Past and Present



Jewish World Review Jan. 18, 2000 / 11 Shevat, 5760


Ted Roberts

Those who didn't
make the millennium lists



http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THERE ARE MILLENNIUM LISTS of everything. The Jerusalem Report recently ran a list of one hundred acclaimed Jews picked by its readers. Among the significant notables were Einstein, Salk, and the Baal Shem Tov. There were also Danny Kaye, Sid Caesar, Abbie Hoffman, and Marilyn Monroe (Remember, she converted when she married Arthur Miller?).

Small potatoes among the giants of Jewry, I say. Nowhere on the list was Joseph Goldberger.

Who was Joseph Goldberger, do I hear you ask?

Oh, only the medical researcher who cured Pellagra in the South.

Econophone And donít feel bad you donít know. Nobody else, outside of medical historians, has any idea of his gift to undernourished, poor people everywhere --- but especially the rural South. He did most of his work in the 20ís --- hardly a great era for maintaining a balanced diet if you were a maid or sharecropper in Mississippi or layed around your room all day and thumbed through grocery ads because you were unemployed.

Paul DeKruif, the famous historian and popularizer of medical science, tells of Goldberger in his 1926 book, The Hunger Fighters. DeKruif was famous for his earlier book, Microbe Hunters.

Goldberger was born in Austria, Hungary and came to New York with his family in 1881. After his medical education at Bellevue Hospital Medical College, he joined the Public Health Service --- basically a band of "microbe hunters" as they were called. It was an exhilarating era in public health history.

Syphilis, Typhoid Fever, and Tuberculosis were under siege. "Identify the bug and kill it" was their modus operandi.

Trakdata In 1912, the Surgeon General took note of soldier Goldberger who was battling infectious diseases around the U.S. and the Caribbean. He assigned him to the ďScourge of the South.Ē Pellagra, obviously was one of those microbes still unidentified by the medical detectives. Pellagra flourished like the Boll Weevil in the South of the 20s.

It was a killer of the poor. Gout was for rich folks. Pellagra fed on poor folks. And it fed well in those years.

The good doctor took a long look around the South before he unpacked his laboratory test tubes. The devilish disease stalked the land hand-in-hand with poverty. Itís host was poor folks whose diet had three major elements; cornbread, cornmeal, and corn on the cob. Maybe sweetened up with molasses for Sunday dinner --- or an entree of white lard. So, contrary to his "microbe hunter" philosophy, Goldberger decided that there was no bug --- no infectious side to this malady.

You didnít catch it by sharing a bologna sandwich with Betty Lou McElhaney. It was a failure of nutrition. He noted that eating cornbread, molasses, and pork fat practically invited the disease into your ill-nourished frame. And, with a keen Talmudic eye, he registered that institutionalized orphans fell victim, but the staff, who had a separate dining room, was as healthy as a show hog at the County Fair.

In 1915, with the permission of the governor of Mississippi, he conducted a landmark experiment at Rankin Prison Farm down in Mississippi. The control group were fed the typical diet of the Southern poor, while the experimental group lapped up meat, fresh vegetables, and milk. As he suspected, the malnourished inmates came down with Pellagra.

Goldberger announced his discovery. But the medical community, obsessed with infectious diseases, snickered. Goldberger didn't spend much time debating the issue. Instead, he injected himself, his wife, and assistants with Pellagra-tainted blood. In all, he played Russian roulette seven times with self-induced Pellagra. But it never took.

He and his staff thrived on a balanced diet. Finally, Goldberger discovered that a daily yeast tablet - cheap enough for the poorest of the poor - would defeat Pellagra. After his death in 1929, it was found that the missing nutritional element was Niacin; both a prevention and cure. A nice gift to the Southland from a Jewish doctor.

But it never took.

He and his staff thrived on a balanced diet. Finally, Goldberger discovered that a daily yeast tablet -- cheap enough for the poorest of the poor -- would defeat the disease. After his death in 1929, for the missing element. It was found to be Niacin; both a prevention and cure. A nice gift to the Southland from a Jewish doctor.

If I made up a Jewish millennium list, after placing my wife around 20th, Iíd put Dr. Joseph Goldberger somewhere after Einstein, but stratispherically above Abbie Hoffman, Marilyn Monroe, and that crowd.




JWR's very own Ted Roberts, Jewry's sentry of the South, is a humorist based in Huntsville, Alabama. He reads -- and answers -- all of his e-mail himself. Send your comments by clicking here.


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© 2000 Ted Roberts