Title: The Great Starvation Experiment: The Heroic Men Who Starved So That Millions Could Live
Author: Todd Tucker
Genre: Literary Journalism
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.
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