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The Great Starvation Experiment

(not law, but it is something that I found to be interesting, and wanted to share)

In 1944, towards the latter part of the Second World War, Nazi scientists wanted to know what the physical and psychological impact of starvation on human beings was. They devised an experiment in which conscientious objectors who did not want to fight in the war were given a diet in which their calories were cut to a level of 1800 kCalories per day, consisting of potatoes, turnips, dark bread and macaroni. This starvation diet lasted for 24 weeks. The idea was that the subjects would lose, over that period, one quarter of their body weight. These conscientious objectors were also made to exert themselves, so that they were burning 3000 KCalories per day, walking 22 miles per week.

The effects of this were dramatic – one of the subjects cut off three of his fingers with an axe – it is not certain whether that was deliberate, or an accident brought about by the effects of hunger. Another began having violent dreams of cannibalism and suffered a full nervous breakdown.

Right now, you are thinking how awful it was for the Nazi’s to do this.

Only that’s not what happened. That’s not what happened at all.

The experiment was exactly as I have described, except that the scientists were from Minnesota, America, and the conscientious objectors had volunteered.

There’s an excellent article about it here

The experiment came about not from any desire to inflict horrors on people to see what would happen out of sick curiousity, but because the US Government was aware that as Europe was being liberated, that there were hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, who had been under-nourished, and who would struggle to get food. What would be the impact on them, what was the best way of restoring them to health, what would be the long-standing consequences for them?

Nobody knew the answers to any of these questions, which were going to become massively important in the real world.  Ancel Keys therefore devised an experiment in which volunteers would undergo a period of starvation, and then a variety of methods be used to assess the impact on them and a variety of approaches aimed to nurse them back to health to see which worked well and which didn’t.

One of the greatest killers of World War II wasn’t bullets or bombs, it was hunger. During just one battle, the Siege of Leningrad, a thousand people a day died of hunger. So finding out how starvation could be remedied, what you would need to do to save the victims of it was desperately important.

Obviously, you can’t do a starvation experiment, even on volunteers, on children or people who are already ill, so they needed healthy fit men to undergo it. But during a war, almost all healthy fit men were already in the Army, so the supply was short.

Conscientious objectors, who were fit and healthy but were not willing to take up arms and kill other human beings, were undertaking a variety of public services. Many of them wanted to do their part, short of taking a life, to help the war effort   (there’s an obvious difference between not wanting to shoot Germans and being opposed to the war against Nazi Germany, and many conscientious objectors wanted to help the war effort, just not by shooting guns).

Some were therefore recruited.  4000 volunteered, and 36 were chosen. It was made very plain to them that the process was going to be horrible, that the scientists had no idea what impact the process would have on them, and that nobody knew if there might be long lasting adverse consequences.

They explained what was going to happen. There was nothing held back. They explained that they could not assure me that there would be no permanent damage . . . They did not know what would happen. This is what they were trying to find out . . . really they emphasized the discomfort . . . this was not going to be an easy task down the road

I think it is already pretty brave to stand by your principles and refuse to join the army in a time of war (especially if you can see that the war is about freedom and oppression rather than land and wealth and self-aggrandisement as is traditionally the case), but these volunteers went beyond even that.

Here’s a quote from the study where those volunteers who were still alive talked about their experiences sixty years later.

Participants were supposed to lose _2.5 lb (1.1 kg)/wk to reach the desired 25% weight reduction by the end of the semi-starvation period.


The amount of food each man received at mealtimes depended on how well he was progressing toward his weekly goal. Usually reductions and additions were made in the form of slices of bread. Daniel Peacock remembered that emotions could run quite high in the cafeteria when one man received even just a little bit more food: “We were given our food along a cafeteria line and if the guy ahead of you is given five slices of bread, that’s pretty hard to conceal. And if you’re only getting three, that’s pretty touchy.”


He also spoke of the anxiety that accompanied the Friday night posting of the upcoming week’s rations: “. . . every Friday late in the day . . . they would post a list of all our names and what our rations would be for the following week . . . [the] calories . . . either minus or plus . . . Some of us . . . we’d go off to a movie. In other words, we delayed seeing that list; we dreaded seeing that list for fear that it was certainly going to reduce our rations . . . It’s pretty darn certain that it’s going to be bad news because we’re supposed to be descending.



Food became an obsession for the participants. Robert Willoughby remembered the often complex processes the men developed for eating the little food that was provided: “. . . eating became a ritual . . . Some people diluted their food with water to make it seem like more. Others would put each little bite and hold it in their mouth a long time to savor it. So eating took a long time.” Carlyle Frederick was one of several men who collected cookbooks and recipes; he reported owning nearly 100 by the time the experiment was over.


Harold Blickenstaff recalled the frustration of constantly thinking about food:

“I don’t know many other things in my life that I looked forward to being over with any more than this experiment. And it wasn’t so much . . . because of the physical discomfort, but because it made food the most important thing in one’s life- . . . food became the one central and only thing really in one’s life. And life is pretty dull if that’s the only thing. I mean, if you went to a movie, you weren’t particularly interested in the love scenes, but you noticed every time they ate and what they ate.”




Whatever one thinks of the ethics of the experiment, and I have to say that I lurch quite a bit from it being an inspirational testament to human spirit that healthy people would undergo such deprivations purely in order to inform scientists to be better able to help the starving masses, and it being something I find quite ethically uncomfortable, the experiment did produce meaningful results.

Ancel Keys found that when treating people who had been the victims of starvation, putting them on a normal calorific intake  (say 2,000 kCalories per day) would do no good at all, and that they really needed 4000 kCalories per day for several months, and that the nutritious quality of the food – mineral and vitamins etc, made relatively little difference unless there was that sheer volume of calories accompanying it. This was dramatically different to what had been predicted, which was that nutritious food and at a normal level would be what would be needed.   [It is obviously massively important, since the immediate consequence is that on liberating any city, you would need twice as much food as you thought you were going to need, in order to restore the starving citizens to health]

A great deal was also learned about the psychological impact – most of the subjects suffered periods of extreme emotional distress and depression during the experiment.

There are some interesting results which have pertinence for anorexia and bulimia, for example that many of the psychological effects associated with those conditions are actually a result of the lack of calorific intake rather than the condition per se, and that work on addressing those problems can only really stick if the calories are consumed. Many of the men, although they were painfully thin, with their bones protruding, thought that they were not thin, but that others around them were sickeningly fat. They began to view their own physiques as normal, rather than thin.

Many of the subjects found the recovery portion of the experiment, where the calories were built back up to be even harder than the starvation period – many continued to lose weight and that psychologically there was no release from the constant feelings of hunger.

Some of the men were kept on after the recovery period, and were allowed to consume what they wanted. Some consumed up to 11,500 kCalories in a single day, reporting that nothing could satisfy their hunger.

At times, the men seemed almost apologetic about the relative medical safety, wanting to make clear that they distinguished their hunger from that of those starving in unmonitored environments. Samuel Legg’s concluding comment related to this issue: “The difference between us and the people we were trying to serve: they probably had less food than we did. We were starving under the best possible medical conditions. And most of all, we knew the exact day on which our torture was going to end. None of that was true of people in Belgium, the Netherlands, or whatever.”



I found that incredibly moving and courageous, frankly.

Many of the subjects went on to continue in public service, devoting their lives to helping others and all of them report that they consider the Great Starvation Experiment to be the most important and meaningful things they ever did in their lives.


About suesspiciousminds

Law geek, local authority care hack, fascinated by words and quirky information; deeply committed to cheesecake and beer.

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