The Great New York Starvation Challenge

In the summer of 1881, New York City`s Clarendon Hall became the scene of a rather unusual public challenge.  An eccentric Minneapolis physician, Dr. Henry S. Tanner rented the hall to carry out a forty-two day fast.  Not only would Dr. Tanner`s fasting be monitored by New York`s most distinguished medical professionals but anyone outside the medical community would be able to watch for themselves (after paying the twenty-five cents admission fee).  According to Dr. Tanner, the point of his fast was to prove that human beings could go without food far longer than the twelve to fifteen-day limit laid down by the orthodox medical community.   By -passing that limit, Dr. Tanner hoped to prove that that the human mind possessed "untapped powers that modern medicine has yet 41J9EBYAM5L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_[1] to understand".  He also hoped to settle one of the great medical mysteries of the late 19th century:  the mystery of the “fasting girls”.

By the end of the 19th century, scientific authority had slowly edged out religion as a way of  answering fundamental questions about how the world worked.  Still, spiritualists and their supporters were fighting back vigorously.  Despite the tremendous rise in Victorian-age enthusiasm for scientific discovery and big engineering projects, there was a widespread fascination with spirit mediums, psychics and other fantastic claims of the paranormal.  Was it possible that scientists didn’t have all the answers after all?

Which brings us to “fasting girls” and the how they were able to survive without food...

Although the notion that religious ascetics could overcome the limits of their own bodies through brutal self-denial had been around since the Middle Ages, cases of young women living without food for extended periods of time first appeared in the medical literature only relatively recently.  By 1873,   Sir William Gull presented his now-classic paper “Anorexia Hysterica”  to describe what he insisted was a new medical disorder (which he later renamed anorexia nervosa) and the fasting girls phenomenon had already become front page news on both sides of the Atlantic.    Not long after Sarah Jacob, the “Welsh Fasting Girl”  drew headlines during the late 1860s, similar cases were found in the United States and Canada, including Mollie Fancher (a.k.a. “The Brooklyn Enigma”), Kate Smulsey (a.k.a. “The Fort Plains Fasting Girl”) and Josephine Marie Bedard, a French-Canadian girl living in Maine.   Mollie Fancher became a particular darling of the Spiritualist movement, as much for her supposed psychic powers as her miraculous ability to go without food.

All of which led to an interesting standoff. 

On one side, various scientific authorities insisted that the fasting girls were frauds.  Their defenders, including Spiritualists and family members, denied the accusations that the girls were secretly eating and insisted that the fasting was genuine.  Spiritualists in turn denounced the hardheaded skepticism of the medical doctors and one of them, Joseph Rodes Buchanan, even insisted that “Medical men and schools know no more of the psychic universe than a mole does of astronomy”.   After a controlled study of the most famous case, Sarah Jacob, led to her starvation death in a London hospital in 1869,  nobody felt inclined to try repeating the experiment for fear of more starvation deaths.  The vigorous debate reached its peak in 1881 and a public challenge from Dr. William Hammond of the New York Neurological Society for a formal proof of food abstinence. 

Bringing us back to Dr. Henry S.  Tanner and his public fast.  Although his initial plan was to go without food completely, he altered this slightly by taking “alcohol vapour baths” but otherwise stuck to his fast under the watchful eye of a panel of physicians (who also measured his urine and feces carefully).   Dr. Hammond and his neurologist colleague, Dr. George Beard, didn’t take part in the challenge despite invitations from Dr. Tanner and the media.   Over the course of the forty days that the fast lasted, Dr. Tanner was never caught cheating and insisted on continuing despite becoming extremely emaciated.   Despite expressing hope that his progressive starvation would lead to the sorts of religious visions and other “psychic experiences” that ascetics had reported in the past, Tanner was disappointed  in that.   He just got hungry and weak.

Once the forty day fast ended however, Dr. Tanner's claim to winning his challenge failed to impress his critics.  Neither Dr. Hammond or Dr. Beard considered the test to be valid despite Tanner losing more than forty pounds in his experiment.   As the two neurologists pointed out, the medical panel supervising the fast was made up of “a parcel of doctors whom very few had ever heard of” and that the “alcohol vapour baths” may have invalidated the results since they likely acted as a stimulant.   The New York Times was quick to side with the neurologists and labelled the entire event as “Tanner’s Folly” sinice the doctor had failed to win the challenge or to prove his claim.  The Times also added that "no physiological principle of any importance was deduced from the undertaking". 

Not surprisingly, Dr. Tanner was infuriated and insisted that his successful fast proved his claim about the ability of the mind to overcome the body.  He stated that his fasting demonstrated that humans could live in a state of suspended animation similar to bears going into hibernation.  While Tanner argued that his going without food for forty days proved that humans were capable of "hysterical lowered vitality" (entering a death-like state under extreme circumstances), hardly anyone was persuaded by his argument.  Though fasting girls continued to be studied, it was as examples of mental disorder rather than as being miraculous (despite prominent exceptions).

Although the 20th century would see a far more controlled study of human starvation that was much more useful in learning about the limits of the human body, "Tanner's Folly" earned Henry S. Tanner temporary status as a celebrity (despite his being largely forgotten today).  as well as a place in the writings of Mark Twain who, in his 1897 book, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World, commented that ""I think that the Dr. Tanners and those others who go forty days without eating do it by resolutely keeping out the desire to eat, in the beginning, and that after a few hours the desire is discouraged and comes no more". 

Food for thought.




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