Book Review: The Great Starvation Experiment by Todd Tucker

The Great Starvation Experiment - Header

It seems slightly ironic that I first came across the Minnesota Starvation Experiment while in the process of doing exactly that. It wasn’t until I was methodically rocking backwards and forwards, counting off the metaphorical meters on my rowing machine, while listening to the audio book version of journalist Emma Woolf’s The Ministry Of Thin that I ever knew that during the 2nd World War, 40 American conscience objectors volunteered to be starved for 6 months to help man better understand and cope with the effects of famine and starvation on the human body, and ultimately the best techniques for countering it.

As soon as I heard about it I was fascinated by it, here I was in the total throws of Anorexia religiously burning off every calorie, counting ever gram of food to enter my body and living by structure, routine and discipline; my life felt right but my life was miserable and out of control and yet here, apparently, were a group of people who happy to knowingly walk into this existence and live this way through open and informed choice? I had to know more.

Book - Great Starvation Experiment

Sadly, that first introduction was nearly 2 years ago, and in that time the book has sat on my bed side table, asking to be read, but never fitting into my life in a way that would allow. Until, that is, I recently took up reading “proper” and decided to make time for it. And having now finished the book I’ve been left, somewhat dazed by what I found. It certainly didn’t take the view, or approach I was expecting. But then, I’m not sure what I was expecting if I’m totally honest.

The first striking, but good thing, about the book is that it is not a documentation into the effective ways or methods to starve the human body. It is certainly not an anorexia manifesto or training guide but rather an open and honest look at the people involved in the experimentation. Their motives and reasons for being involved. From Doctor Ancel Keys, the head of the experimentation who approached it more as an uncharted territory, which would allow him to expand science and understanding in a way without comparison, to the volunteers themselves and the who consciences objector movement in the United States at the time of the 2nd World War.

Group Photo - Great Starvation Experiment

Obviously, while the majority of text is very personnel focussed, there are, of course, large passages of the book that detail the conditions, tests and rules that the volunteers lived under. The diets they survived on and the exercising regimes they accepted, in the name of doing their bit for humanity, their part in the war effort that didn’t involve lifting a gun. It’s just reported in a very scientific and clinical way.

Now, I have a very personal draw to this book, and so there were parts of it that captured my attention far stronger than others. Like I said, it is far more reflective onto the personnel involved than a real scientific study into starvation in the way it is written and that split me. While I found the background stories of the men involved, and what drew them to end up in this position, as well as, what drove them to stick through a year of enforced food restriction fascinating and certainly, made me question my own position to war and “doing my bit” and whether if ever faced with a time of required duty which side of the fence I’d fall; it was the few sections relating to the experiment itself and the results and effects ascertained that really, and very unsurprisingly, kept me turning pages.

I must add the caveat that I wasn’t looking for advice, I wasn’t looking for tips to starve myself; I can mentally do a perfectly good job at purging food from my routine and accepting the pain of hunger; I was interested by the side effects. I was interested in what they found and what they believed it was happening. Why does hearing improve as weight decreases to unhealthy levels? Why do you develop an unnatural obsession with recipe books? Why do you mentally fear that every meal might be your last, to the point that eating becomes the centre of your life? It was the actions of the men from something as infantile as licking your plate clean to just walking through a shop, past the chocolate and biscuits, knowing you can’t have them but for that fleeting moment allowing your imagination to run wild at the thought that gave me sustenance. I was looking for comparison. I was almost wanting to know how to sort the symptoms that affect life. Which events from day to day life fell into which box? Was this caused by anorexia or was that just the side effect of starvation?

Plate Licking - Great Starvation Experiment

This obviously, sets my reasons and approaches to the book apart from a large portion of the populace. And because the book is more focussed on the men and less on the science, the answers I subconsciously searched for, were fleetingly found. In fact, as it progressed and I almost stopped searching, I found it more fascinating that the book started to claim that the experiment had the effect of mimicking the effects associated with Anorexia Nervosa closer than that of simple starvational famine. It’s original goal. That surprised me, because the more it described the effects appearing on the men as they spent longer and longer emancipated and underfed, the further and further away from my own anorexic life they appeared to drift.

As I turned the final few pages and conclusions, thanks and reviews were drawn, it came apparent that I had misjudged the book and that my expectations where never going to be met. This is a book about 40 men and the scientists who starved them. And not about the food, or lack of, that starvation entailed. If you have an interest in the 2nd World War, it’s effect on society and what people were willing to do, then you will probably enjoy this book. But is a work of documentation over anything else. It wants to record people. And in doing so, keeps a hidden part of the American War effort alive for future generations to understand, it just does so by looking directly at them, rather than as I hoped, by looking through their eyes.

Posted on by 5WC in Book First Edition

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