Chapter 34 of the book ‘Discovery’, the autobiography of Vilhjalmur Stefansson.
Like my views on arctic travel and the importance of developing the north, my ideas about diet were an attempt to correct what I saw as human error.
My real introduction to the medical profession came with my article “Observations on Three Cases of Scurvy” published in the Journal of the American Medical Association for the November 23, 1918. The story of how close that paper came to being rejected reads like fiction. One day in his office Dr.Morris Fishbein, the Journal’s editor, overheard his assistants talking about an article that had been submitted. It was curious, they said, how men good in their own field go off the beam when they venture into another field. Fishbein asked what they were talking about. They told him that they were discussing a manuscript that they had just thrown in the wastebasket because it was not accompanied by return postage. They said that, postage or not, the wastebasket was the place for it, since it was completely crazy. It had some from the polar explorer Stefansson, who was a good enough explorer but obviously knew nothing about medicine. His attention drawn to the paper, Fishbein read it, decided that it might not be crazy, and sent it to the Nutrition Department of the Yale Medical School. Yale wrote back that the article sounds as if it might make sense and, if it did, it could be important.
Though Fishbein later confirmed this story, I first heard it from Dr. Alfred Hess of New York, famous in the early days of vitamin discovery for applying a diet of fresh and raw fruits and vegetables to the treatment of scurvy, adult and infantile. Dr. Hess telephoned me to say that if I would come to his house for dinner he would introduce me to the Yale professor who had saved my manuscript, Dr. Lafayette B. Mendel. That evening Mendel and Hess cited numerous case histories involving the ravages of scurvy during World War 1, especially among British soldiers. The British had been in the war longer than the Americans, and their army cooks were said to be even more likely than ours to overcook foods, thus depriving them of what antiscorbutic value they might have had.
Dr. Hess said that what impressed him most about my paper was that I had reported approximately the same time values for obtaining from a diet of fresh raw fruit and vegetables. This was in each case, about four days from lethargy and deep gloom to cheerful optimism. It would seem, the, that in the treatment of scurvy the important thing is that the food be fresh, and whether a doctor should prescribe, in his therapy. raw fruits and vegetables or underdone and raw meats would depend on such consideration as convenience, cost and individual preference. Some patients might prefer to be cured by eating medium or rare steak. Some might choose an endive and grapefruit salad.
I have already told of how the famous nutritionist Raymond Pearl became interested in my idea that diet should be taken out of the realm of theory and folklore and put into the field of common sense and practical experience. Pearl and I never got around to writing our projected book on the history of man’s diet from Stone Age to the beginning of agriculture. We had too many other irons in the fire. We did, however, continue to believe in and talk about our ideas.
Most practicing physicians and teachers in medical schools were against us. The doctors had patients whom they had been treating the firm belief that a varied diet was the only diet suitable for human beings; they could not very well afford to do a sudden about face. The professors and students who eat at their feet believed that nutrition was a science, a science that was perhaps responsible for the success of the human race. Not unnaturally, when I published or spoke of, experiences that questioned the very foundations of that science, the science was given the benefit of the doubt and what I had to say was either disbelieved or disregarded.
Occasionally we made converts. I remember once visiting Dr. Frederie M. Hanes of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. One of Dr. Hane’s guests loudly declared that even the best foods would sicken a man if he had to eat the same thing every day. He offered to bet anything that nobody could eat one quail at each meal for ten consecutive days. I offered to take the bet– even up to a thousand dollars. I might have won some easy money if I had not gone on to say what I already knew to be true; that I could eat three properly cooked quail at each meal with no side dish except perhaps a little butter. The company seemed to think I was joking, so the test never took place. It did, however, lead to further conversation that gave me a chance to expound my views. I was finally able to make a favorable impression upon the company. I regarded that evening as a victory in a minor skirmish, but I was still far from having won the war.
The transcripts of my first talk with Pearl had aroused some interest on the part of the Mayo Clinic at Rochester, Minnesota. Dr. Charles Mayo invited me to come to the clinic to have a thorough physical examination with the idea of discovering whether my supposedly unorthodox arctic diet had done me harm or good. I was delighted with the offered opportunity, but was unable to find the two or three weeks time necessary for the experiment.
One day at the Harvard Club in New York I happened to mention my disappointment at not being able to get to Rochester. The friend with whom I was talking, Dr.Clarence Lieb, said that New York doctors would also be able to examine me as thoroughly as the Mayo brothers had propose to do. He persuaded me to let him organize a team of doctors interested enough in my ideas to give me a thorough going over. This he promptly did, and I began dropping in at the offices and clinics of his expert colleagues, paying for the tests they gave me by giving talks before their medical societies. After these tests and observations were completed, Dr. Lieb wrote and published a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association for July 3, 1926, “The Effects of an Exclusive Long-Continued Meat Diet.” This was in effect, a signed statement by several eminent doctors that after rigorous examination they had found me to be in a state of health equal to or better than the average man of my age who had followed a mixed diet.
Some weeks after the publication of Dr.Lieb’s article I received from the American Meat Institute in Chicago one of the most important letters of my life. The writer, Wesley Hardenbergh, a public relations man for the institute, not unnaturally thought that, although I might be overstating my case, my insistence on it might good pubic relations for the Meat Institute.
Hardenbergh’s letter asked whether Lieb and I would permit the institute to reprint ten thousand copies of Dr. Lieb’s paper for distribution to doctors and teachers specializing in nutrition. We telephoned Perl and he took a night train up from Baltimore. At breakfast the next day we chose others who would meet for a real strategy session at lunch. At that session we reached a decision.
We told the American Meat Institute that just printing one more article, however excellent it might be, would not satisfy the general feeling that, so far as the Stone Age diet was concerned, I had to “put up or shut up.” In our opinion, the demonstration should be more dramatic and more conclusive than that. We suggested that two experimental subjects, men who had already lived for a year or longer on meat alone, volunteer to subject themselves to a preliminary study of several weeks while living the usual white collar city life on an ordinary diet. After those weeks, the volunteers would shift to a diet of nothing but meat and water and remain on it, under strict medical routine, for just over twelve months. Then the subjects, myself and one other, would continue under medical observation for two or three further weeks for a readjustment form meat alone to an ordinary mixed diet.
Following up our proposal, we said, among other things, that, while we would grant no reprinting privileges on anything already written, we would go through a thirteen month test under prearranged conditions to be agreed upon at a New York meeting between representatives of the meat industry and ourselves. We would agree to all customary publication privileges of the results, favorable or unfavorable, after with tests had been completed and the results studied. During the test itself, and for a short time afterward, only we and the American Meat Institute would be free to issue bulletins.
During the next several months we had many conferences. The governing committee of about a dozen physicians and scientists of recognized reputation would receive no pay, because they would all be attaché to one institution or another. Of the members of this experiment committee, only one, Clark Wissler from the American Museum, was a long-time friend and associate. Newly made friends in the group were Ernest Hooton, Clarence Lieb, and Raymond Pearl. All the others were stranger, most of whom I had not previously known even by name. Raymond Pearl was chairman, I would receive no pay, for I would have a special unrestricted right to say or write what I liked about the experience. My partner in the experiment would receive nominal pay and travel and living expenses. Nurses and technicians, chiefly chemists, would be paid at standard rates.
The most important man in the whole setup would be the other subject of the experiment. I chose Charles Andersen, a Dane of business college education who had been with me for three years on the Canadian Arctic Expedition. On that expedition he had lived on fresh musk ox, caribou, seal, and polar bear meat. Since about 1920 he had been self-employed, working his own orange grove at Weirsdale, Florida.
As to choice of meat we were to be free to eat any fresh meat we liked so long as it had not been chemically preserved or overcooked. We know that we would be getting more than half our calories from animal fat, the rest from animal lean. The total intake would be variable. One of the jobs of the technicians and nurses would be to determine what proportion of fat and lean we consumed.
The purpose of our test was to learn the truth, but we did pay some attention to theories. We kept the controversial ones constantly in mind. This was at a time when lean meat was looked upon by many as unwholesome. Animal protein was supposed to promote hardening of the arteries, high blood pressure, and breakdown of the kidneys – in short, to bring on premature old age. For this reason the technicians were particularly concerned with the lean meat portion of our diet, especially the muscle tissue. Even those who half believed what I had been saying in praise of meat often supposed that what had saved me and the men of my expedition form its dread effects must have been the glandular portions. I had explained that only when living on seals had we eaten liver, it being the Eskimo custom to give all other internal organs to the dogs. There was, accordingly, considerable discussion about whether or not we should include liver in our experimental diet. As a matter of fact, we seldom ate any, though it was not forbidden.
One of our committee, Dr. Eugene Du bois, a physiologist on the staff of the Russell Sage Institute, was the administrator of the test. For the first half-year Charlie Andersen and I slept in the Nutrition Ward of Bellevue Hospital and most of the technician work, such as calorimeter studies, the weighing of the meat, and the determination of how much lean and fat we consumed, was also done at Bellevue.
I had forecast that we would be getting more than half our calories from fat. Most of us were surprised at the final computation, which was that about 80% of the calories came from fat and 20% from lean. The daily intake varied between 2600 and 2800 calories. There was, of course, no carbohydrate except what is normally contained in whole meat, perhaps 50 calories per day. If it is true that liver is higher in carbohydrates than are other meats, I repeat that we seldom ate liver. Some of the committee urged liver upon us, while others suggested that we avoid it. We probably ate no other organs except perhaps an occasional kidney. We were permitted to eat brains, and once, for a special reason that I will mention presently, I consumed a considerable amount of brains fried in bacon grease.
There appears to have been no rigid timing or other surveillance during the preliminary stage, when Andersen and I were being observed at Bellevue on the “normal” or mixed diet. We took our meals in the Nutrition Ward with the nurses, eating just what they did. We were usually free from hospital routines. Some days, however, were heavily occupied with such things as the calorimeter studies. When these were scheduled, we ate no food the evening before. In the morning, attendants would ease us into the calorimeters, which looked like roomy coffins. Once inside, lying comfortably on our backs, we were cautioned to think only pleasant and placid thoughts. Andersen and I had been impressed by numerous stories of previous tests that had been ruined by subjects who thought of something funny and laughed, or by others who thought of something that angered them. Both hilarity and hatred, it seemed, generated a lot of body heat. After the first hour on our backs the calorimeters were locked, the electric gadgets, breathing apparatus, and such were adjusted. We then faced there hours of tranquility, during which time we were supposed to keep awake. Those were tedious days, rewarded by large meals of anything we liked.
During these first weeks we were examined by our doctors and by any other medical men or nutritionists who wished to do so. At this time we received our last barrage of warning letters and telephone calls. Personal friends especially women, were worried that we were making ourselves ridiculous by being experimented on like animals.
One of our most prominent opponents, Dr. Nikel Hindhede, professor of physiology at the University of Copenhagen, visited us at Bellevue to say again that he had tried the all meat diet upon both impartial subjects and others who held views similar to mine. All the experimenters, chiefly medical students of the University of Copenhagen, had given in within four or five days. My view was that logical rather than a nutrition test, and that his results showed only the power of imagination and suggestion. Karsten Andersen stuck with me, even against the advice of his internationally famous countryman.
We began our all-meat diet on February 28, 1927. At first we were somewhat worried about Andersen, since his preliminary examination had showed a blood pressure higher than the doctors liked, and our specialist in lower-colon diseases, Professor John C. Torrey of Cornell, said that if Andersen had come to him as a patient he would have advised him not to eat an meat. Lieb and our other observers were ready to stop the test if Andersen reacted unfavorably. To the surprise of some of the doctors and the gratification of all, Andersen’s health began to improve on all points, moderately so as to blood pressure and decidedly so as to colon. Torrey said jubilantly that he had never seen a more favorable response in any treatment he had ever prescribed. This is referred to, though not extravagantly as in his conversation at the time, by Torrey and Montu in “The Influence of an Exclusive Meat Diet on the Flora of the Human Colon,” Journal of Infectious Diseases, August, 1931.
My start was not so suspicious, Du Bois had been impressed by what I told him I had learned along the Mackenzie and Horton rivers about ‘rabbit starvation.’ He wanted me to go directly from the mixed diet to a heavy one of exclusive lean meat. I protested that the experience of missionaries and traders, as well as Athapaskans, Eskimos, and my own group on the Horton, combined to make me believe that headache and diarrhea would soon develop. Du Bois countered that I had myself indicated that the symptoms would not appear before a week or two. As he wanted only forty-eight hours, we went ahead. I felt discomfort after twenty-four hours and before forty-eight. I was so much worse that Du Bois and his associates agreed to cease and asked me what I suggested. I suggested brains cooked in bacon fat. It worked. Within seventy-two hours after leaving the mixed diet I was back on an even keel. I remained there throughout the experiment.
Hindhede had predicted that we would give up as early as four days after starting. Other skeptics allowed us as much as three weeks. For at least six weeks Du Bois saw to it that we were never out of the sight of a doctor or a nurse. Visitors were watched to see that they smuggled nothing to us. Doctors, technicians, nurses and all concerned kept repeating to Charlie and me that, while each of the trusted us, they had to be ready to testify that they knew positively that we had not cheated.
Before six weeks had passed, they were all telling us that they were convinced not only that we had not cheated but also that we had no desire to cheat— that if we were hungry it was only that we had a hankering for more fat meat. After the first six weeks the experiment was altered a bit. I was let out for hours at a time and later for days on my own responsibility; Charlie remained virtually under lock and key for three months. If we wanted a boneless sirloin, Charlie and I each picked a raw steak we liked, and it was then weighted and fried medium or rare. We ate every bit, cleaning the platter of all grease or juice.
The technicians sometimes offered to walk with us for exercise. I think Charlie often accepted their offers. I always declined, explaining that in a city I never walked if I could take a subway or a taxi. This is what an Eskimo would have done. Any Eskimo is always prepared for maximum walking, but nobody does it for fun or for “exercise.”
After the first three months Du Bois made us take a long trot every month in order to test our fitness. At his private house, east of Central Park, he had doctors meet us in mid-afternoon and examine our breathing, pulse, and blood samples. Then, in shorts and sandals, we would run along the side street, across Fifth Avenue, into the park, and around the reservoir. Returning we would run up a flight of stairs and plump ourselves down on couches to be examined again. Du bois reported a steadily improving performance. He took this to mean that the longer we were on a diet of 80% fat and 20% lean meat, the more nearly we approached 100% fitness.
After our first half-year at Bellevue, the New York summer was at its hottest. We noticed a special solicitude on the part of one of the doctors, Graham Lusk. Du Bois interpreted this to us. Lusks fame rested in part on his having reported upon the heat-producing factor in various foods. He had found meat notably high. It was now understandable why Lusk looked disappointed on very hot days when both Charlie and I said we were finding the heat no more bothersome than during other summers, perhaps less so. I do not remember, however, that either at Lusk’s or Du Bois insistence any tests of our ability to stand health were made.
Everyone agreed that summer is the time when no one remains in New York by choice. There was a meeting of the supervising committee at which a vote indicated that nobody was skeptical any longer. Everybody agreed that meat was still our favorite food. There was no objection to our moving to a small house in the woods behind Croton-on Hudson. There, Charlie and I proposed to live chiefly on our favorite domestic meat, boiled mutton, drinking the broth, as we use to do with caribou. I explained to the committee that the Eskimo boil caribou until it is done no more than is usual with our roasts and steaks in New York. We would cook our mutton as if it were caribou.
In that little Croton house we had some of the most delicious meals I can remember. Charlie, however, while praising our boiled mutton, would often remark that it was not quite as good as caribou. We agreed on that. It was not quite as good as mountain sheep, musk ox, or caribou. I do not remember during any of this period any hankering for forbidden foods, such as fruit, pastries, or bread and butter.
Toward the end of the all-meat year, Charlie had a worse set-back than I had at its beginning. He was again living at Bellevue. The hospital was struck by an epidemic of pneumonia, and Charlie was not spared. Du Bois found it encouraging, however, that his case was lighter than the others in the hospital and that he made a good recovery.
After a year and some days on meat alone, we were put back on a mixed diet and given a round of transition tests. As part of it, we were given what were called glucose meals, drinking a kind of sugar syrup as if it were a pint of beer. It was perhaps two weeks before our sugar tolerance was certified as back to normal. I believe that in all other respects our condition was thought to be equal to what it had been in the beginning. A few judges considered it better. To me this had been an anthropological and physiological study, and in it I was not impartial.
The evidence and opinions of the group of physicians observing us were summarized by Dr. Lieb in the The American Journal of Digestion and Nutrition as “A Year’s Exclusive Meat Diet and Seven Years Later.” Here Lieb points out that my periods of exclusive meat diet total about nine years and that during these my “sense of physical and mental well being was at its best.” Lieb adds: “He found that the exclusive meat diet worked as well when he was inactive as when active and as well in hot weather as in cold.”
With this I agreed and agree still. Dr. Lieb’s summary for the seven years following the Bellevue year coincides with my opinion for the thirty years that followed.
The Friendly Arctic: The Story Of Five Years In Polar Regions… by Vilhjalmur Stefansson read online for free click here
My Life With The Eskimo by Vilhjalmur Stefansson read online for free click here
Hunters Of The Great North by Vilhjalmur Stefansson read online for free click here
Food Tastes and Food Prejudices of Men and Dogs by Vilhjalmur Stefansson read online for free click here
Some Erroneous Ideas Of Arctic Geography by Vilhjalmur Stefansson read online for free click here
The Northward Course Of Empire by Vilhjalmur Stefansson read online for free click here
Prehistoric And Present Commerce Among The Arctic Coast Eskimo by Vilhjalmur Stefansson read online for free click here
Misconceptions About Life In The Arctic by Vilhjalmur Stefansson read online for free click here
Plover Land And Borden Land by Vilhjalmur Stefansson read online for free click here
The Region Of Maximum Inaccessibility In The Arctic by Vilhjalmur Stefansson read online for free click here
Victoria Island And The Surrounding Seas by Vilhjalmur Stefansson read online for free click here