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The Great Starvation Experiment: Ancel Keys and the Men Who Starved for Science Paperback – January 8, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

As WWII neared an end, 36 idealistic conscientious objectors, members of the Civilian Public Service, volunteered to be systematically starved. The project, headed by Dr. Ancel Keys, was designed to develop an understanding of the physiology and psychology of starvation and to provide strategies to manage the mass starvation that might follow the war's end in Europe. Tucker (Notre Dame vs. the Klan) provides a fascinating and moving history of the experiment, centering on the lives and experiences of the volunteers and the formidable obstacles they overcame. Tucker tells the story with verve and economy, providing provocative discussions on subjects ranging from the ethical problems inherent in the use of human volunteers to the history of cannibalism and the conscientious objector movement. One strength of the book is the tension and drama evident as the subjects struggle with their hunger. Another strength is the charismatic Dr. Keys (who invented the K ration), an accomplished man who combined compassion and intelligence with an unquenchable desire to advance learning (he later raised the first alarms about the dangers of cholesterol and fat in the American diet). Keys, his experiment and his 36 starving men form a compelling combination. 8 pages of b&w photos. (May 2)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

The heroic men of the title were 36 conscientious objectors who, at the end of World War II, volunteered to take part in a yearlong experiment on starvation. They were assigned to the Civilian Public Service Corp. Dr. Ancel Keys, the inventor of the K-ration, headed the experiment. For six months, the men ate a rigorously restricted diet similar to the wartime rations of Europeans. Many of these people, especially survivors of the concentration camps, were dying from malnutrition. During the next six months, Dr. Keys studied their rehabilitation in an effort to understand how best to help feed the starving people after the war. Tucker interviewed 12 of the volunteers and Dr. Keys, and this book chronicles their arduous undertaking and recounts the knowledge gained from the study. Bizarre but true. George Cohen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Univ Of Minnesota Press; 1st University of Minnesota Press Ed edition (January 8, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0816651612
  • ISBN-13: 978-0816651610
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #399,259 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Todd Tucker attended the University of Notre Dame on a full scholarship, graduating with a degree in history in 1990. He then volunteered for the United States Navy's demanding nuclear power program, eventually making six patrols onboard a Trident submarine. In 1995 Tucker left the navy to return with his family to Indiana to pursue a career in writing. In addition to extensive writing for such publications as TWA Ambassador, The Rotarian, Inside Sports, and the Washington Post, he has also published five books: Notre Dame Game Day (Diamond Communications, 2000), Notre Dame vs. The Klan (Loyola Press, 2004), The Great Starvation Experiment (Free Press, 2006), Over and Under (Thomas Dunne, 2007), Atomic America (Free Press, 2009).

Two submarine-themed novels followed: COLLAPSE DEPTH and GHOST SUB.

His latest novel is SHOOTING A MAMMOTH.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

22 of 23 people found the following review helpful By takingadayoff TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 27, 2006
Format: Hardcover
In the final months of World War II, thirty-six Americans were held in a bunker hidden away from the public. They were systematically starved until they had lost a quarter of their weight. The men suffered a range of symptoms (aside from extreme weight loss) including incapacitating weakness and constant headaches. One man chopped off three of his fingers to escape the agony. The Americans were starved under the supervision of a doctor who was conducting an experiment.

Sounds like a tale of Nazi atrocities, but Todd Tucker's Great Starvation Experiment is about a group of conscientious objectors who volunteered for this experiment in order to learn how best to aid the recovery of starvation victims. The doctor in charge, Ancel Keys, later became famous for discovering the relationship between fatty diets and heart disease.

In addition to covering the experiment itself, Tucker gives us a biography of Dr. Keys, a short history of the conscientious objector in America, and brings up the question of ethics in medicine. After the Nuremberg Trials, the Nuremberg Code was written, an international document detailing standards governing medical experimentation on humans. U.S. doctors refused to accept the code, claiming they were already bound by their own extremely high standards. Tucker presents evidence that not all American doctors felt bound by personal and professional ethics and conducted some rather alarming and harmful experiments on people, usually without their knowledge.

The Great Starvation Experiment is readable and entertaining. It was so readable, with snippets of conversation and anecdotes, that I began to doubt its reliability. But the extensive bibliography, detailed notes, and many interviews convinced me that this is a complete and factual story of a little-known episode of the World War II homefront.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Carole Burrage on May 11, 2006
Format: Hardcover
"The Great Starvation Experiment" is a fascinating telling of a little-known piece of American history. While a previous reviewer lambasted the author for giving histories of Dr. Ancel Keys, conscientious objectors, historic peace churches, the Civilian Public Service, and the Experiment volunteers, I found that background information absolutely essential to understand how and why the experiment occurred. Without a basic knowledge of the aforementioned, the Starvation Experiment would seem hardly distinguishable from the sadistic medical experimentations that took place in Nazi concentration camps. As it was, 36 idealistic young men volunteered without pay for an entire year to be systematically starved in order to provide the data that would enable relief workers to rehabilitate famine victims most effectively. Truly, it's a page-turning story of peaceable heroes,

For more information, listen to the author, Todd Tucker's interview on the Diane Rehm show. I believe that you can listen to previously recorded programs online.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By A. Riffo on October 17, 2009
Format: Paperback
Interesting book on a little-known study conducted on 36 men who offered themselves as volunteers to study the effects of starvation and the best way to rehabilitate starvation victims.

Unfortunately, it was a bit of a disappointment, given that only 2-3 chapters really deal with the experiment itself, its ethical implications, etc. The others deal with historical context (which is very interesting, but I could've read a history book if that was what I was looking for), history of starvation, history of the Peace Churches (again: interesting, but not what I was looking for in a book with this title), Ancel Key's life & accomplishments, etc.

I also missed more excerpts from the subjects' journals as firsthand account of what was going on, instead of the oftentimes-novelesque narration.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Frank Ramirez on July 6, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As the veterans of World War II begin their inevitiable departure folks realize that if they're going to honor them it'd better be soon. The same goes for a different kind of war hero, the conscientious objectors who were willing not only to stand up for their beliefs in the face of overwhelming disdain, but were just as willing to risk their lives to serve humanity through Civilian Public Service.

Over the years I've met some of the Brethren, Mennonites, Friends, and others who refused to serve because of their religious beliefs. They were anything but cowards. Some pioneered the science of Smoke Jumping, others exposed the abuses of nuring homes and asylums, while many served as medical guinea pigs.

I met one of the latter about fifteen years ago, a man named Carlysle Frederick, who once admitted under questioning that he'd taken part in the starvation experiment. I wrote a few articles about him, but I always felt the story needed to be widely known.

Thank heavens for this book. The author has done his homework, and carefully examines the ethical questions that undergird what was a daring and almost brutal experiment which has, as the subtitle suggests, saved millions of lives over the year.

One cannot read this book without admiring both the calm and measured religious convictions of the three historic peace churches, the Brethren, the Mennonites, and the Friends, as well as the many others from other traditions.

The heroism of the participants, the extreme privations they endured, and their good humor, all deriving from their desire to serve humanity during their service through CPS, is worth honoring as another way to be patriotic.

For those who want to know more about CPS and related forms of service for peace, I also recommend the book A Cup of Cold Water, by J. Kenneth Kreider.

Frank Ramirez
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