In 1944, U.S. researchers conducted what is still considered to be the definitive study on human starvation. The goal was not to replicate the then-famine conditions of World War II Europe, but to scientifically isolate and examine the effects of hunger from various perspectives. The hope was that the information obtained would be used to alleviate suffering and death. Todd Tucker's compelling and provocative narrative of that experience, The Great Starvation Experiment: The Heroic Men Who Starved So That Millions Could Live, shows how three disparate groups scientists, the U.S. military and the conscientious objectors who volunteered to be human guinea pigs collaborated for a combination of national security, humanitarian, and scientific reasons.
The idea for the project came from Dr. Ancel Keys, perhaps best known for the K Ration issued to U.S. troops during the war. Dr. Keys had used pacifist draftees, who were officially part of the Civilian Public Service, in other experiments. In the one Tucker writes about here, each man was to attain the normal weight for his height during the first three months of the experiment. In the second period, there would be six months of starvation with each man's diet cut in half, causing him to endure a 25 percent weight loss. Keys' goal was nothing less than a complete cataloging of every quantifiable change that occurs in a famished human being, writes Tucker. The final three months, the rehabilitation period what Tucker refers to as the heart of the study was concerned with recovery diets and recording the effects. Tucker follows the volunteers through each phase, and we get to know several as individuals as they endure the grueling ordeal with varying degrees of physical and psychological deterioration. (One, Max Kampelman, impressively, completed his law school course and became an attorney while engaged in the experiment.) Of the original group of 36, 32 made it to the rehabilitation phase. Interviewed in later years, many said participating in the experiment was the most important experience of their lives. For Keys, the most significant finding of the study was, Tucker writes, that the human body was supremely well equipped to deal with starvation. . . . The human body was very, very tough. The author enlightens us about the evolving history of conscientious objection in the U.S. Many CO's served as combat medics in World War II, including Desmond T. Doss, a devout Seventh-day Adventist, who received the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroic actions on Okinawa. Tucker also contrasts Keys' experiment, which used idealistic volunteers, with the horrible medical experiments conducted on unwilling victims in Nazi Germany and Japan and traces the attempts by the international medical community to deal with the abuse of human beings in such studies. This well-searched and lucidly written account captures an important experiment little known to the general public. It is consistently compelling and provocative. Roger Bishop is a Nashville bookseller and a frequent contributor to BookPage.