The Great Starvation Experiment

Subject Number 20 was hungry. After 24 weeks of being on a starvation diet, he had hoped that rehabilitation would mean an end to the constant hunger pangs, but he was just getting a couple more slices of bread each day. He was still losing weight, and food was all he could think about. He couldn’t quit the program without shame, but he wanted to eat. If only the car he’d been working on had done more damage when he dropped it on his hand last week. He could be dining on hospital food right now, but instead he just had bruised fingers. He could still split logs, which is what he was doing when he brought the axe down and sliced off three of his fingers.

Subject number 20 was part of a little-known medical experiment conducted right here in the United States in 1945. The purpose of the experiment was to learn more about how the body responds to hunger and how best to bring starved people back to health. Number 20, like the other 35 men in the experiment, was a volunteer, part of the corp of conscientious objectors who refused to go to war but who, under the rules of the draft, were required to participate in some sort of service to the nation. The 36 men in the experiment chose to starve, putting themselves at risk not on the battlefield, but in the lab, with the hope of helping save lives.

In The Great Starvation Experiment, Todd Tucker tells the story of these men and the research that they participated in. The shocking story of Subject Number 20, which opens the book, is probably the single most dramatic moment of the experiment, but there’s still plenty other material of interest. Tucker provides heaps of context for the experiment, describing other medical experiments, including those conducted by Joseph Mengele in Auschwitz and by the Japanese on prisoners of war. I was interested—and upset—to learn that the Japanese experiments have gotten less attention than German ones because the U.S. agreed to give the Japanese immunity from prosecution in exchange for the knowledge they gained. As for the U.S. experiments, of which the starvation experiment was only one, Tucker leaves readers to draw their own conclusions about the ethics.

The big thing that sets this experiment apart from many others Tucker writes about is that the men chose to participate and were informed of all the risks. These men, chosen from over 200 applicants, were deeply committed to the cause of peace and service to humanity. They did not believe that they could in good conscience go to war, but they wanted to do something. They knew about the famine at the Seige of Leningrad, and two of them had lived in India and seen long-term starvation firsthand. As conscientious objectors, they’d frequently been assigned to jobs that seemed pointless, such as digging a goat trail by hand when there was equipment available to do the job quickly and easily. This job, in contrast, was important.

Much of the context that Tucker provides is valuable, but the book is definitely at its best when it focuses on the men and on the experiment. It is useful to understand something of the background of the program director, Dr. Ancel Keys, and of the peace movement, conscientious objection, and medical experimentation; but too much of the information is tangential. That doesn’t keep it from being fascinating—I liked learning what went into C-rations and K-rations and about India’s response to World War II, but that isn’t what I picked up this book for. Too much of this kind of interesting, but not closely related information feels like padding.

But when the book focuses on the experiment, it is riveting. The mental effects of starvation proved to be just as interesting as the physical ones, sometimes even more so. It was a quick read, and a pretty good one.

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26 Responses to The Great Starvation Experiment

  1. christina says:

    What an absolutely intriguing book. I must get this from the library, in the very least.

    When considering all of the experiments the US has done (with syphilis, with acid, and now with starvation) it reveals another side of our “humanity”. I, of course, and NOT comparing it to the horrors that the nazis pursued BUT we have dirty hands in the name of science as well.

    Thanks for sharing this. Truly. I am sure it will be as interesting as it is upsetting.

    • Teresa says:

      The ethical questions surrounding this particular experiment really are complex, which makes the story all the more fascinating. I was shocked by it, but then when I considered that other men were going to war (and in the past these men would have been forced to do so or imprisoned), it became murkier. And Tucker talks about other U.S. experiments that were far more clearly unethical.

  2. She says:

    This does sound super interesting! I didn’t know such experiments were going on. American History, ftw.

    • Teresa says:

      I knew a conscientious objector who was in a medical experiment (exposed to hepatitis, if I recall correctly), but I didn’t know about this one until I heard Tucker interviewed about this book.

  3. softdrink says:

    He chopped off his own fingers?? Yikes!

    I do like it when they discuss the ethics…that was one of my favorite parts of the Henrietta Lacks book.

    • Teresa says:

      I enjoy ethical discussion on things like this too, especially when the answers aren’t clear and the author lets readers decide for themselves.

  4. Emily says:

    A tricky ethical dilemma indeed. It does make a big difference that the subjects volunteered and knew what they were volunteering for, but still…

    Sounds like a really interesting history!

    • Teresa says:

      Yeah, it is tricky, and Tucker makes it clear that it couldn’t be done today. It helped me to think about what other men were being asked to do at the time.

  5. Vasilly says:

    This book sounds fascinating! I think I need to read it.

  6. Bina says:

    What a fascinating book! I didn’t know that men who didn’t want to go to war, did this as another way to serve.

    Obviously every nation has done the most disgusting things possible, but the black and white view on the second world war that is perpetuated is just so much neater and sits better with everyone.

    • Teresa says:

      The background on conscientious objection was really interesting to me as I used to know one man who was a CO during WWII and know lots of pacifists today. And I really appreciated that Tucker didn’t argue for or against their decision.

  7. bybee says:

    I must read this!!

  8. Jenny says:

    Fascinating! I was sure, when I saw the start of this post, that the guy in question was the victim of one of those miserable pre-IRB medical experiments like at Tuskegee. It’s rather touching that these people volunteered for this experiment to help Knowledge, even though it sounds horrifying in practice.

    • Teresa says:

      Yeah, I feel some internal conflict about the experiment itself, but I really admire the men who did it, and the ones Tucker talked to said they’d do it again.

  9. rebeccareid says:

    I read about this experiment when I read a book about Hunger — one chapter was dedicated to a few of the stories. Very fascinating. I was always hungry when I read that book. Did you notice the same problem with this book? ie. always wanting to go snack on something while you read?

  10. I liked this book when I read it last year. And I agree — the mental impacts of starvation were really interesting to me.

  11. Eva says:

    Like Rebecca, I read about this on Sharman Apt Russell’s nonfic Hunger! It sounded interesting, but I think I got enough of the story there to skip this one. ;)

  12. Kathleen says:

    This is unbelievable. I can’t believe I never hear about this before. It sounds like the parts about the experiment are pretty interesting so I’ll plan to pick this one up.

    • Teresa says:

      I do love books that share little-known stories. And a lot of the incidental information was interesting, but the experiment parts were the best.

  13. This sounds like a fascinating book. I’ve read about Mengele’s experiments had never heard of this one. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I’ll link to your review on War Through the Generations soon.

    • Teresa says:

      It seems like the Mengele experiments get all the attention (and they were perhaps the most appalling), but it was interesting to learn that they weren’t totally unique.

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