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Review: The Great Starvation Experiment

Review: The Great Starvation Experiment post image

Title: The Great Starvation Experiment: The Heroic Men Who Starved So That Millions Could Live
Author: Todd Tucker
Genre: Literary Journalism
Year: 2006
Acquired: Borrowed
Rating: ★★★☆☆

One Sentence Summary: Near the end of WWII, 36 young men volunteered to starve themselves as part of an experiment to understand the basics of human nutrition needs.

One Sentence Review: The book is at it’s strongest when focusing on the experiment and the experiences of the subjects, but loses some momentum when it tries to step out and address too many large issues.

Long Review: Scientist Ancel Keys had a reputation for experiments that pushed the limits. Before 1944, his most famous research involved testing blood oxygen levels at dangerously high altitudes. But what really interested him, and what he thought would be even more useful knowledge, was to learn how to feed people. At the time, very little was known about just how to feed people who were starving, and with millions of people in trouble throughout Europe, Keys had the political capital to make his most famous experiment happen.

WWII also provided Keys with his human test subjects — members of the Civilian Public Service (CPS) arm of the military (made up of contentious objectors who chose not to fight). For many of the 36 starvation experiment volunteers, the chance to serve the country doing some difficult was motivation to join the experiment. Starting on November 15, 1944, the men underwent a grueling year-long study to find out what it takes to starve someone and what can be done to help them recover.

Tucker knows how to start out this story with a bang — it opens with a story about Subject Number 20 and a visit to a friend’s home in the middle of the starvation experiment. Unable to cope with the diet, Number 20 decides if he injures himself maybe he can get out of it all. Before anyone can top him, Number 20 picked up and axe and chopped off three of the fingers on his left hand.

With a start like that, you get a sense of what is coming next: the story of a fascinating and disturbing experiment that pushed it’s subjects to the limit, made researchers question their own motivations, but ultimately changed the way we look at human starvation. The results of the study helped rehabilitate people across the globe following the war and remain the most important notes on the biological impacts of starvation.

With a subject as fascinating as this experiment, Tucker had a lot to go with. And while the context of the study — WWII, the CPS, and science of the times — is important, it sometimes overshadows the much more interesting story of the experiment. I appreciate context, but for this book it seemed like a bit much at times and I’d want the book to get back to the experiment and stop spending so much time outside the subjects and the place.

In his research, Tucker interviewed a number of the subjects and scientists involved with the experiment and those stories really illuminate what this was like. I can’t imagine subjecting myself to something like this, but I know for a fact there are still tests done on human subjects all the time to test new drugs or other products. So despite the fact that the book is about a time in the past, the implications have some important impacts on science today. If you have the stomach for it, this book does a good job going inside one such experiment while still keeping the story fascinating.

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Kathy February 15, 2010, 9:19 pm

    Oh my, that sounds rather gruesome. I sure hope they learned something from that experiment. I don’t think that book is for me.

    • Kim February 17, 2010, 11:26 am

      Kathy: It was; they have some pictures in the book that are really hard to look at. They did learn a lot though — results from this experiment are some of the foundational works about human nutrition that are used to study things like anorexia and bulimia today.

  • Nicole February 15, 2010, 9:48 pm

    There is a fiction book hat I read that I think might have incorporated the findings from this experiment and now it is killing me that I can’t think of the name of it.

    • Kim February 17, 2010, 11:35 am

      Nicole: I hope you can remember, I’d love to check it out.

  • Lisa February 15, 2010, 9:51 pm

    I heard about this on the radio a while back; it was a very interesting hour. I wish the book were stronger.

    • Kim February 17, 2010, 11:35 am

      Lisa: Me too. The parts on the experiment were awesome, it just lost a little bit in the rest. I still liked the book though, so if the topic interests you I say go for it.

  • Rachel February 16, 2010, 3:44 am

    I’ve never heard of this experiment! How fascinating! I hope it wasn’t fatal for any of the participants! I’d be really interested to read this and find out more. I love books about the limits of human endurance.

    • Kim February 17, 2010, 11:36 am

      Rachel: I’d never heard of it either. And no, it wasn’t fatal for any of the participants. The story about chopping off fingers was about the worst thing that happened to any individuals, other than being starved for such a long period of time.

  • Care February 16, 2010, 7:41 am

    Do I use the words ‘interesting’ and ‘fascinating’ too often in my comments? I just think I might. I don’t, however, think mentioning these words will thus lead me to pick up this book.

    • Kim February 17, 2010, 11:37 am

      Care: I use those words all the time. I’ve been trying to chop them out of my reviews because they are such pointless words. But this book was interesting and fascinating, so maybe not 🙂

  • Jenny February 16, 2010, 8:40 am

    Ha – I’m with Care. I discovered when I was researching the Stanford prison experiment that I have a limited tolerance for reading about upsetting studies. This sounds crazy – I’m shocked people volunteered for it.

    *comes from Louisiana & loves her food*

    • Kim February 17, 2010, 11:39 am

      Jenny: It makes some sense they would volunteer. The men Tucker interviewed talked about how they were contentious objectors to the war, but felt like they wanted to serve their country. The experiment was designed, in part, to help learn how to re-nourish people who had been starving because of the war. By participating, the men felt like they were better serving their country than they had been doing some of the other projects the contentious objectors were involved in.

      I’m not sure that I’d do it, but I can understand some of how it came about.

  • A Bookshelf Monstrosity February 16, 2010, 9:01 am

    Wow, I’ve never head of this one before. I’m morbidly curious enough to still be interested regardless of the book’s weakness you mentioned. Reasearch ethics is definitely a fascinating subject.

  • A Bookshelf Monstrosity February 16, 2010, 9:02 am

    Don’t you hate it when you see a misspelling in your comment but can’t go back and fix it??? That kills me 🙂

    • Kim February 17, 2010, 11:41 am

      A Bookshelf Monstrosity: I hate spelling mistakes — it’s so frustrating!

      The ethics of the study are fascinating. I mean, the men were volunteers and told what they were getting into, but who can really understand what it means to starve yourself for that long? Overall, was the information gathered worth the suffering these men endured? In retrospect, it seems like yes, but I don’t think an experiment like this would get off the ground today.

  • Jeanne February 16, 2010, 11:48 am

    This makes all kinds of questions, some of them quite horrifying, pop into my head. We needed more people starving during WWII? –was this before the camps were liberated? How do you let human subjects out of the lab and expect them to continue to starve–how would you let a subject visit a friend’s house? As someone who has taken off a significant portion of her weight at least twice in her life, I know how hard it is not to eat very much, so how could it possibly work not to eat enough to keep the body going? Doesn’t starvation have to come from the outside?
    Okay, maybe I need to read this book.

    • Kim February 17, 2010, 11:44 am

      Jeanne: The experiment started before the camps were liberated, with the intention of having the results published in a way that would help people learn to re-nourish after starvation. They made subjects stay in pairs to monitor their eating — it was an honor system, plus the scientists kept track of what an individuals expected weight loss would be. They caught a few “cheaters” when their weight went off track.

      Your last question is the most interesting, and a critique of the study. What they did is more akin to bulimia/anorexia than true starvation, but how would you really study starvation from the outside?

      But yes, you should read the book 🙂

  • Amy @ My Friend Amy February 16, 2010, 12:16 pm

    sounds like an interesting read, really compelling. I’m going to try to check it out. Thanks, Kim.

    • Kim February 17, 2010, 11:44 am

      Amy: Excellent, I hope you get a chance to read it!

  • Natasha @ Maw Books February 16, 2010, 12:27 pm

    Wow. I’m blown away that people would volunteer to do this. I’m curious enough that I’ll likely put a hold on this at the library to look at.

    • Kim February 17, 2010, 11:45 am

      Natasha: I was too. It’s a huge sacrifice to make, yet most of the subjects that were interviewed don’t seem to regret the experiment and didn’t have many long-term health impacts (I think, I don’t have the book next to me to verify that 100 percent).

  • J.T. Oldfield February 16, 2010, 4:28 pm

    Doctors still use this study when dealing w/ anorexic and bulimic patients. I first heard of the study when I was working as a unit coordinator in a hospital.

    • Kim February 17, 2010, 11:46 am

      J.T. Oldfield: Yeah, the book mentions that. It’s good to know that the results are still being used to help people struggling with nutrition issues.

  • softdrink February 16, 2010, 4:53 pm

    Holy crap, that chopping off of the fingers is a shocking start to the story! Not sure I could manage to read this one, but it does sound fascinating.

    • Kim February 17, 2010, 11:47 am

      softdrink: Yes! I picked up the book at Boyfriend’s house to skim while I was waiting for him, and after I read the first chapter I knew I wanted to read it. He does a nice job building up to that moment in the story and disguising who Number 20 is until you’re attached to the participants and even more shocked when you find out who it is.

  • Jeane February 20, 2010, 10:08 am

    I never heard of this before, but I guess it makes sense they would have to study the results of starvation on people to figure out what to feed people who’ve been starving to help them recover. I shudder to think what those men went through, though. I don’t know if I could read this one myself.

    • Kim February 21, 2010, 4:17 pm

      Jeane: It is pretty disturbing to think about what these men experienced. Everything was very controlled, and it’s not as f the scientists were heartless about it. But either way, human testing is a hard thing to read about. I am glad the results were so important though — I suspect that makes participation seem better in retrospect.

  • Gwen March 9, 2010, 2:59 pm

    I just can’t get over the hideousness of study in the first place. The ethical complications that the researchers involved must have had to deal with just boggle my mind.

    Drug studies are one thing, but this seems to go beyond that. I am not sure that I could stomach the book. (Pun more or less intended)

    • Kim March 11, 2010, 4:11 pm

      Gwen: There’s a lot that hideous about this study, and for those reasons I can’t imagine it would ever be able to be done today. But at the same time, it’s taught us so much about starvation and, more importantly, about how to help people recover from starvation. That research is invaluable, but what kind of cost did that knowledge come from? There aren’t easy answers to that question, but it’s good to think about.