In 1945, several dozen American conscientious objectors volunteered to starve themselves under medical supervision. The goal was to learn how health might be restored after World War II to the wasted populations of Europe. What the volunteers endured--and what broke them--sheds light on the scourge of starvation that today afflicts some 800 million people worldwide.
Human beings evolved for a bad day of hunting, a bad week of hunting, a bad crop, a bad year of crops. We were hungry even in that first Garden of Eden, what some anthropologists call the "Paleoterrific," a world full of large animals and relatively few people. Paleolithic bones and teeth occasionally show unnatural pauses in growth, a sign of food shortage. Our diet didn't get better as our population grew and the big-game species died out. In the Mesolithic, we foraged more intensively for plants and hunted smaller game with new tools like nets and snares. In the Neolithic, we invented agriculture, which sparked the rise of cities. There is no evidence that any of these changes reduced the odds of starvation or malnutrition. A more common trend seems to be that small-game hunters were shorter and less nourished than their Paleolithic ancestors, farmers less healthy than hunters and gatherers, and city dwellers less robust than farmers. We just kept getting hungrier.
Hunger is a country we enter every day, like a commuter across a friendly border. We wake up hungry. We endure that for a matter of minutes before we break our fast. Later we may skip lunch and miss dinner. We may not eat for religious reasons. We may not eat before surgery. We may go on a three-day fast to cleanse ourselves of toxins and boredom. We may go on a longer fast to imitate Christ in the desert or to lose weight. We may go on a hunger strike. If we are lost at sea, if we have lost our job, if we are at war, we may not be hungry by choice.
At the end of World War II, as occupied towns were liberated and prisoners released from concentration camps, the Allies faced the task of refeeding people who had been starving for months and even years. The English officer Jack Drummond remembered a cold day in January 1945 when he met with a group of Dutch, American, and British public health advisers: "It was frightening to realize how little any of us knew about severe starvation. In our lifetime millions of our fellow men had died in terrible famines, in China, in India, in the U.S.S.R., without these tragedies having yielded more than a few grams of knowledge of how best to deal with such situations on a scientific basis."
For a long time, scientists in America had lobbied for more research on famine relief. The government was interested but was preoccupied with winning the war. In 1944, a group of private citizens at the University of Minnesota's Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene began what would be called the Minnesota Experiment, the first long-term controlled study on the effects of semi-starvation. The project was headed by Dr. Ancel Keys, director of the lab, who had just developed K rations for the army. Funding sources included pacifist groups like the American Society of Friends and the Brethren Service Committee. The volunteers were conscientious objectors, Quakers and Mennonites eager to participate in work that meant, according to the scientists, "a long period of discomfort, severe restriction of personal freedom, and some real hazard."
The study began in November with a three-month control period, followed by six months of semi-starvation, followed by three months of refeeding. The goal for each subject was to lose 24 percent of body weight, mimicking the weight loss seen in famine. (Autopsies done in the Warsaw ghetto showed that death from starvation involved a loss of 30 to 50 percent of body weight.) The diet was one a Warsaw Jew would recognize: brown bread, potatoes, cereals, turnips, and cabbage, with occasional tastes of meat, butter, and sugar. …