The Minnesota starvation experiment


During World War Two, conscientious objectors in the US and the UK were asked to volunteer for medical research. In one project in the US, young men were starved for six months to help experts decide how to treat victims of mass starvation in Europe. In 1944, 26-year-old Marshall Sutton was a young idealist who wanted to change the world for the better. As a conscientious objector and Quaker, he refused to fight in the war but he still craved the chance to help his country.

“I wanted to identify with the suffering in the world at that time,” he says. “I wanted to do something for society. I wanted to put myself in a little danger.” That danger came, unexpectedly, in the shape of a small brochure with a picture of children on the front. “Will you starve that they be better fed?” it asked. It was a call for volunteers to act as human guinea pigs in a medical experiment at the University of Minnesota.

All over Europe people were starving – in the Netherlands, in Greece, in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union – and the US military wanted to learn how best to re-feed them. But first they had to find healthy people willing to be starved. Perhaps surprisingly, hundreds of conscientious objectors – or COs – applied, all eager to help. Sutton was grateful to be one of 36 young men chosen. “I felt very useful, fulfilled,” he says. “There were hundreds of people like me who didn’t have that type of opportunity, and I felt very fortunate that I could be there.” The experiment started in November 1944 and for the first three months they were fed to their optimum weight and monitored. Then their rations were cut dramatically. Food quickly became an obsession.

“I ate what I had in about three minutes and got out of there – I didn’t want to stay,” says Sutton, remembering mealtimes in the canteen. “There were some in the experiment who lingered over that food for 20 minutes. I couldn’t take that. Some fellows were reading cook books all the time.”

The men ate meals twice a day. One might be cabbage, turnips and half a glass of milk. On another day, it might be rye bread and some beans. Like many hungry people in Europe, the men never had meat, and calories were set at 1,800 or less. But Sutton remembers one occasion when, carrying his meagre rations in a paper bag, he took his girlfriend out to dinner at the most expensive restaurant in Minneapolis.

“I wanted to take her to a restaurant just to enjoy seeing her eat… but when the waiter came up with the food she just couldn’t do it. I was a bit disturbed by it, I’d spent all that money on a big meal and she just couldn’t eat it.”

The regime was tough – during the six months they were being starved, the men were expected to walk or run 22 miles (36 kilometres) every week, expending over 1,000 calories more than they consumed each day. Their walks took them past bakeries and other temptations – and it was all too much for some participants. Three pulled out of the experiment. Those that remained lost about 25% of their weight and many experienced anaemia and swollen ankles, as well as apathy and exhaustion. Their ribs stuck out through their skin – their legs were as thin as their arms used to be. And there were psychological effects as well  Edited from  The Minnesota starvation experiment.

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