The Great Starvation Experiment: The Heroic Men Who Starved so That Millions Could Live
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The Great Starvation Experiment: The Heroic Men Who Starved so That Millions Could Live

by Todd Tucker

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What does it feel like to starve? To feel your body cry out for nourishment, to think only of food? How many fitful, hungry nights must pass before dreams of home-cooked meals metastasize into nightmares of cannibalism? Why would anyone volunteer to find out?

In The Great Starvation Experiment, historian Todd Tucker tells the harrowing story of thirty-six


What does it feel like to starve? To feel your body cry out for nourishment, to think only of food? How many fitful, hungry nights must pass before dreams of home-cooked meals metastasize into nightmares of cannibalism? Why would anyone volunteer to find out?

In The Great Starvation Experiment, historian Todd Tucker tells the harrowing story of thirty-six young men who willingly and bravely faced down profound, consuming hunger. As conscientious objectors during World War II, these men were eager to help in the war effort but restricted from combat by their pacifist beliefs. So, instead, they volunteered to become guinea pigs in one of the most unusual experiments in medical history — one that required a year of systematic starvation.

Dr. Ancel Keys was already famous for inventing the K ration when the War Department asked for his help with feeding the starving citizens of Europe and the Far East at the war's end. Fascists and Communists, it was feared, could gain a foothold in war-ravaged areas. "Starved people," Keys liked to say, "can't be taught Democracy." The government needed to know the best way to rehabilitate those people who had been severely underfed during the long war. To study rehabilitation, Keys first needed to create a pool of starving test subjects.

Gathered in a cutting-edge lab underneath the football stadium at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Keys' test subjects forsook most food and were monitored constantly so that Dr. Keys and his scientists could study the effects of starvation on otherwise healthy people. While the weight loss of the men followed a neat mathematical curve, the psychological deterioration was less predictable. Some men drank quarts and quarts of water to fill their empty stomachs. One man chewed as many as forty packs of gum a day. One man mutilated himself to escape the experiment. Ultimately only four of the men were expelled from the experiment for cheating — a testament to the volunteers' determination and toughness.

To prevent atrocities of the kind committed by the Nazi doctors, international law now prevents this kind of experimentation on healthy people. But in this remarkable book, Todd Tucker captures a lost sliver of American history — a time when cold scientific principles collided with living, breathing human beings. Tucker depicts the agony and endurance of a group of extraordinary men whose lives were altered not only for the year they participated in the experiment, but forever.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Not only has Todd Tucker uncovered an extraordinary and virtually unknown story from World War II, he has told it in a masterful way. The Great Starvation Experiment is absolutely first-rate."
— Andrew Carroll, editor of the national bestselling War Letters and Behind the Lines

"The Great Starvation Experiment is a gracefully written account of one of the most inspiring stories of moral and political courage to emerge from the Second World War. Tucker explores questions about the nature of heroism and sacrifice that are particularly provocative and relevant now, when Americans are again waging war and facing difficult moral choices."
— Thurston Clarke, author of Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America

"Courage comes in many vessels. This captivating book recalls a team of conscientious objectors who wouldn't fight — but they would starve in the service of humanity. Part science, part philosophy, and pure human drama."
— David Von Drehle, author of Triangle

"Unique and absorbing."
— Alex Kershaw, author of The Longest Winter and The Bedford Boys

Publishers Weekly
As WWII neared an end, 36 idealistic conscientious objectors, members of the Civilian Public Service, volunteered to be systematically starved. The project, headed by Dr. Ancel Keys, was designed to develop an understanding of the physiology and psychology of starvation and to provide strategies to manage the mass starvation that might follow the war's end in Europe. Tucker (Notre Dame vs. the Klan) 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, providing provocative discussions on subjects ranging from the ethical problems inherent in the use of human volunteers to the history of cannibalism and the conscientious objector movement. One strength of the book is the tension and drama evident as the subjects struggle with their hunger. Another strength is the charismatic Dr. Keys (who invented the K ration), an accomplished man who combined compassion and intelligence with an unquenchable desire to advance learning (he later raised the first alarms about the dangers of cholesterol and fat in the American diet). Keys, his experiment and his 36 starving men form a compelling combination. 8 pages of b&w photos. (May 2) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In 1943, 36 healthy young men, conscientious objectors all, agreed to participate in a yearlong experiment aimed at helping the anticipated starving populations of Europe. The volunteers had been doing mindless make-work in rural camps and were eager to contribute something concrete to the war effort (their beliefs would not allow them to bear arms). Tucker shows how Dr. Ancel Keys, inventor of K-rations, ran the experiment in the stadium of the University of Minnesota, first measuring the men's normal intake, then gradually reducing their servings to the point of starvation while maintaining meticulous records of their physical and psychological health. Most came through the experiment intact; some did not, and Tucker describes what happened to them. Because this book covers an obscure part of World War II history, it is probably not destined to be widely read. But much useful background on conscientious objection, alternative service, and the Peace Churches movement is included, and, as such, it would make a valuable addition to collections on the war, peace movements, and nutrition.-Edwin B. Burgess, U.S. Army Combined Arms Research Lib., Fort Leavenworth, KS Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Workmanlike account of a scientific study on the effects of starvation on the human body and mind, conducted in Minnesota in 1944 and 1945. Tucker (Notre Dame vs. the Klan, not reviewed) interviewed more than a dozen of the study's participants, as well as its director, Dr. Ancel Keys. Perhaps best known as the developer of the army's K ration, Keys sought to discover how to most effectively rehabilitate populations that had starved during WWII. To accomplish this, he turned to the Selective Service System, operators of the Civilian Public Service to which conscientious objectors were then assigned. Young pacifists who volunteered to be his guinea pigs were brought to the Laboratory of Physical Hygiene, located under the football stadium at the University of Minnesota. From among them, Keys selected 36 fit young men. Tucker focuses on the stories of three-Max Kampleman, Sam Legg and Henry Scholberg-but includes anecdotes about others who struggled through the rigorous year-long program. In the first three months, their weight was normalized. For the next six months, they were put on starvation diets that reduced their body weight by 25 percent. Then, for the final three months, they were rehabilitated, using several methods chosen by Keys. In addition to describing the study's methodology and documenting the men's physical decline, the author has elicited from his interviewees accounts of their feelings, obsessions and nightmares, showing the psychological effects of starvation as well. As background, he includes gruesome details of famine in Leningrad and the starvation of prisoners at Buchenwald. Keys's study was not completed before the war ended, thus limiting its usefulness forrelief workers designing nutritional programs to rehabilitate Europe's starving populations. It remains, however, a seminal work on human starvation. Given the ethical constraints imposed on such experiments by the postwar Nuremberg Code and the 1964 Helsinki Declaration, Tucker concludes that nothing like it can ever be done again. Sheds welcome light on a little-known historical event and on the role of conscientious objectors in WWII.

Product Details

Free Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

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, stern talks 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

Meet the Author

Todd Tucker received a bachelor's degree in history from the University of Notre Dame and served as an officer with the U.S. Navy's nuclear submarine force. He is the author of Notre Dame Game Day (Diamond Communications, 2000) and Notre Dame vs. the Klan (Loyola Press, 2004). He has written for several national magazines, including TWA Ambassador, The Rotarian and Inside Sports. He lives in Valparaiso, Indiana, with his family. Visit his Web site at

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