In A Nutshell
Most of us get a little cranky if we skip breakfast, but during the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, 36 men volunteered to go on a six-month starvation diet. What motivated these men to give up eating? Well, they were conscientious objectors helping their country during World War II, and they lost quite a bit of weight along the way.
The Whole Bushel
During World War II, most able-bodied American men were off fighting the Axis Powers in Europe and Asia, but not everyone signed up to sail overseas. Some young Americans believed killing another human, no matter the cause, was morally wrong. But even though they weren’t willing to pull a trigger, many conscientious objectors wanted to help their country win the war through more peaceful means. Forty of them got their chance in the infamous Minnesota Starvation Experiment . . . and they also lost a lot of weight.
Conducted by the University of Minnesota, the experiment was meant to study the effects of starvation on the human body. Why? Well, American officials knew the war in Europe would end soon, and once Hitler was out of the picture, they’d have to feed a whole lot of hungry Europeans. Thousands of people in countries like Greece and the USSR were wasting away to skin and bones, and the US needed to know what and how to feed them.
Enter 36 conscientious objectors who loved the Star-Spangled Banner. Chosen from a group of 400 volunteers, these men were put on one of the craziest diets of all time. Beginning in November 1944, the men were housed on campus and given work to do around the university. And when they weren’t busy, they were eating. Well, at first anyway. The men enjoyed themselves for three months, consuming over 3,000 calories a day. But once the volunteers were fleshed out, researchers decided it was time to change the menu.
Suddenly, calories were cut to 1,500–1,800 a day, depending on how fast each individual lost weight. For six months, the volunteers consisted on a diet of cabbage, turnips, rye bread, and beans. They were also ordered to walk 35 kilometers (22 mi) every single week. Needless to say, these guys got pretty skinny. Scientists hoped the volunteers would lose 25 percent of their body weight, and the results were pretty horrific.
By the time six months were up, many of the test subjects looked a lot like Holocaust victims. Their legs and ankles started to swell, their bones were visible against their skin, and many suffered from anemia. Starvation also took a massive toll on their psychological state. Many of the men sank into depression. They lost their sex drive, and they all spent their free time dreaming about food. Some went to movie theaters just to watch actors eat onscreen. Some spent their days reading cookbooks while others took up to 20 minutes to enjoy their meager meals.
As you might imagine, things got really tense. Tempers started flaring, and fights broke out. When scientists learned one volunteer ate some extra food when no one was looking, they insisted the men couple up. But at least they could chew on gum, and each guy went through about 40 packs a day . . . until those sadistic scientists decided gum was no longer allowed. Eventually, one of the men grew so despondent that he chopped off a few fingers with an axe. He wasn’t even sure how he did it or if it was an accident.
By the time the starvation phase was finished, the men were walking around at about 45 kilograms (100 lb) apiece. Over the next three months, the men were given more and more food, but the Minnesota Starvation Experiment was just the beginning of their suffering. It took three years before they were physically and psychologically back to normal, and many became obsessive overeaters, gorging themselves for up to a year.
Sadly, World War II ended before the US government could use the data to help European victims, but the Minnesota Starvation Experiment did yield a lot of useful information. It provided the basis for a 1946 book for aid workers titled Men and Hunger, and it’s helped psychologists work with people who suffer from eating disorders like anorexia. As for the volunteers themselves, believe it or not, they have no regrets. In fact, many have said they’d do it again if their country called on them. Talk about patriotism.
Show Me The Proof
BBC News: The Minnesota Starvation Experiment
io9.com: The US wartime experiment that starved men almost to death