people both physically and spiritually, and this fascinated me. After high school, I immediately went into medicine. Thousands of young people had signed up and only 150 were admitted. I received a letter: “You have been accepted. Let us know in 24 hours if you will study here, because other young people are on the waiting list.” I accepted, not knowing where the money was going to come from. Then I received another letter. My father had worked for many years for a company in South Africa whose general managers created a fund for deserving students, and I was really blessed to receive a full scholarship for all my years of college.
Immediately after you were accepted?
Yes. The scholarship covered all my expenses, including books, for all my college years, so it was an absolute blessing from the Lord.
Did you enroll in medicine before or after Christiaan Barnard performed his famous heart transplant in South Africa?
That transplant was done just before I went to college and I was upset about that! (Laughs)
I, too, was captivated by what Dr. Barnard was doing. I was a little younger than you, and the success of this doctor made me think seriously about medicine, but in the end I headed in a different direction.
So we both wanted to be doctors… I will never forget, that heart transplant was done in December of 1967, and in February of the following year I started medical school. When I found out about the transplant, I said to myself: Will there be anything new for me to do when I’m finished, if they keep doing all these amazing things…?
Why did you choose to specialise in cardiology?
As we talk, I realise more and more that Dr. Barnard’s success may have influenced my decision. The first hospital where I practiced was one of the largest hospitals in Africa, called Baragwanath. I had a professor who taught students based on special cases in the cardiology department. This teacher was passionate about his job and explained everything to us extremely well, and that made me interested in internal medicine, but especially in cardiology.
How has your spiritual life evolved?
In my fourth year of college, the same year I realised I wanted to pursue cardiology, I went through a struggle with my faith. That began in my second year of college, when I started to meet with some brilliant medical professors. One of them was an atheist, so I began to question my beliefs. I also had an anatomy professor who told me that there is not always a conflict between the Biblie and science, because he said although he does not agree with certain aspects of how we came to be, he believed there is a God. I struggled with this in my second and third year of college and nobody knew about this, not even my parents.
It was good for me that I faced this. It was almost like a time of going through a fire to purify my thinking… One day, at four in the morning, after a whole night of work, the patients had all been seen, and I was talking to a young doctor. He was a remarkable Christian, not a preachy one, but one who lived what he believed. I asked him, “Have you ever had worries about your beliefs?” He told me, “Oh yeah, absolutely, but it’s a matter of credo, of belief. We don’t always understand certain things, we can’t always check things in the test tube, but faith is a gift.” Right after that discussion, my faith settled. The sincerity, and especially the example of that colleague, helped me.
How early in life did you realise that your church possesses an extraordinary heritage—a lifestyle that leads to abundant health—and what was your reaction when you understood this?
From an early age, probably because I had been taught to follow those principles. My family were not vegetarians, but we did not eat meat daily, only occasionally. We ate only clean meat in small quantities, and my mother gradually adopted the vegetarian diet.
Did you like this?
Yes, very much. I decided to become a vegetarian at the age of 18-19, after reading books and listening to sermons on nutrition. I had also begun to document this on my own.
I realised from an early age that the Adventist Church promotes a healthy lifestyle because we participated in its activities for children, and we had to ensure that we brushed our teeth every day, drank enough water, bathed regularly and didn’t eat between meals. It was harder for us not to eat between meals, because my mother cooked very well, but we were urged not to eat between meals and to go to bed early and all the other good things.
I gradually became convinced of the importance of the Adventist message of total health, while helping those around me physically and spiritually, because in order to be healthy, it is very important to focus on service. To be healthy does not mean to have a long life enslaved to selfish desires, but to serve others.
Some of the things I learned in college, that were presented to us as recent discoveries, were the things I had read about as a child that had been written a hundred years before, so that strengthened my faith and I said to myself: we have a wonderful heritage!
The health message is not a list of rules to check, saying: I had my fibre and drank enough water today. It is not just that, but it means that, aided by God’s mercy and love, we will carry out, in our lives, the message of health that He has given us in spite of our fallen condition. This makes our health message holistic.
At the end of last week, I had an interesting dialogue with a Jewish researcher who has extensively studied the influence of keeping the Sabbath on health. As Adventists, we have the so-called “Adventist health advantage”: we live seven to nine years longer, we have a better quality of life, but there is another factor that must be considered psychologically and scientifically—Sabbath rest plays an important role in maintaining the good health of those who adopt this faith.
The crucial component of the health message given to this church is that it targets the whole human being. If we keep the Sabbath, pray, and meditate on the work, ways, and Word of God, our character will be transformed. Forgiveness and gratitude are also very important. I know it sounds like a soundbite from my speech training: we need to cultivate an attitude of gratitude.
I detected other soundbites, too, that are, I think, the result of those courses…
‘An attitude of gratitude is not a platitude’… And scientists are writing about it. Two weeks ago I read that people with an attitude of gratitude have a better quality of life. Those who have friends, a loving family, those who have parents, children, and life partners they love have a better immune system and a lower rate of depression and suicide. Young people who cultivate positive relationships do better at school, face fewer situations in which they can be bullied, and experiment less with sex.
How important is the protection of the environment when it comes to health?
It would be reprehensible if we did not protect the environment. Some people look at things from an eschatological perspective and say, “We don’t have to worry about this, the end of the world will come anyway.” But in His Word, God says He will destroy those who destroy the earth. It pains me to see that some people are indifferent to the environment. You can’t be healthy if you can’t drink clean water and breathe fresh air.
Is there a connection between what we choose to eat and what happens around us?
I can’t forget a certain occasion when I took part in a dinner given by the hospital director. He is an internationally recognised specialist in the field of blood diseases and iron metabolism. The director noticed that I was not eating meat and asked me, “Why don’t you eat meat?” I said, “I’m a vegetarian.” I think he was probably agnostic, but we had some interesting discussions about faith, and he said to the group, “Dr. Landless is the only one here trying to protect the environment.”
Really? That was his first remark?
Yes. This was in 1992. It was at the beginning of the environmental movement. The director of the hospital added: “Do you know how much grass was consumed to make this steak? It would be much better if people adopted a vegetarian diet.” When we think about the vested interests of the meat and dairy industry, we think it would be fighting a losing battle, but that doesn’t mean the cause shouldn’t be fought.
Throughout its history, the Adventist Church has strongly opposed alcohol consumption. Is this position supported by scientific data?
As a cardiologist, some patients tell me, “Doctor, haven’t you read that the benefits of alcohol are covered in magazines, in the news, and in scientific studies?” The so-called French red wine paradox was described in 1979, and since then the idea that alcohol reduces the risk of heart disease has been considered a proven fact. But many studies have shown that confounding variables were not taken into account at the time, including the socioeconomic framework, level of education, access to medical services, and even marital status and religiosity.
In 2006, an analysis was made of about 70 of the most prominent studies and it was found that, if we consider the confounding variables, alcohol consumption does not have a positive influence on the body, but a negative one. Major organisations around the world are warning of the dangers of alcohol consumption. The World Health Organization began to do so, after talking about the dangers of eating red meat. For a long time, members of this organisation say that those who do not consume alcohol should not start drinking, and those at the World Cancer Research Foundation have studied hundreds of thousands of patients and analysed the data obtained. There is no doubt that when it comes to the risk of cancer, there is no level of safety for alcohol consumption.
Yes. Those at the foundation said that alcohol is a carcinogen, a substance that causes breast cancer, colon cancer and other cancers. Even for pregnant women there is no safe threshold for alcohol consumption. From a scientific perspective, the effects of alcohol consumption are clear, and data are published daily confirming this.
But for me, a Christian, in addition to the risk of becoming an alcoholic—given my family history—the most important reason why I do not drink alcohol is one of a spiritual nature. I avoid anything that affects this part of the brain, the frontal cortex, whether it is a lack of sleep or drugs that are not prescribed by a doctor, and especially alcohol.
Thank you very much, Dr. Landless.