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.