Who was Dr Paul M Koonin?
But information is scarce about the man, who in 1941, thought that soybeans deserved an entire book to promote their virtues. Despite being quoted as some sort of authority on many current websites, none bother to provide an explanation of who he was. He hasn’t merited a page on Wikipedia, or an entry on the Australian Dictionary of Biography.
The National Archives holds six of his books in its copyright collection – but in addition to these it also has a few extra files that shed some light on the life of the man who called himself Dr PM Koonin.
His story is complicated, and I’ve been pulling together all sorts of information together from his Naturalisation file, his Intelligence file and by searching online newspapers at the National Library.
It seems that he was born Poltio Michel Koonin (or Bakunin) near Minsk around 1884. He first arrived in Australia around 1907, a couple of years after Red Sunday in St Petersburg, and after a particularly nasty era of anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia and surrounding countries. There seems little doubt that these events are the reason he left Minsk and started a life of travel.
I’ve read so many words to describe him – it’s very difficult to get a feel for the man. He claimed, at various times in his career, to be a photographer, the Secretary of the Unemployed, a dentist, a world traveler, a Russian agent, a naturopath, an osteopath, a dietician, and a psychologist – not to mention the ‘Late Director of Medical Research at the University of Kharkov’.
All of these claims are in sharp contrast to the words used to describe him by the authorities in Australia, the UK and South Africa. Police and intelligence reports used words such as ‘adventurer’, ‘imposter’, ‘undesirable’, ‘a man of very sharp practice’ and ‘bogus medical practitioner’. He was deported from South Africa to Australia in 1933 after he not only contravened their medical laws, but was suspected of being a ‘Bolshevik emissary’. Australian authorities allowed him into the country reluctantly, especially as they had been receiving reports from the UK about his behaviour whilst running a dental practice in London and later Colombo. But as they had granted him Naturalisation in 1910, they had no choice but to take him.
It wasn’t just countries that didn’t want him. In 1934, after he attempted to persuade the Communist Party of Australia that he was a Soviet emissary, they published the following notice in their paper ‘The Workers Voice’:
‘The Communist Party wishes to inform all workers that it repudiates all connection or association with a person who, under the name of Dr Paul M Koonin, has been giving lectures introducing himself as a member of the Russian Living Church of Christ.
It is stated that he has given out that he has the endorsement of the CP of A. This is not the case.’
Over the years the descriptions of his qualifications get more and more inflated. In Australia in 1909 he claims a Bachelor of Arts from the Hebrew University in Minsk, and in 1911 adds a Fellow of the Zoological Society. Whilst living in the UK he was said to hold ‘certain American diplomas for dentistry’, but once he arrived in Australia he claimed a Doctorate of Dental Science from the University of Kharkov.
It’s an appropriately colourful background for a man who, once he finally settled in Sydney, dedicated his life to promoting what were, in the late 1930s and 1940s, very alternative approaches to health management. Another of his books, that ran to two editions, was Health Cocktails: How to make them (according to the new science of vegetable juice therapy).
So who was Paul M Koonin? I’m not sure yet… I have a lot more research to do, and more stories to digest. I need to think about the time he had 3000 false teeth stolen from his suitcase while traveling to Colombo – or when he tried to meet Victorian Premier Bent as ‘Secretary to the Unemployed’, but was refused admission because he was a Russian and a Socialist. On what medical grounds was he refused when he tried to join the British Forces in 1914? What was so suspicious about his friendship with Russian circus owner Mr Isako in Ceylon? And how many times did he marry, attempt to marry, and even try to import women to marry?
I assure you – I’m not making any of this up.
His story is fascinating – not the least because his words have become immortal on the internet without people actually knowing who or what he was.