The Great Starvation Experiment: Ancel Keys and the Men Who Starved for Science

The Great Starvation Experiment: Ancel Keys and the Men Who Starved for Science

by Todd Tucker

“The Great Starvation Experimentis wide-ranging, weaving progress in the war into the day-to-day suffering of the hungry volunteers.” —Saint Paul Pioneer Press

“Fascinating . . .” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

Near the end of World War II, thirty-six conscientious objectors volunteered to be systematically starved for renowned


“The Great Starvation Experimentis wide-ranging, weaving progress in the war into the day-to-day suffering of the hungry volunteers.” —Saint Paul Pioneer Press

“Fascinating . . .” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

Near the end of World War II, thirty-six conscientious objectors volunteered to be systematically starved for renowned scientist Ancel Keys’s study at the University of Minnesota in the basement of Memorial Stadium. Aimed to benefit relief efforts in war-ravaged Europe and Asia, the study sought the best way to rehabilitate starving citizens. Tucker captures a lost moment in American history—a time when stanch idealism and a deep willingness to sacrifice trumped even basic human needs.

“Tucker provides a fascinating and moving history of the experiment, centering on the lives and experiences of the volunteers and the formidable obstacles they overcame. Tucker tells the story with verve and economy. . . . Keys, his experiment and his 36 starving men form a compelling combination.” —Publishers Weekly

Todd Tucker is the author of several books, including Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan (2004). He served on the legendary Navy submarine USS Alabama before moving to Valparaiso, Indiana.

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University of Minnesota Press
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The Great Starvation Experiment

Ancel Keys and the Men Who Starved for Science
By Todd Tucker

University of Minnesota Press

Copyright © 2007 Todd Tucker
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780816651610

Prologue: Starved into Submission

The small timer on the stove buzzed and the lighthearted conversation around the table stopped. With practiced efficiency, Subject Number 20 stood, stepped away from the table, and silently walked outside. His "buddy" -- a designated supervisor required to accompany him outside the lab at all times -- had taken him to their friends' house in Minneapolis several times over the course of the experiment. It was the home of two elderly ladies who had somehow come to befriend the corps of test subjects. While he couldn't eat their food, just getting out of the lab and talking to people unconnected to the experiment was invigorating. At least it had been at first.

During these furloughs, Number 20 had gotten into the habit of chopping wood in the backyard until the meal was done, the dishes were put away, and the temptation to cheat and steal a morsel of food had passed. And there had been cheaters. The lapses were all too easily detected when a volunteer's weight loss suddenly veered from the predictive curve carefully drawn by Dr. Ancel Keys. Those incidents led to immediate dismissal from the experiment, sterntalks from the doctor, and the implementation of new layers of supervision. Everyone knew who they were, the cheaters, the men not tough enough to finish the experiment. Number 20 had seen the shame in their eyes; he had joined in the pitying glances and the whispered reproaches. He refused to become one of them. But he still chopped wood during dinner. He knew the limits of his willpower.

In the early days, as the food was served inside without him, he would chop giant stacks of timber in the moonlight -- sweating, chopping, congratulating himself on the strength of his character with each fall of the ax. Now, after months of starvation, his efforts were a farce, a charade of a strong young man helping out two widows with their chores. Either old lady could probably have picked him up and carried him across the yard. Number 20 wondered if he had strength enough to swing the ax a single time. Besides the general weakness that accompanied his malnourishment, he had also mangled a finger on his left hand the week before. It throbbed painfully. He watched the moonlight reflect on the ax's shiny blade as he walked to the woodpile.

The experiment was in the rehabilitation phase -- the hard part was supposed to be over. Yet even with the starvation phase complete, the scientists controlled every bite of food in his diet, as they had for the past nine months. The volunteers who remained had been divided into four recovery groups, and each group was given incrementally more food than they had been allowed during the starvation phase. As luck would have it, Subject No. 20 suspected he was in the lowest group and, thus, given only 400 more calories a day than he had been allowed during starvation. The difference was almost imperceptible. It was a crushing disappointment after nine months of counting the hours to "R1," the day he thought he would be allowed to eat again.

The difference for his group amounted to about two slices of tasteless soy bread a day, in addition to the smattering of turnips and cabbage they were now accustomed to. He wasn't even gaining weight; in fact, he was still losing weight -- which, the doctors explained, was actually his body recovering from starvation: the fluid retention caused by edema was going away faster than he could regain healthy tissue. That reasoning did nothing to cheer him up as he continued to think about food to the exclusion of all else. On good nights, he dreamt of feasts, giant steaming tables piled high with ham, potatoes, bread, and pie. On bad nights he startled himself awake with horrifying nightmares of cannibalism, wiping his mouth to see if it was dripping with blood. As he caught his breath in the gray darkness of the barracks, he would listen to the groans and the raspy, shallow snores of his friends who were suffering through tortured dreams of their own. The prospect of another three months in the lab was unbearable.

He split a log cleanly, and watched the two halves fall dumbly apart. Just that one swing of the ax exhausted him; he paused to catch his breath. He heard with sharp clarity his friends laughing inside, heard their forks scraping their plates -- the scientists had confirmed a piece of folklore that said hearing improved with starvation. Was it dessert, Number 20 wondered, a freshly baked pie or a scoop of ice cream? Or were they still lingering over pot roast and gravy? He imagined slicing through the tender meat with a silver knife, feeling the blade cut cleanly until it scraped the china, soaking up gravy with a slice of warm bread, washing it all down with cold milk.

He could quit at any time, of course -- several men had. He was supposed to be stronger than that, a leader of the group. He was supposed to be suffering for his pacifist beliefs, while at the same time benefiting mankind in the study of starvation and rehabilitation. Men were dying overseas in the war. Friends of his were in the fight. Hitler had starved millions. How would Number 20 be able to say that he had been not only unwilling to serve alongside the troops, but also too weak to even complete a science experiment? He knew that for the rest of his life, people were going to ask him what he did during the war. The starvation experiment was his opportunity to give an honorable answer to that question. How could he quit?

So he had stuck with it, feeling colder, fainter, thinner, and hungrier each day. When he caught a bad cold, Number 20 found himself hoping it would get worse. For days he searched his tired body for symptoms of no avail. He had begun to think of the hospital, with its starchy meals, as his deliverance, an honorable alternative to quitting or expulsion.

Just a week before, Number 20 dropped his car on his hand. He had jacked up his old Packard in the stadium parking lot, pretended to do some maintenance, and then pulled the pin on the jack as he set his left hand on the ground. He flinched, pulled his hand out at the last instant. He had only crushed a finger, and not badly enough to be removed from the study. The doctors were suspicious, of course, and would have yanked him from the experiment in a second if they had thought him suicidal or psychotic. He insisted convincingly that it was an accident. They took him to the hospital, but continued to bring him carefully measured meals from the laboratory's kitchen. He loathed himself for losing his nerve, and wondered if he would get another chance to fake a believable accident.

Subject No. 20 knelt on the ground of their friends' yard and stood up one of the logs he was to split. It had a smooth, flat surface, as smooth and level as a small table. He splayed the fingers of his left hand across the flat top of the log and looked at them. Like everything else on his body, they looked alien to him now. His knuckles bulged on spidery, thin fingers. His pale skin was blue in the moonlight. One blackened fingernail reminded him of his last pathetic attempt. With his right hand, Number 20 raised the ax into the air. He had to grip the handle about halfway up to put the blade in range. He barely had the strength to hold the ax, and wondered seriously if he could bring it down with enough power to do any damage. He thought about three more months of hunger, three more months of scientists prodding his body and psychologists probing his mind, with Dr. Keys watching somberly in the background, making notes on his clipboard, raising an occasional eyebrow at the graphs of the psychological inventory.

Number 20 pulled the ax down with a grunt and what remained of his strength. The blade came down straight and true. Before he passed out, Subject No. 20 watched with satisfaction as three of his fingers rolled off the log and into the neatly mown grass.

Copyright © 2006 by Todd Tucker


Excerpted from The Great Starvation Experiment by Todd Tucker Copyright © 2007 by Todd Tucker. Excerpted by permission.
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