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It wasn't easy being a conscientious objector (CO) during World War II.
Any American male of draft age who refused to serve in the military for reasons of conscience were obliged to become part of the Civilian Public Service (CPS) and participate in a wide range of unpleasant and often dangerous duties. One of the most far-reaching assignments carried by COs involved their participation as research subjects in medical experiments. Under the authority of the Office of Scientific Research and the U.S. Surgeon-General, medical schools and hospitals across the United States conducted a series of medical experiments studying infectious disease and human endurance. Many COs volunteered for research despite the very real dangers that such research faced. Although no deception was used and there was full informed consent, it seems hard to believe that these research studies were carried out given the potential risks. Some of the studies involved deliberate exposure to live viruses including hepatitis, typhus, malaria and pneumonia to determine likelihood of infection and to test new treatments. Other subjects were placed in decompression chambers and subjected to temperature extremes to measure human responses to severe environmental changes.
The Minnesota Hunger Experiment was carried out under the direction of Dr. Ancel Keys of the University of Minnesota Laboratory of Physical Hygiene. It began with a pamphlet titled "Will You Starve That They Be Better Fed?" sent out to the various camps housing COs which described a study into the effects of starvation. As the war was drawing to a close, it was becoming clear that famine would be a major challenge facing post-war reconstruction. The experiment was intended to learn more about malnutrition in human beings and how it could be treated. Of the 100 COs who volunteered, only 36 met the rigorous screening requirements. Another 18 were hired as support staff. The participants were given full information about what would be required and they were also warned about potential long-term risks. The study began with a three month standardization phase in which the subjects received a daily 3200- calorie diet followed by a six-month semi-starvation phase (a daily diet of 1800 calories each).
The goal was to reflect the poor diet that was common across much of war-torn Europe. The final three months would be the recovery phase in which the researchers would test different high-protein diets to help the participants return to normal. Over the course of the experiment, the participants lived on the University of Minnesota campus and took their meals together in Shevlin Hall. During the semi-starvation phase which began in February, 1945, each participant was obliged to walk 22 miles (35.4 kilometers) a week either around the campus or on indoor treadmills.
Despite the high idealism of the COs who participated, their enthusiasm quickly diminished as they realized how rigorous their lives became. They reportedly grew more irritable as the effects of their limited diet affected their physical health. Tolerance for cold weather quickly decreased (this was a big problem considering the cold Minnesota winter) and they began experiencing dizziness, fatigue, muscle soreness, hair loss, and tinnitus. Concentration and coordination were also affected and some of the participants who were attending classes were forced to withdraw from their studies. Many of the participants became increasingly obsessed with food and collected recipes. Their libido was also adversely affected.
The sight of the emaciated participants around the campus became increasingly common as they began wasting away. Their sunken faces and bellies, protruding ribs, and edema-swollen legs and ankles made them extremely noticeable and they became the subjects of newspaper and magazine articles across the country. When asked if they wanted to withdraw, the participants flatly refused. One participant, Harold Blickenstaff later recalled that "I had just decided that this was what I was going to do and so I was going to do it . . . and so I would say walking by a bakery was like walking by a bank. It might be nice to have what's in there, but it's out of the question. I never debated whether or not I should break diet or do anything else"
One respondent in particular had an extremely difficult time and broke down in the eighth week of the semi-starvation phase. Going into town, he went on an ice-cream binge and tearfully confessed following his return to the laboratory. On that basis, the participants were placed on a "buddy system" and no participant was allowed out alone. Despite this system, the respondent who had broken the fast began stealing food and was later released from the program due to severe emotional distress. He was placed in the psychiatric ward of the university hospital and diagnosed with a borderline psychotic episode which subsided after several days. Three other participants were also dropped from the study due to concerns about the pattern of weight loss noted.
Ironically, it was the three month re-feeding period that was the hardest part for many participants. Some were surprised to find that they were still losing weight despite the increased rations (due to loss of edema). As not all subjects received the same number of calories in their re-feeding diet, the effects of starvation continued longer for some than others. One participant would cut off three fingers with an axe while chopping wood although he was vague afterward over whether this was deliberate. He remained to complete the study however. Although the worst symptoms of starvation had passed by the end of the re-feeding period, full recovery would take considerably longer for most of the participants.
The results of the Minnesota Hunger Experiment were written up in a 1,300 page two-volume report titled The Biology of Human Starvation that was released in 1950. In addition to their own findings, the authors included information about the Siege of Leningrad, the Warsaw Ghetto, Japanese and German concentration camps, and field data from various post-war countries. World War II provided all too many opportunities to learn about the effects of starvation on human beings and most of the published studies remain classics in the field.
It is highly unlikely that medical experiments done with COs during World War II would ever be approved by a modern ethical review board and their value to science remains controversial. Still, medical professionals working with famine-stricken populations continue to use the Minnesota results for guidance in dealing with the effects of malnutrition. A number of the study participants went on to distinguished careers as academics and peace activists but when 18 of the survivors were interviewed in 2004, they emphatically stated that their involvement in the Minnesota Hunger Experiment was one of their most important achievements.
It is a fitting legacy for these people of conscience that tends to be largely forgotten today.
Click here for more information on the Minnesota Hunger Experiment (pdf)
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