Sunday, November 12, 2006

Minnesota starvation experiment I

In the fall of 1944, 36 volunteers arrived at the University of Minnesota to take part in an audacious year-long experiment: they agreed to starve to save others.

The project was the brainchild of Dr. Ancel Keys, the physiologist who had invented of the K-ration. It had become obvious that with WWII winding down, something would have to be done to save the millions of starving people who had lived through the war. In order to understand how to rehabilitate the starving, however, Dr. Keys first needed to know more about the process and effects of starvation itself, and so the experiment was born.

The participants, healthy young conscientious objectors carefully selected from a pool of applicants, underwent a three-month control period, six months of starvation, and three months of rehabilitation. During the starvation phase, the men were fed about half of their daily caloric requirement and lost about a quarter of their body weight. Throughout the study the men underwent a barrage of tests to monitor the physical and psychological effects of starvation and refeeding; they also recorded their experiences in diaries, another important source of data.

One of the researchers wrote a pamphlet with suggestions on how refeed the starving which came out in 1946 (the centennial of the Donner Party), but the study's results weren't completed until four years later. In 1950 the University of Minnesota Press published The Biology of Human Starvation in two honking volumes of over 600 pages each, chock full of huge indigestible chunks of data (charts, graphs, statistics) amidst the text passages. This work is hard to get hold of and a hard slog to get through, at least for a layperson. Now, however, there's a reasonable alternative. Todd Tucker's recent The Great Starvation Experiment: The Story of the Heroic Men Who Starved so That Millions Could Live (New York: Free Press, 2006) is a fascinating history of the study, focusing primarily but by no means exclusively on the human guinea pigs.

"So what does this have to do with the Donner Party?" you ask. A lot! I have long believed that it's impossible to understand the Donner tragedy without taking into account the physiological and psychological effects of stress and starvation on human beings. The Minnesota experiment made monumental strides in advancing our knowledge of starvation and Tucker's book, in turn, makes the Minnesota study available.

More later.

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