Many of us will be stuffing ourselves silly from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day.
But 70 years ago at this time, three dozen young men assembled in a laboratory under the football stadium at the University of Minnesota campus to do something quite different.
They were going to starve themselves for science and humanity.
The men had volunteered for what now is known as the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, a groundbreaking study that was conducted by U of M physiologist Ancel Keys.
Keys already had gained fame for developing the K ration, the portable food packet carried by paratroopers and other GIs in combat during World War II.
After the war, Keys would appear on the cover of Time magazine for establishing a link between saturated fat and heart disease and promoting the Mediterranean diet as a solution.
Recruiting conscientious objectors
But while WWII was still raging and the Allies slowly were grinding their way toward victory, Keys worked on a different problem: how to best feed starving people in newly liberated, occupied and war-torn countries.
Keys’ answer was an exhaustive, year-long experiment that would subject humans to “semi-starvation” in laboratory conditions. Then he would document how the test subjects responded to recovery diets.
The test subjects were recruited from the ranks of conscientious objectors who opposed being drafted into the military. They were pacifists who refused to kill for their country but who were willing to sacrifice themselves to help others.
For six months, the men went hungry. They became emaciated to the point that they resembled concentration camp survivors. Some went a little nuts.
The test subjects became obsessed with food. They collected cookbooks, recipes and kitchen gadgets and had nightmares about cannibalism. They lost interest in sex and became depressed, antisocial, lethargic and irritable.
When they went to the movies, they were most interested in the scenes when the actors were eating.
“I think for the first time, I read Proust because he had something to say about the joys of partaking in food,” said Daniel Peacock, 95, one of perhaps two or three of the original 36 starvation experiment subjects still alive.
“They kind of looked at food with an almost pornographic preoccupation,” said Todd Tucker, who wrote a book about the study, “The Great Starvation Experiment.”
The test subjects developed bizarre eating rituals and were tempted to eat garbage. They berated people who wasted food. Until the experimenters restricted it, one man chewed up to 40 packages of gum a day.
Two briefly were checked into psychiatric wards. One man cut off three of his fingers with an ax.
It could not be done today
Today, the experiment can be regarded as a case study of how much a person is willing to endure to stand up for one’s beliefs. And how much a researcher can ask someone to endure even if the result potentially could help millions.
“Here you are subjecting people to dramatic deprivation that really did cause them significant hardship,” said Sarah Tracy, a University of Oklahoma science history professor who is writing a biography of Keys.
The end result was a landmark examination of human starvation. The experiment is still consulted and cited by scientists, especially researchers studying eating disorders and the psychological impact of extreme hunger. It’s valued for its scientific rigor and because there is nothing else like it.
“Clearly, the experiment could not be done today,” said Henry Blackburn, an emeritus professor at the U who worked with Keys after the starvation experiment.
Blackburn, who took over as director of Keys’ Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene after Keys retired, said the starvation experiment met the ethical standards of the day.
But the experiment wouldn’t pass the current rules regarding fully informed consent and the welfare of test subjects, according to Blackburn.
“They were harmed temporarily,” he said.
In interviews in the years after the experiment, test subjects have said they were glad to have been chosen for the test and proud that they had participated.
During WWII, conscientious objectors who refused to be drafted into the military were put in something called the Civilian Public Service and assigned to work camps to do “work of national importance.” The work ranged from fighting forest fires to being attendants in mental institutions.
Conscientious objectors also were given the opportunity to be “guinea pigs” in medical experiments studying conditions such as malaria, typhus and pneumonia.
Keys sought volunteers for the starvation experiment with a pamphlet sent to the work camps around the country. The pamphlet had a picture of small children looking into empty bowls with a headline, “Will you starve that they be better fed?”
‘I wanted to risk my life’
Peacock was one of more than 400 young men who applied to be starved.
“It appeared to me as something more important to do than anything else I had been doing before the war,” said Peacock, a Quaker originally from Indiana. He now lives in Honolulu.
Conscientious objector Robert Villwock did road work in a public service camp in Virginia before he volunteered for the Minnesota experiment.
Villwock, of White Bear Lake, died in 2010. His widow, Dorothy Villwock, said that when her husband decided to become a conscientious objector, “His father was embarrassed and went around to the neighbors and apologized.”
“They were frustrated, the men in these camps, because they felt they weren’t doing really important work,” Dorothy Villwock said.
Author Tucker said the volunteers were idealistic and typically motivated by religious beliefs. They also were young men who wanted to prove their toughness at a time when conscientious objectors, or “conchies” as they were called in newspaper headlines, were suspected of being slackers or cowards.
“These guys all fought to be in the experiment,” Tucker said. “They considered themselves lucky to be in the experiment.”
“I wanted to do something that had a little more punch to it. I wanted to risk my life in some way and be of service,” said starvation volunteer Marshall Sutton, 96, a Quaker now living in Maryland. “I wanted to do something that was more adventurous.”
The experiment began Nov. 19, 1944. The 36 volunteers, with an average age of 25, were housed and tested in windowless rooms in Keys’ laboratory under the bleachers at Memorial Stadium.
The recruiting pamphlet said the volunteers would have access to an array of cultural activities in the Twin Cities and could take classes at a “School of Foreign Relief,” so they could “study as you starve.”
The pamphlet also noted the presence of a women’s dorm on campus “for those among us who are so extraordinarily versatile as to combine the qualities of a ‘guinea pig’ by day and a ‘wolf’ by night!”
Calories cut in half
Keys later would write that when the experiment began, there was a briefing “stressing the point that they were in for a hard time. All of them said they understood.”
“I was told, boy, this is going to be difficult,” Peacock remembered. “The general purpose of the experiment was pretty clearly understood.”
First, there was a three-month control period when the men received a normal diet of about 3,200 calories a day while researchers tested their strength, endurance, dexterity, hearing, sight, intelligence, personalities and even the potency of their semen.
“We were given some test every day of some kind,” Sutton said.
The tests continued when the six-month semi-starvation period began. But now, the calories were cut almost in half.
Instead of bacon, eggs, roast beef, mashed potatoes, gravy and chocolate sundaes, the men were fed twice a day from a monotonous menu believed to be similar to what many Europeans were trying to live on: bread, cabbage, rutabagas, turnips and macaroni.
Initially, the researchers “trusted us a little bit too much in the experiment,” Sutton said.
He said some of the test subjects were given jobs cleaning the dining room where the football players ate. The guinea pigs asked for different work because it was too tempting to eat the scraps left behind.
In addition to part-time work, the men were required to walk 22 miles a week.
Cheating incidents led the researchers to institute a “buddy system” requiring that the test subjects never leave the laboratory alone so they could help each other resist breaking the diet.
“I was tempted, of course,” Sutton said. “I did everything I could to keep my mind in order. I took upon it as a religious exercise.”
‘It changed our personalities’
The men eventually would would lose about 25 percent of their weight, dropping from an average of about 153 pounds to about 116 pounds.
Their hair fell out. Their skin roughened. Their hearts shrank in size, and their pulse rates dropped. They constantly felt cold. They found it uncomfortable to sit on hard surfaces. Some men collapsed during treadmill endurance tests.
Oddly, their hearing improved, an apparent confirmation of an old belief that hunger sharpens the senses.
But they felt like tired old men, irritated when they saw researchers climb stairs two steps at a time. They became withdrawn, humorless and possessive about their food.
“You not only lose vitality, you lose the camaraderie we had as a group,” Peacock said.
“It changed our personalities,” Sutton said. “We were always apologizing to each other for something we didn’t mean to do.”
They often finished their meals by licking their plates. They began to view normal-weight people as obese.
“I’m so hungry I could eat anything, but I’d start on the fat staff first,” one test subject wrote.
“We had periods of elation. Periods of deep depression. And our difficult traits came to the surface,” Sutton said.
He remembers that he lost interest in sex. When his girlfriend came to visit him, he took her out to dinner at a nice restaurant in Minneapolis just so he could watch her enjoy it. But when the food came, the girlfriend refused to eat.
“At the time, I felt a little upset with her. I paid good money for that meal,” Sutton said.
Even after the six-month semi-starvation period was over, the men couldn’t eat whatever they wanted. They continued to live in the laboratory for a three-month rehabilitation period while the researchers divided them into groups to see how different recovery diets worked.
“It was hard. For a year, they couldn’t take a mouthful of food that hadn’t been measured and weighed,” Dorothy Villwock said.
The experiment showed that adding vitamins or protein wasn’t crucial to recovery. Starving men simply needed to get more calories.
The day that all restrictions were lifted in late October 1945, “most of us had something planned out. Dan and I had our eye on a smorgasbord,” Peacock said of another test subject.
But Peacock said the two men bought food to go from the Minneapolis restaurant. They wanted to eat it in the lab “in case we overdid it, someone would be there to take care of us.”
Sutton traveled back home to the East Coast after the experiment and remembers having a couple of milkshakes every time the bus stopped.
The complete results of the study were documented in 1950 in a two-volume, 1,385-page work titled “The Biology of Human Starvation.”
But earlier summaries of the findings from the Minnesota experiment were published in an effort to help post-war relief efforts.
“Men and Hunger: a Psychological Manual for Relief Workers,” for example, advised that when dealing with starving people, “Never forget that anything related to food should be handled with respect and reverence.”
‘My protruding ribs were my battle scars’
Keys kept in touch with his former guinea pigs, who would become ministers and academics and relief workers after the experiment.
“He was impressed with them and their careers and their willingness to endure this,” said Keys’ daughter, Carrie D’Andrea.
After the war, Sutton did relief work for the American Friends Service Committee, distributing food to refugees in the Gaza strip.
“It made me sensitive to people who didn’t have enough food,” Sutton said of his year as a guinea pig.
Test subject Henry Scholberg made two trips to Poland for the United Nations, transporting livestock as a “sea-going cowboy.” He later became a professor and director of the Ames Library of South Asia at the University of Minnesota.
Another volunteer, Max Kampelman, finished his law degree at the U, worked as an aide for Hubert Humphrey and became a diplomat and arms-control negotiator for the Carter and Reagan administrations.
The test subjects returned Keys’ admiration and respect. They invited him and the other researchers to their reunions.
“I had a feeling this was an impressive group of men. Not that they were rich and famous,” said Dorothy Villwock, who attended the 50th reunion. “But this was an impressive group as far as their character.”
D’Andrea also was at that reunion. She said none of the test subjects were overweight, but some of the men admitted they always carried a candy bar with them.
They looked back at what they had endured with gratitude and a sense of accomplishment.
“I am proud of what I did. My protruding ribs were my battle scars,” Scholberg is quoted as saying in the study publication. “It was something great, something incomprehensible.”
Keys’ starvation laboratory, dubbed “the cage,” was torn down with the rest of Memorial Stadium in 1992. Keys died 10 years ago this week. He lived to 100.
Peacock said he would volunteer to starve again “provided that I would be that age again. I’m not about to do it at 95.”
Sutton said he’s always loved food. But now he’s almost blind. He depends on a walker and hearing aids. And in the past year, he said, he hasn’t eaten as much as he used to.
“My hunger is receding right now,” he said.