By Paul de Kruif
Summary: Paul de Kruif was an American bacteriologist turned writer who penned one of the most famous popular-science books of all time, The Microbe Hunters. In this gripping excerpt from his later work Hunger Fighters, de Kruif tells the incredible story of Dr. Joseph Goldberger, the physician and epidemiologist of the U.S. Public Health Service charged with resolving the mysterious pellagra epidemic that was devastating the southern United States in the early 1900s. Through keen observation and genuine open-mindedness, Dr. Goldberger discovered and proved that the cause of pellagra is not a microbe—as was fiercely believed by most doctors and scientists of the time—but rather a nutritional deficiency. Dr. Goldberger’s struggle to convince his colleagues of his findings reflects the tremendous sway that “germ theory” held in medicine at the time and which stubbornly continues to dominate the field’s view of health and disease today. De Kruif’s account illustrates well the lengths medicine has always gone to deny and downplay the role of malnutrition in human illness. (On a related note, while medicine today attributes pellagra to a deficiency of the single B-complex vitamer niacin, nutrition investigators of the mid-twentieth century asserted that the cause of the disease is the lack of a complex of compounds that includes not just niacin but numerous cofactors as well. They named this complex vitamin G—the G standing for Goldberger.) From Hunger Fighters, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1928.
[The following is a transcription of the original Archives document. To view or download the original document, click here.]
The Soft-Spoken Desperado: Goldberger
But it must be borne in mind that all great enterprises are based on work that has been done by individuals whose past is lost in oblivion. Someone has to do the obscure but necessary work of digging a foundation, and if it falls to our part, we must be content with the knowledge that we are playing a necessary part in a great enterprise.
Stephen Babcock found the hidden hunger with a laugh on his lips, never dreaming at all how deadly this hunger might be. Even when Hart and Humphrey were telling that gay old man of the limp, lifeless calves born to those wheat-fed mothers, Babcock’s face didn’t become completely solemn—after all, these were only dumb beasts who had missed life through the hidden hunger, and wasn’t the proof of a hunch held for twenty-five years enough to keep anyone smiling? Of course, those pain-racked babies, whose soft bones made them cry for the [rays] of the sun or of cod liver oil, were no laughing matter. But before long Babcock might chuckle again, for what is more beautiful than the prevention or cure of the hidden hunger of rickets—by the rays of the sun, by a little oil from those fish, or by the light-bathed food of Harry Steenbock? It is hardly likely that Babcock had more than a dim notion of the deadliness of the human ill pellagra. It is certain he never suspected that within a few hundred miles of him there raged a most dreadful hidden hunger of humans. For pellagra every year lays away thousands of folks under the sod in the South of our American land.[Photo of man reading, with caption:] Dr. Joseph Goldberger.
When Goldberger was six and on his way over from Central Europe to the East Side of New York, pellagra had never been heard of in Dixie. What with doctors who were not up to date, what with folks who were, thousands of them, too poor to call in even a cheap doctor, this ill of the red rash wasn’t definitely known there, though it had been killing off poor peasants in France and Spain for better than two hundred years. Goldberger’s father wore a long, orthodox beard; his boy Joseph grew up on the swarming sidewalks where the song is “East Side, West Side.” The whole family, from the grocer father down, was hardworking—after the manner of immigrant Jews. And the patriarch, Joseph’s brothers, and Joseph himself all pitched in to put this gangly-legged boy through school and into City College. It was young Goldberger’s dream to be a mining engineer. Doctors? They were mainly soothsayers, bunk-shooters—this was the youthful opinion of Joseph Goldberger.
Meanwhile, the physicians of Europe were filling ten-pound books with theories about pellagra—this plague of the sore mouth and the flaming skin. Complicated cures and medicines were everywhere recommended, though here and there you might find obscure family doctors, in the Landes of France or in the mountains of Spain, who said, “Feed a pellagrin well, and he’ll do well.” But these were, after all, only plain practicing doctors, and the cause of pellagra lay deeper than that, asserted the scientists of the famous schools. They filled scientific periodicals full of forbidding words, with arguments that this fatal disease might be due to the bites of buffalo gnats, or to some still unknown microbe, or to the eating of spoiled corn, or to eating any old kind of corn exclusively. And the poor folks went on dying.
By the chance of having an enthusiastic friend, Joe Goldberger was converted to the study of doctoring. One of his East Side boy friends deviled him into attending a lecture by Doctor Austin Flint, the younger. That day, Goldberger sat with a new look in his eyes, listening to Flint tell his youngsters about the human heart, show them the machinery of the endless pumping toil of that organ by means of a live, beating heart—of what unfortunate animal remains unknown. Eight years and this Joe, instead of mining gold romantically, was an unknown cog in the machine of the Untied States Public Health and Marine Hospital Service, along with the pompadour-haired George McCoy, along with Edward Francis, who proved how dangerous it may be to get your hands into the insides of a sick rabbit. And down South, the plague of pellagra—though it doubtless has been killing people there for years—was suddenly discovered scientifically.
There now began to be published in American medical journals reports of persons with sore mouths, with rashes that broke out looking only like a mild sunburn but that turned into sores to make them look like lepers. And some of these people died gibbering, insane; and certainly thirty to forty out of every hundred that came to clinics and hospitals with pellagra died one way or another. “Like a mushroom, pellagra is coming up overnight, spreading everywhere,” wrote one of Goldberger’s mates of the Public Health Service, the able Lavinder. Lavinder toiled at it, showed how terribly prevalent this plague was below the Mason-Dixon line—but explain it? Who had learned anything about this evil mystery in two hundred years?
The doctors of the South were, many of them, sure this was a contagious pestilence, for here were villages that seemed to be suddenly swept by it. Who can blame the folks of those forlorn, whitewashed towns of the Cotton Belt for getting scared, for fumigating, for quarantining by the aid of shotguns—for throwing nothing less than a panic? Thousands in South Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi were being consumed by the red flame of this strange skin rash—and who would deny it was spreading?
In 1914 Joseph Goldberger got orders from the red-brick laboratory on the hill over the Potomac in Washington to take the train down South to be in charge of pellagra investigations. “In Charge of Pellagra Investigations”—Goldberger could now write that title after his name. And he knew just about as much as a babe in arms would know of this weird disease. Surely, there’s no denying that Goldberger was something of a shark on certain diseases that raged in the subtropics. He’d come within an ace of dying of the typhus while he was showing how that plague may be given to monkeys by the bites of lice that have feasted on Mexicans who were doomed. He was an excellent bacteriologist, and well I remember him back in 1914—eager, thin-faced, and with slightly curling hair—talking diphtheria to the formidable F.G. Novy, Nestor of American microbe hunters. It may be said, though, that Goldberger’s skill at microbe hunting, and his fire for it, might have easily steered him off the track of finding out anything whatever of this red death, pellagra…
But Goldberger got off the train in Dixie and immediately began to show what a queer fish he was. He began at what every trained medical scientist would tell you was the wrong end of the problem. He put the cart before the horse. He started trying to wipe out pellagra before he’d found out its cause! Was that science?
He stalked—stoop-shouldered and lanky—among the sick folks of those miserable little towns down there, shooting alert, sidewise looks out of his brown eyes. And he pestered doctors, farm owners, and down-at-the-heel tenant farmers with questions about this red ill. Long into the nights he read the science of it and went to sleep confused. He didn’t buy monkeys and guinea pigs; he didn’t do the formal thing of trying to find microbes in the sores of these farmers and mill hands. Never a high-powered microscope did he unlimber; not even a low-powered hand lens did he use. In short, to show fully how unorthodox was his searching, it is a matter of record that Goldberger set up no kind of laboratory at all. He didn’t wait for the disease to be brought in to him, on trays holding jars that contained the sick interiors of dead folks. Instead, he went out to the disease in the living.
He made a tour of state insane asylums and, arriving at the South Carolina State Hospital, saw nobody knows how many crackbrained inmates there. He examined their reddened hands, squinted at the rash shaped like a butterfly that decorated their noses, and he saw plenty at their last gasp, with one toe in the grave.
“How many of your nurses, attendants, orderlies, or doctors catch pellagra?” Goldberger asked the superintendent of this asylum.
“Why—none of us ever do,” said that worthy man. “It’s only the patients [that] ever die of it or have even a touch of it.”
Yes, mulled Goldberger, somewhere he’d read that before. Hadn’t that been pointed out by some searchers who’d fumbled with this plague in an institution in Illinois? Strange….He chewed this innocent-looking little fact over and was presently off for the state sanitarium at Jackson, Mississippi.
“Yes, we’ve had ninety-eight deaths from pellagra among our patients here in the last couple of years,” said Dr. Harrington, the superintendent. And heaven knows how many of the inmates now showed the beginning of it and were getting worse—what could he do about it? No, admitted Harrington, not a nurse nor an attendant nor a doctor had had even a touch of the rash. Goldberger then asked a simple question [and] got a quick answer:
“Of course, our attendants have to handle, wrestle, sometimes fight with these sick folks. Sure. The nurses even sleep in the same ward with dying pellagrins…”
Lonely and hook-nosed, Goldberger was off from Mississippi for the asylum at Milledgeville, Georgia, muttering to himself, as a result of these simple things he had seen, the following piece of horse sense:
“Pellagra can’t be catching.”
So he took a jump over what might have been years of peering through lenses—and he got to Milledgeville. Here were plenty of demented folks, made still more miserable by this breaking-out, by this what-is-it that gnawed at their skins, by the evil that turned their bowels to water. And again he asked questions, and after preliminary politeness [he] talked of nothing but pellagra with the Georgia doctors. And he argued:
“From what the best books say, and from what I’ve seen,” said Goldberger, “the big difference between folks that die of pellagra and those that never get it is that pellagrins are poor!”
Possibly true, answered the Georgia doctors. But still, there were cases….And they smiled to themselves, wondering how such a hunch could ever help Goldberger’s researches along, and they unquestionably wondered why this tall Jew didn’t set up a laboratory and begin shooting stuff into rabbits, after the manner of all regular scientists.
“No—here’s something more,” persisted Goldberger. “The big difference between rich and poor is that the poor don’t get the right stuff to eat!”
Oh, nonsense—it couldn’t be that easy. Pellagra was a million times more mysterious than that. That hunch surely didn’t explain how pellagra was killing folks in the Milledgeville Hospital, the authorities told Goldberger. “Look at our nurses and orderlies here. They never get pellagra, but they eat in the very same room with these pellagrins that afterwards die. They eat food that comes up from the kitchen on the same trays. Why—they eat the very same food!”
And Goldberger—the government theorist, the so-called expert—was invited to laugh that off, and by this information they expected him to be demolished….Why didn’t he set up a laboratory?
The peering public-health man had, however, this merit: he didn’t just listen—he looked. He went into the dining hall amid a clattering of dishes; he stalked down this room where the demented ones sat in grotesque rows at the business of feeding themselves to keep going the spark of their hopeless lives. And with Goldberger was Doctor Lorenz, who was stationed there to probe that last terrible outburst of insanity attending some pellagrins to their graves. Lorenz and the government man sat at their unconventional science in this dining hall. And the gaunt Goldberger watched the trays of food, crowned with a cloud of steam, come up from the kitchen. He saw the waiters fill the plates of the patients from the identical trays that furnished their own grub—but he saw something more.
Goldberger caught what ninety-nine searchers out of a hundred would have said was an insignificant nothing, noticed an event you yourself would say was absolutely unimportant, and he nabbed this truth because he was first of all a human being—alive to human kinks and quirks, aware of human weaknesses. He looked down those rows of crazy ones, then he turned to Lorenz with this very small, quick smile.
“You’re right, Goldberger,” said Lorenz, excited. “See! By George! You’re right—who’d have thought it?”
Goldberger was right. It was the attendants, the nurses, who got the nice cuts of meat, the glasses of milk. “And look,” said Lorenz, “a lot of those patients aren’t even eating the gristly meat they get!”
“Yes—and watch that bright fellow, that kind of patient you call a stealer….Look at his neighbor—dull…just paws at his food a little…sort of half puts his spoon to his face….There! The stealer’s snatched his meat….And look how many of ’em are just going through the motions of eating!”
So they sat there, talking in whispers, and their eyes went back to the tables off in a corner, where the nurses and orderlies were busy getting on the outside of food [sic]—choice food off the same trays. “Who’d have thought to look for it?” said Lorenz.
“Why, it’s human, natural. We’d do it ourselves if we were in their place,” answered Goldberger. Wise, like Max Steuer, he was to human weakness.
He had hit his trail. He was at the beginning of a road up a mountain it would take him ten years to climb. These inmates weren’t being mistreated, mind you, not at all. But they were getting, most of them, mighty little or no fresh meat [and] next to no milk. It was a pretty narrow diet of cornmeal mush, hominy grits, and cane syrup that most of them were living their darkened lives on. Goldberger counted noses and watched—and those were the folks who day after day turned up missing, took to their beds with the rash across their necks and knuckles, went toward their last homes with foreboding pains in their bowels and bones.
But, oh, it was a slender thread of fact, and who would believe it? The authorities at Milledgeville smiled a little, but it is to their everlasting honor that they didn’t kick Goldberger out, that they let him go on with his simple observations, that in the end they helped him with his strange experiments. In those days Goldberger was like some modern Wandering Jew, now here, now there, all over the southland; and now bold in his own belief, he hit the trail once more—back to Jackson, Mississippi. He pulled up at a desolate little Baptist orphanage there [and] presented his credentials. One hundred and thirty of those fatherless, motherless young ones could at this place be set down as pellagrous. He went down to a poverty-stricken Methodist orphanage, and here seventy-nine of those homeless brats were down with the red ailment that made them so listless. And with nothing but his thin thread of a fact seen in the dining room at Milledgeville, he now set out to stamp out the red plague from these children.
It was the summer of 1914, a year when 1192 persons are recorded to have died of pellagra in the state of Mississippi—and in that state the records of the cause of death were not then too complete. Goldberger began making a sort of kindhearted nuisance of himself around those two orphanages. He pried into the breakfasts of those raggedy kids, into their mischiefs, into their most hidden comings and goings. With his helper, Waring, on hot southern nights, he pored over the records of the sick ones. And in those records there appeared a fact—it was certainly surprising—and that fact was this: that the children between the ages of six and twelve—and hardly a soul among the older or younger ones—were down with pellagra. He mulled over it, got nowhere…
The science of Goldberger and Waring consisted in making friends with everybody, getting the nurses to trust them, the waifs themselves to crawl up on their knees, the big boys and girls to tell them their troubles. And all the while Goldberger kept puzzling at his strange fact—were the six-to-twelve-year-old brats, those with the red rash, kept apart from all of the others? Not a bit of it. These orphanages were a hurly-burly of lisping tots, mischievous brats, and boys and girls already past puberty, all in a heap—overcrowded was no word for them. Everybody had a splendid chance to catch this pellagra, but only this one bunch had it. But food—the kind of food—what is it they’re eating? That was the notion that buzzed in the brain of Goldberger, who was a theorizing sort of man, looking at these experimental animals—Southern poor children—with his brain as well as his eyes.
Sidewise from his brown eyes he saw a fifteen-year-old boy sneak a long swig of milk from the cow he’d just been milking.
He got growing-up girls to confess they stole into the pantry, [on] nights after supper, for milk and a piece of meat, maybe—and who could blame them?
He watched the older children at their suppers and dinners. The older ones all had some kind of little job to do to earn their keep—and these actually were served fresh meat several times a week.
And here was something nice, something the trustees of this poor waifs’ home were to be congratulated on: the tots, those up to five or six, got a couple of good mugs of fresh milk a day. Little youngsters must have their milk, and the authorities could afford to keep just enough cows to see that they got it.
“But those six-to-twelve-year-olds?” said Goldberger with his faint smile and a quick cock of his head. “Why, those six-to-twelve-year-olds were just roustabout children!”
“Well, they were too young to work and do chores, so—since there was only just so much fresh meat to be had, and that not enough for all—these kids who didn’t work didn’t deserve any…And they weren’t babies anymore, so they didn’t absolutely need milk, you see. Yes, they were just roustabout, useless children,” and Goldberger permitted himself a soft-spoken chuckle.
But these roustabouts weren’t actually underfed?
“No, no—they weren’t starving, you understand. They had plenty of corn bread, hominy grits, biscuits, molasses. And then there were gala days, once a week, when everybody on the place had fresh meat.”
Now the hawk-faced man concentrated on these six-to-twelve-year-old children, followed them around, watched them try to grow; and they were growing some, there’s no doubt. And he watched them try to play, and they did drag their spindly legs about the grounds in an imitation of playing—a kind of slow-motion-camera sort of play it was, with rests under trees, rests too often for eight-year-old boys and girls. They were gentle players, and listless. And pellagra? A good lot of them had the red breaking-out, and the nerves—the funny irritated restlessness that went with their listlessness, and pains at night, and worried dreams…But it wasn’t so serious—not nearly so serious as with the grown-ups, thank the Lord. Children take a long, long time, many years, to die of pellagra; it goes away in the fall, somehow, and comes back in the spring, year after year.
Goldberger started his first experiment. These orphanages were maintained in a reasonably dirty and miserable condition for want of funds to pay for help. Crowded was a polite name to call them, but he didn’t try to change their sanitation at all. He simply went to the grave trustees of poor children’s homes and spoke softly to them!
“Would you object to feeding fresh meat and plenty of fresh milk to all of your children here—if the government, if the United States Public Health Service, pays for it?”
The grave trustees looked at the hawk-face as if he were Santa Claus. Would they object? Just let Dr. Goldberger try them!
So, in the middle of the month of September, 1914, those youngsters began to have the luxury of two seven-ounce cups of milk each day. They began to live like so many little lords—on nice cuts of fresh meat four times each week. Every child under twelve had at least one egg a day, for breakfast. And they were to have beans and peas all winter. And they did. And it was like Christmas all the time for them.
The next year, 1915, was the very devil of a year for pellagra, and 1535 souls in Mississippi are down in the records as having died from it—and who can tell how many perished forgotten? But let’s go to those orphanages. Here is Joseph Goldberger, that big doctor who got them the meat and the milk, walking among the children at the Baptist and the Methodist orphanages, and they’re always tickled to see him. And Goldberger and Waring go over every single one of those kids—their faces, their hands, the young skin of their naked bodies—and it is beautiful.
At the Methodist home, where seventy-nine last year suffered from the flaming rash, not a single youngster has so much as a sign of it.
At the Baptist home, where one hundred and thirty last year were red-skinned and listless, one lone child had a possible touch of it.
But it couldn’t be! Do not the highest authorities say, “Once a pellagrin, always a pellagrin?” Maybe the kids of last year were gone, and these were new children? But no—they were nearly all the same ones he’d seen last year. Maybe the children aren’t hit quite so hard by pellagra as the grown folks, but then it keeps coming back, worse and worse, ’til at last—well, let’s not think of it.
But this year of 1915 was a new kind of year at those children’s homes. The trustees were not grave now, nor solemn. They clustered around the government doctor, and they laughed and tumbled over each other to get their words to him. “Why, they’re different children! They’re bright now—bubbling over, raising the very dickens. They’re hard to keep in order. It’s remarkable.”
And no pellagra—in a state where thousands of poor folks were tired with it, red with it, rotten with it.
But it couldn’t be that easy. And who blames the eminent medical men, the celebrated scientific authorities of our American land for shaking their heads, maybe even pointing their fingers at their foreheads when they heard the wild notions of Goldberger? He was a man of excellent reputation—the name of the Public Health Service was back of him—and they’d been waiting for him to send news from the southland of some horrible microbe, or a spoiled-corn poison, or a bug like the buffalo gnat, or some drug with an unpronounceable name that would cure pellagra. But here he’d only been down there a year and was saying, “Fresh protein food is the one sure medicine to prevent or cure.” And he hadn’t even given a letter to a new vitamin that might be the answer to what he claimed was a hidden hunger. Of course, these authorities hadn’t been down there at Jackson to see the children of these orphanages before and after, but anyway—
No great discovery could be as surface a one as that…not so easy.
But Goldberger, for all his kind brown eyes and his gentle speech that oddly keeps just the faintest touch of the New York East Side, was mulish. No laboratory slave he just because it was the fashion to do all science in laboratories. And now he went, [in] this bad pellagra year of 1915, to Governor Brewer of the State of Mississippi and asked him a most unreasonable, ticklish, and dangerous favor. With introduction from the State Health Officer, Galloway, Goldberger went:
“This plague of pellagra I believe to be nothing at all but a lack of the right kind of food among your folks. What they’re not getting is fresh protein food, meat, milk, eggs. But, Mr. Governor, I’ve got to prove that, convince the whole world of it. Now I can’t use animals—so far as we know, animals don’t get pellagra…” In some such words as these, the polite searcher opened fire on the governor, who was, well, like all governors.
“Give me the use of some of your convicts out at the Rankin Prison Farm. There’s never been known to be pellagra out there, and that would be the ideal place to try to produce it. That’s the place for us to get our proof!”
But the governor wanted to know just what this wild theorist would do with those convicts. After all, human life, you know, and all that sort of thing.
Goldberger was gentle, deferential, smiling, and plausible—oh, devilishly plausible. He would just feed these experimental animals—no, these convicts—the food commonly eaten by the poor Mississippi folks—on the tenant farms or in the mill villages…
The governor was undoubtedly acquainted with the conditions in those godforsaken places; pellagra was killing off the people there by thousands. And, finished Goldberger, “Your convicts will get plenty of cornmeal, white flour, white hog meat, and cane syrup—good quality, every bit of it. And I’ll see there’s an expert cook. They can stuff themselves if they want to—”
Here were these two men, bargaining and arguing for a foolish experiment that had one chance in how many thousand for success. In how many thousand? In as many thousand as any test tried by imperfect human brains—which is not many [sic]. Here they threw dice for possible disgrace to themselves, for danger and even death for their convicts, and for the future good of humanity—who knew? The governor might have asked, “But if my convicts do get pellagra from your diet, can you stop it? Mightn’t they go on from bad to worse and die?” Their deaths would then be on Goldberger’s head.[Goldberger was] calm on the outside, [but] inside the hawk-face there raged a fire of sureness. Of course they wouldn’t die. If they got it from his diet, that would prove he was right, and then he’d take them out of all danger by feeding them milk and fresh meat once more. That satisfied Brewer, but could Goldberger be sure? What if pellagra started out from bad food but the deadly end of it were due to some germ, some multiplying poison? Could Goldberger control that once it got started?
Faith never asks too many questions, and now there was a due and legal powwow with the lawyers of these convict volunteers, which was the double-edged word that was used to describe them. It was stipulated by the men, through their lawyers, that the test was under no condition to last more than six months. And, dead or alive, they were to have their freedom at the end of that time. So, presently, Goldberger coops up twelve prisoners on the Rankin Farm, hale men and hearty, every man jack of them having sworn he’d never had so much as a touch of pellagra. Into a most sanitary and shipshape house he puts them. And behind the mild-faced Jew’s back there is laughter, the convicts and their lawyers snickering long and secretly: wasn’t this a cinch; wasn’t it a graft? Here was this government guy asking them to live like lords for six months on plenty of first-rate white bread, good corn pone, grits, sweet potatoes, salt pork, cane syrup, and cabbage. And for that they were to go free! And there were murderers, lifers, in that gang of twelve. This was something soft.
For two months those twelve were kept on the regular prison diet in that clean little house with all the sanitary conditions of a well-kept hospital. And wasn’t this rich: all bedbugs, cooties, and crab lice were removed from them, and the new little house didn’t have any at all, which was a different kettle of fish from the old jail, where it was hard to sleep, where the crab lice would have liked to get up in your eyebrows! These twelve bozos felt fine, were fit. And they made trouble for Dr. G.A. Wheeler, Goldberger’s stocky, open-faced helper, who has the look of a very able top sergeant, the kind of top a dough wouldn’t want to get gay with. Wheeler had to bawl them out, make them tow the mark; there was only one thing wrong with the unruly lot of them: they were rarin’ to go on that so-called pellagra ration.[Sketch of a man, with title:] G.A. Wheeler.
On the nineteenth of April, 1915, that grind began, and at noon sharp of that day they were served their first meal of hard-times grub, cooked by Mr. Decell—hired especially for this purpose.
It was a grind, but it was better food than thousands of poor folks through Dixie lived on their lives through. The mornings of these twelve volunteers meant nothing but biscuits, mush, rice, gravy, syrup, coffee, and sugar. Their noons brought them corn bread, collards, sweet potatoes, syrup, and grits. For supper they were looked in the face by grits, biscuit, mush, gravy, syrup, sugar, and coffee. For variety the cunning Mr. Decell would switch breakfast for supper or dinner for breakfast. It was a grind.
But freedom was just over the hill for these twelve, so they whitewashed fences and told smutty jokes; they ran the ram-saw mill with good cheer and made quips about that fool of a government doc and about their freedom just over the hill. And Wheeler and guards with guns—always with guns loaded and ready—watched them. Wheeler especially, like the hard-boiled top sergeant kind of a man that he was, watched them with both eyes all day and with one eye all night. He’d see to it there’d be no monkey business by these bozos—no fresh meat, no greens, no milk would they bootleg on him if he could help it. More helpless than rabbits in a cage were these twelve volunteers—and more closely watched than any guinea pigs ever have been.
Freedom crooked a finger at these men, and for a month and a half they were as chipper as could be. But then things began to go to pot with them. Volunteer A— W— comes to George Wheeler, whining, “I feel weak an’ bad all over, doc—dizzy an’ shaky. Lyin’ awake all night—just cain’t seem to sleep no how.”
“Cheer up, you’ve only got four months and a half to go.” Something like that Wheeler maybe told him. But here comes Volunteer E— H—, who is in jail for life for rape.
E— H— tells of trembly spells in the night; his clothes have gotten baggy on him; he has a misery in his muscles; and pains eat from his muscles right down into his bones. “And I keep havin’ the blind staggers, doc,” he complains. And E— H— is interrupted by another fellow, a crony, who states that he feels weak and all broke down. And that crony has a buddy who is just weak and no ’count. And Wheeler narrows his wide, frank eyes and looks at these men—at their hands, at their knuckles, at the backs of their necks—and sees…nothing.
But what was happening? Here was the jolly convict W— McD—, who weighed 189 pounds at the start and used to laugh and swell up his biceps and tell them he could lick the whole kit and caboodle of ’em with one hand tied. W— McD— has stopped his kidding, and there he sits in the corner in a desolate heap, moaning. His arms jerk, his face twitches. He complains to Wheeler, “Doc, there’s a big knot of something in my stummick—right here.” And other days this former life of the party, W— McD—, gets very nasty, and behind Wheeler’s back doubles up his fists. Wheeler sits on a sort of powder magazine, where anything may happen. But what is happening?
Others have red, sore tips to their tongues, and still others show him cracks at the corners of their mouths, and every man jack of them complains of strange pains that shoot from the small of his back to the front of his belly.
And Goldberger comes every now and again, fagged and gray-faced from his incessant prowling up and down through asylums, mill villages, orphanages—wherever this death of the poor and lowly may call him. And Goldberger and Wheeler look at the knuckles of these their experimental animals, at the backs of their hands and the backs of their necks, and see—nothing. And the weeks are passing, and where’s the pellagra?
Together, these two companions in this criminal research for the good of humanity hold secret council about the ticklish business that goes on here in this little prison house. What if these doings leak out? What if the American nation were to get up on its ear at the news that government doctors were actually trying to give helpless convicts—human beings after all—the deadly malady of pellagra? Already one of these men had to drop out of the experiment—too sick; and the rest were thin, nervous, so haggard it was hard to look at them, bad men though they might be…Look at them there at the ram-saw mill, two of them hardly able to lift a little log….But where was the red rash?
Months went by, and the prison farm harvest was gathered, and the mockingbirds long ago had stopped singing, and the land lay oppressed under the dank and glittering heat of a Mississippi August. Day after day, Wheeler stripped these broken-down experimental animals, stripped them down to the buff—and peered.
It was a ticklish business, and one day Wheeler’s military sternness let down, and he allowed them each four ounces of fresh beef, one day in those long six months—a bite of beef for an oasis in that long desert of fatback and sowbelly. October it now was, and the test drew to its end, toward failure, when, one morning, at the roll call, at the inspection of these miserable creatures—they’d long ago stopped trying to go through the motions of working—Wheeler noticed something queer. Here was a volunteer, stripped. From top to bottom, Wheeler peered at this fellow, though you’d say what was the use? Everybody admitted the rash showed first on the knuckles or the back of the neck. But Wheeler examined this fellow, and here on his private parts, on the underside of his scrotum of all places, was something. Here was a rash, a strange breaking-out, that had the same shape, exactly, on one side of the scrotum as it had on the other. Like a butterfly it was shaped—exactly like the butterfly rash of pellagra.
Nervously but never letting his nerves show, Wheeler passed to the next fellow, and there it was again. And here again on another, ’til he found six of them that showed it. Yes, and here were two more that showed red spots that seemed to be turning to a sort of copper brown on the back of their hands. And here was yet another, with twin streaks of sunburn red on the right and left sides of the back of his neck.
Wheeler telegraphed Goldberger.
And over across there, behind the stockade, on the regular prison farm—what of all the rest of the prisoners over there? They were dirty, they were crowded, they were bitten by cooties and bothered by bedbugs, and they had their fresh meat and milk regularly, and never a single one of the hundreds of them showed a sign of pellagra—no rash, no sore mouth, no jumpy nerves nor midnight fear. It was a perfect experiment.
From Memphis Goldberger called the pellagra expert Dr. Haase and to St. Louis he wired for the celebrated skin doctor Engman. Both of them could tell pellagra blindfolded, you’d say, to know their experience. They came. They examined. They reported: “Six out of eleven of these convicts show undoubted pellagra.”
So the eleven volunteers—embezzlers, murderers, committers of the ultimate crime of rape—earned their freedom. “Stay for a couple of weeks, and we’ll cure you up,” Goldberger urged them. And he hurried to Jackson to tell Governor Brewer his triumph and begged that good man to let him have his prisoners for a couple of weeks more. But Brewer had given those convicts his word. And on the way back to the farm, Goldberger met a truck driving fast for Jackson, and on that truck were his freemen. So they were all marked in the scientific records “November 1—passed from observation.” And God knows what became of the lot of them.
But they were human beings after all—animals with sure instincts. And can you imagine them—sick, weak, skin-and-bones though they were—doing anything else at all but making a beeline for a good plate of hamburger steak and onions?
That day Goldberger wrote a formal letter to Governor Brewer: “…Science and humanity will for all time owe you a profound debt of gratitude…”
So, that year of 1915—the year that 1535 souls are recorded to have perished of pellagra in Mississippi—the hawk-face and G.A. Wheeler and certain unnamed outcasts blew away its mystery.
Now Goldberger’s real troubles began. “But it cannot be so easy! The cause of pellagra cannot be that simple!” So rose the cry from the eminent searchers, committees, and commissions of scientists who were sure there must be a microbe at the bottom of this red plague. Objections rained around Goldberger’s ears. The convicts had developed the rash on the wrong part of their bodies, so he hadn’t given them pellagra. And if it was pellagra they’d got, then it was only a relapse from a former attack of it, so Goldberger hadn’t given them pellagra. And if he’d given them pellagra, it was by some chance microbe he didn’t know was getting into them, so pellagra had nothing to do with bad diet. He read. He mulled these objections. He never answered in words. He pulled up his belt and tightened his lips.
Now up rises Goldberger, quiet and gentle, and turns into a desperado. No arguments, except maybe in the secrecy of his home with his good wife. No discussions, except with certain hard-boiled death fighters up there in the red-brick laboratory on the hill over the Potomac in Washington. If there is anything at all to this germ theory of pellagra, if the men who are razzing him now are right, Goldberger will take the one sure way to find out. His plan is appalling, revolting, and by the prevailing scientific beliefs and theories—excepting his own—dangerous. But he laughs—and not nervously either. “There’s not a bit of danger. It’s absurd to suppose so. I’ll prove there’s no danger!” And all of his young men—Waring, Willetts, G.A. Wheeler, and the cool devilish rest of them—tell him, “We’re with you, Goldberger.”
Danger? He laughs. But does he know?
Of course there was Eddie Francis, since become famous for his seven-years fight against tularemia. Francis had tried, down in Savannah, to give pellagra to monkeys, and he’d failed. Seventy-four monkeys—to say nothing of three baboons Francis had injected with the blood, with the excrement, with the spinal fluid of sufferers at the gate of death with pellagra.Absolutely nothing came of it. No microbe, then—but wait. Who could say from that that there was no microbe? Maybe monkeys just don’t take [on] pellagra.
Don’t think for a minute that everything was on Goldberger’s side of the argument. Was he fooling himself? When you think of the imperfection of the best human brain and the immensity of the unknown that surrounds the most perfectly devised human experiments—mightn’t there be loopholes? Here were three well-known scientists of the Thompson-McFadden Commission—Siler, Garrison, and Ward MacNeal. Hadn’t they worked for years down in South Carolina? Always these three men had found that sufferers from pellagra had been in contact with other cases. What’s more, they had made maps of the desolate little villages where the red plague raged. And those maps showed that the farther you got away from a given central, pellagra-stricken house, the fewer were the houses where you’d find the red rash and the nervous weakness. There were, so it seemed, centers of this disease, centers it spread from. This was what science called epidemiological evidence—and who could deny it was powerful?
And this careful commission had worked in the Spartan Mill Village, where the sanitary conditions were frightful, and that place was shot with pellagra. In this desolate huddle of hovels, from which the whitewash was long since worn off by the weather, there were no sewers at all. They’d put in a modern sewer system, and right off, the death from the red skin, the tiredness, the jumpy nerves stopped spreading—so it seemed. Why—pellagra was a plague like typhoid fever, unquestionably spread about by sick folks’ discharges. It was infectious; it must be caused by a germ.
“No,” whispered Goldberger, and his lips were a thin line in his gaunt face. “Maybe baboons and monkeys are naturally immune—but we all know one animal that isn’t.”
With his good and faithful helper G.A. Wheeler, Goldberger went to Spartanburg, South Carolina. On April 25, 1916, the two of them drew blood into a clean sterile syringe from the arm of a woman who was broken out and very sick with her first attack of pellagra. Wheeler took of his shirt. Goldberger shot a sixth of an ounce of the blood, still warm from the veins of the sick woman, under the skin of Wheeler’s left shoulder. Goldberger took off his shirt. Wheeler shot a fifth of an ounce of the sick blood of the woman under the shoulder of Goldberger.
For two days the arms of these adventurers were stiff….That was all.
But Goldberger was a glutton for proofs. The [Thompson-McFadden] Commission has said that pellagra spread like typhoid fever, from the bowels of suffering ones. Well…
On the 26th of April, 1916, alone, he faced it.
He would just be sure the natural acidity of his stomach wouldn’t hurt this alleged microbe of pellagra—so he swallowed a dose of baking soda. Now then, ready. Here he stands, alone in this most grotesque of laboratories—the washroom of a Pullman car. Out of his pocket he takes a little vial. Into a pill mass with wheaten flour he makes up the contents of this tube—the intestinal discharge of a woman very sick with a true case of the red disease. He swallows this dose. “And maybe the scales from the skin rash are contagious, too,” says Goldberger, who is a thorough man. So for good measure he makes himself a powder from flour and the scaled-off skin from two more people sick with pellagra. He swallows this powder.
For a week Goldberger had a rocky time of it—upset in the stomach. Was this the first sign of the working of the microbe? He went about, looking at his knuckles, at his nose, at the back of his neck in a mirror—nothing.
And on the 7th of May, he felt a great deal better, and much more cheerful, because on that day he had company—had what he now calls, smiling faintly at the memory of it, a party. At the U.S. Pellagra Hospital at Spartanburg, South Carolina, he held his soiree. There were present sundry folks who believed in him. His wife, Mary Goldberger, was there—it was a nice vacation away from her family cares up at Washington. And Edgar Sydenstricker, his statistical shark, and David Willetts, who had been curing the pellagrous folks in the Hospital at Milledgeville, Georgia, with fresh meat and milk as their only medicine—these men were both there. And Tanner mustn’t be forgotten. And of course here was the eternal Wheeler—a hog for work and for punishment. All these were at this party.[Sketch of a man, with title:] E. Sydenstricker.
From four sufferers down with the red ill, those four young men took the same ghastly dose that Goldberger had fed himself seven days before. In the interests of science and for humanity—but most of all because of Goldberger—these four boys ate this meal. And Goldberger? Of course he joined them in it. “What else would you have had me do?” he asked, years after, smiling. “It was simply a business of noblesse oblige.” And he was utterly modest when he said that.
For good measure all of them took injections of a quarter of an ounce of the blood of a pellagrous woman, dangerously ill. And there was in this party one woman, Mary H.F. Goldberger, aged thirty-five, housewife and mother of children. Into her flesh too went a dose of the dangerous blood.
About ten days later, Tanner felt a sharp pain in a gland in his groin. It passed off. And the tall chief wrote precisely in his records, “None of the others experienced any inconvenience.”
Is adventure dead? All that spring this brown-eyed man, soft-voiced and terribly persuasive, went up and down the Southland, from Carolina up to Washington and back to Spartanburg and down to New Orleans, inciting his cronies—searchers of the Public Health Service, from the Director, George McCoy, down to the cubs of the Service—to join him. He made the experiments better and better, and three separate times his good friends tried to infect themselves with the blood and with those unspeakable meals—first recommended to the subjects of Hezekiah by Rabshakeh the Assyrian—from folks dying with pellagra. Always, Goldberger was the first to take the dose. Seven times in all did he risk his own skin, and sundry times did he lead fourteen of his mates of the Health Service into the threat of the Valley of the Shadow. And Mary Goldberger, housewife, must not be left out of this reckoning. Bold fools they were, all of them, but now Goldberger knew that pellagra was not catching.
It was an excellent experiment. Eleven years have gone by, and none of them have experienced more than that “slight inconvenience” they all complained of the first few days.
Why not now wipe out this hidden hunger? The simple facts about it, the truth of it, were at Goldberger’s finger tips. His scientific opponents were routed, and in the Public Health Service, there were private hoorahs for him. Think of Walter Reed in Cuba and his officers and those privates whose names now are forgotten. In a very few years after that stern human experiment, yellow fever began to fade from the Earth, until now there’s hardly enough of the pestilence to put on the point of six pins. Why not the same with pellagra? Here was a business of nothing more than the lack of a few ounces of fresh beef or a quart of fresh milk a day. But years went by, and the red breaking-out and the gnawing pains and the panicky tossing abed in the night—all these kept on in tens of thousands of weather-beaten Southern shacks you’d be polite to call homes. And is it a wonder Goldberger’s hair turned gray?
At the two orphanages at Jackson, the youngsters were safe now. There hasn’t been a case of pellagra for three years—what with fresh meat and fresh milk. What was still better, Lorenz and the earnest David Willetts had cured badly sick pellagrous folk with Goldberger’s plain medicine of fresh meat and milk at the Milledgeville hospital. With the meat and milk, not a sign of pellagra had come back to a single one of them. It was perfect.
But Goldberger, you see, in spite of the foolhardy way that he risked the lives of himself, his mates, and his wife, had first of all good sense, and that was why his hair turned gray. He went up and down the Southland, himself forgotten, among those obscure sore-mouthed and red-tongued sick ones. Well-off folks hadn’t ever heard of Goldberger; prosperous folks, thank heaven, didn’t have to see these sufferers. He lived among these unknown thousands who were dying from pellagra, starving to a red death though they were eating plenty—on tenant farms, in mill villages. Is it any wonder that Goldberger lay awake one hot southern night after another? This grotesque fact faced him, leered at him: “The surer it is that pellagra is only a hidden hunger, the more hopeless it seems to try to wipe it out.”
For two years he went up and down through seven drab mill villages in the South Carolina cotton country, with the help of Wheeler and the encouragement of that statistical shark Edgar Sydenstricker. They spent two years at proving what they were already sure of: well-off, prosperous families, with good incomes of, say, a thousand dollars a year or a little better, have none of this red-skinned death! There was a mockery in this. You give the most ignorant imaginable folks an extra dollar, and they’ll buy fresh meat, never worry, and milk for their kids and themselves. Give them a little land and a little daylight in the evenings, and they’ll make a fist at raising a truck garden. But where were the dollars, and where was the daylight?
Goldberger faced the high humor of this joke—at which Babcock would not have laughed—that, take away those fundamental perpetual hard times, and there’d be no pellagra at all for him to work on—no problem, no experiments necessary!
But Goldberger, who because of the desperate tricks he turned with the lives of other men and with his own you might take for a messiah, had no messianic delusions. He had good sense, and he said, “After all, I’m only a bum doctor, and what can I do about the economic conditions of the South?”
The cold figures of that human adding machine, Sydenstricker, showed it sure as fate: the death from those pains in the bones, the strange exhaustion and the scaly skin, you could track down to the weather-beaten houses where the feast day in and day out is the famous “three Ms”—white hog meat, meal, and molasses. Coldly, their figures grinned at them, proving the saying of the old French doctor Lalesque: “These are the individuals attacked by pellagra, for it attaches itself to poverty as the shadow to the body.”
So Goldberger didn’t go around making speeches, painting pictures of the buried horrors that existed down there, advocating that poverty be abolished…
Being blessed with sense, he began working again—groping, prying, snouting—instead of going on lecture tours, preaching impossible plans for furnishing these hidden-hungry thousands with fresh meat and milk the year ’round. Why, it was absurd to propose that those folks should have those luxuries that did not accord with their station in life. There were plenty of hard-boiled people who’d tell you that if those poor whites down there amounted to a row of pins, they’d get out of those villages and go where they could earn more and so get the right grub. And, myself, I’ve sat listening while men of science told me Goldberger was foolish to try to find a cure for such low-down folks. They had bad heredity. It were better they be left to die—to be cut down by the natural selection that uses this red death as a scythe.
When you’d swear this monomaniac Jew was at the very end of his tether, he came across [this] happy accident, across a stroke of good luck that may cheat the fact of poverty itself. A report of the curious disease of blacktongue—in dogs—drifted before his discouraged eyes. It was a little scientific report by a pair of Yale professors, Chittenden and Underhill. Of this pair of earnest academicians, Professor Chittenden was famous for proving, on students—I believe they were YMCA boys—that it improves the health a great deal to live on next to no meat; that you can be a bigger and better American by giving up the pleasures of steaks and roasts; and that in general the human race eats altogether too much anyway. Chittenden had no enthusiasm for full-blooded Gargantuan life. And now it was wartime. Chittenden and Underhill were patriots, and here was a chance to prove the same theory on dogs, which would make it look more scientific and applicable to humans. They were anxious to know whether these poor creatures wouldn’t get along fine on daily meals of nothing but boiled peas, cracker meal, and cottonseed oil. And if the dogs could, then—
The dogs were willing to do their bit, but this bit was a bit too much, and they up and died! They curled up in the corners of their cages. Their tongues got red, then blue, then almost black, and sore—so terribly sore I’ll spare you the reading of it. They drooled, and then died. “It is a disease that has much in common with pellagra,” wrote those two scholarly men.
For years down at the Milledgeville hospital where the authorities were so loyal to his hopeless work, Goldberger had been trying to keep the patients from dying of pellagra by feeding them diets not so confoundedly expensive as meat and milk. He’d tried soybeans, peas, dried skim-milk—everything cheap. Failure. And in the midst of his tiredness, he’d come across some southern dogs, foxhounds they were, who were dying from a sore-mouth sickness exactly like the ill of those Yale dogs who’d given up their lives for liberty and democracy. Yes, here was a fellow who’d lost a valuable foxhound.
“How much meat have you been feeding her?” asked Goldberger.
“Been trying to thin her down for the hunt—she’s been getting nothing but cornbread,” said the Georgian. And here she was, dead of blacktongue. No, it wasn’t catching; plenty of the other hounds had been licking around her, and they were okay. Yes—they were all on meat ration.
Goldberger left the discouraging South, with its dying ones—and anyway there weren’t quite so many dying now, what with the years of the war and just after and their higher wages. He went back and at last buried himself in the laboratory, that red-brick building on the hill overlooking the bend of the dirty Potomac. “If the blacktongue is really dog pellagra, then the food we fed our convicts back at the Rankin Farm in 1915 ought to kill dogs with the blacktongue.”
He tried. It killed them. And the diet was very close to the chuck prepared by the notable cook, Mr. Decell, except that there was a bit of cod liver oil added to it to keep the dogs from getting soft-boned.
Then an utterly unimportant waif of a thought came to Goldberger. He called together his helpers, got them up out of the not-too-aromatic dog basement. There was the pipe-smoking Lillie, and of course G.A. Wheeler, and his veteran assistant, L.M. Rogers, and to these, Goldberger proposed a piece of exact, Steenbockian science. “Let’s do this experiment over, and this time let’s add yeast as well as cod liver oil. Yeast has vitamin—has the X in it that prevents beriberi. Our dogs might stay in better shape, might grow better with yeast and cod liver oil, and we wouldn’t get mixed up with other hidden hungers besides pellagra—I mean blacktongue. We might get cleaner-cut cases, more surely like human pellagra.”
So, to kill their dogs a little more artistically, you might say, with blacktongue, they sprinkle a little dried brewer’s yeast into the Rankin Farm diet. To a new batch of pups—surely doomed—they feed it. The pups flourish, confounding them. The dogs grow. When Goldberger and the rest of the boys come down into the smelly basement of the red-brick laboratory on the hill, those supposedly doomed pups leap against the cages, yipping and yelling at their would-be tormentors. In fact months went by, and all the disease they got…was the mange! In short, these dogs barked and grew fat. And it is part of the comedy of science that Goldberger and his boys didn’t see for months what lay right under their noses. The first bunch of beasts, which died so quick of the blacktongue, didn’t have yeast.
May 26, 1923, and the hawk-face is at the end of his trail—back down in Dixie, back at the Milledgeville Insane Asylum, where he’d first shot his sidewise glance at the difference in the food of the nurses and the patients sick with pellagra. He feeds the first dose of plain dried yeast to two people sick with the red skin rash, with the doom that starts out like sunburn, with the death that’s the penalty of the crime of poverty. A couple of ounces a day of this ordinary yeast these two patients eat. In less than two weeks the flush fades from their skins; the sinister butterflies fade from over their noses. In less than a month, they are well of every sign of pellagra. Except for this ounce and a half of yeast per day, they are on a diet that would surely have finished by putting them under the sod.
Mysterious in the dried, shrunken cells of this humble yeast sleeps the X that’s the answer to this worst of hidden hungers. With the help of Doctor Tanner, Goldberger feeds twenty sick ones yeast that year at Milledgeville. Daring a diet that would certainly do them no good, mind you. Daring a diet those no-’count Southern thousands have to eat all winter, many winters. Only in addition they eat a couple of ounces of this yeast every day. It was wonderful. Those twenty—except one—got better, as if they’d been suddenly turned into rich folks who could afford high-priced food three times a day. And on the 10th of May, 1924—ten years from the beginning of his long chase—all of these folks were alive, well, free from a single sign or symptom of the flaming sickness. All except one, who, sick to death from pellagra, closed her eyes for the last time three days after coming to the hospital. Yeast can do everything—bar miracles.
Three years have gone by since that first test, and again and again, on more and more unfortunate folks, the power of this plain dried yeast has been proved. It’s more potent than the choicest lean beef and far stronger than milk in the mysterious X, what Goldberger calls the “pellagra preventive,” using for short the letters P-P.
And using his blacktongue dogs for martyrs, Goldberger has dug out this same life-guarding P-P in tomatoes. But there’s a skunk in this woodpile. How are the poor white folks going to raise gardens for tomatoes? There’s hardly time after the day’s mill work is done. And who is going to make them eat yeast?
This prosperous year of 1927—what with the cotton times that are not too good and with Father Mississippi on his rampageous flood—more folks are recorded to have died of pellagra than in any year since that worst of all years, 1915.
And that is three years since the first tests of the yeast at Milledgeville. Who’s going to do something? In wartime the Germans learned to produce yeast dirt cheap, in lots of thousands of pounds. And the yeast doesn’t have to be fresh. It is marvelous how the mysterious pellagra-preventive X of the yeast lasts. It’ll stand even boiling under pressure.
So this cheap yeast doesn’t have to be fresh, and families who earn much less than a thousand dollars a year will still be able to spare the few cents a day needed to buy it. And Goldberger has found kinds of yeast that taste so well that even an invalid would smack his lips and eat plenty.
How will the Southern poor folks find out about this guard against the hidden hunger, this X that’s within their means? Of course, there are those who say it isn’t worthwhile saving them, and there are those who say they’re so ignorant that…
But who having seen their terror at this red death and admitting they’re human beings will dare to claim that if these people knew they could save their lives by spending a few pennies a day for dried yeast, they wouldn’t jump at the chance?
Here is the chance for experiment on a vast scale that Carleton would have loved—finally, to see whether yeast will wipe out pellagra. For every remedy must have the hard test of practice, away from its discoverer’s loving care.
Will Goldberger organize the yeast campaign—beg yeast, buy yeast, teach yeast to those who will otherwise die? No, I think not, for there never was a worse hand at ballyhoo. That strange searcher—hair gray, face lined—stands on the steps of the Hygienic Laboratory. He looks off up the river, climbs the steps to his little room close by the cell of Edward Francis, and goes downstairs to his dogs, his diets, his rats. He has actually, with the help of that pipe-smoker Lillie, made white rats sick now, with a hidden hunger you’ll swear is the same as human pellagra. And he has the curing of them down to a beautiful science.
Just before he turns to go, leaving me with thoughts of his dreamer’s face, he talks of poverty, of human ignorance. But he’s sure the curing of those eternal ills is not his job. His last words as he turns to go I remember best of all:
“I’m only a bum doctor…”
That is why to me he is lovable, altogether admirable, for, like all of the hunger fighters whose deeds are here recorded, Goldberger has the good sense to know what he can do and can’t do. Like all of them, with the possible exception of Mark Alfred Carleton, though that Jayhawker too had his own admirable points, you’ll admit.
In Goldberger’s deeds there is nothing extraordinary. He was a simple worker—except for that moment in the spring of 1916 when, in anger at rivals who sneered at his science, he risked the lives of himself, his mates, and his wife. But then all of these hunger fighters—Henry Wallace, Marion Dorset, and the rest of them—were plain men working hard at their jobs. As Angus Mackay put it, what they’ve discovered might have been found by any other set of men.
That’s one reason why this story is in no sense a history of modern hunger fighting, since it has picked out only a few highlights from the mass of work of hundreds of other men. The adventures here told of are only a fragment of the recorded story of the modern fighting of hunger. On a grand scale, it is a battle—though not considered to be one by the men themselves—carried on in the workaday humdrum lives of thousands of searchers who are persistent, quick-witted, and full of courage. Think of these unknown men and you may laugh at those prophets of doom who predict mankind’s approaching starvation.
The men here told of stand out just a bit, maybe, because, like the gay Paul Ehrlich, they had a moment’s brilliant good luck in their struggle with nature. Goldberger had it. What if he hadn’t sprinkled that yeast—with an entirely wrong intention—into the diet of his blacktongue dogs?
But Goldberger had something else besides good luck. To use what he’d found by happy accident, he had to have something that’s common to most folks in their own line—and that’s good sense.
From Hunger Fighters by Paul de Kruif, author of Microbe Hunters. Illustrated by Zadig, New York, Harcourt, Brace and Company. Copyright 1928 by Harcourt, Brace, and Company, Inc. Copyright 1926, 1927, 1928 by The Country Gentleman, Curtis Publishing Company. First published October 1928. Printed in the U.S.A. by Quinn and Boden Company, Inc., Rahway, NJ.