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Joseph Goldberger & His Gift to the Southland
By Ted Roberts
I wasn’t surprised the other day to see a list of the hundred greatest
Synagogue Garbage Committee Chairmen of the millennium. (I was 59th.)
There are millennium lists of everything. The Rochester Jewish Ledger, in
early January, ran a list of one hundred acclaimed Jews picked by the readers
of the Jerusalem Report. Among significant notables like Einstein, Salk, and
the Baal Shem Tov, there were Danny Kaye, Sid Caesar, Abbie Hoffman, and
Marilyn Monroe (remember, she converted when she married Arthur Miller?).
Small potatoes among the giants of Judaism, I say. Nowhere on the list was
Dr. Joseph Goldberger.
Who was Joseph Goldberger, do I hear you ask?
Oh, only the medical researcher who cured Pellagra in the South.
But his fame was a victim of his victory. Like a wound that heals without a
scar - who remembers Pellagra? It is yesterday’s banished assassin - thanks
to the good doctor.
So, don’t feel bad that you recognize Sid Caesar, but not Joseph Goldberger.
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 20’s - not a great economic decade for maintaining
a balanced diet if you were a maid or sharecropper in Mississippi or layed
around your room all day and thumbed through want ads because you were
Paul DeKruif, the famous historian and popularizer of medical science, tells
of Goldberger in his 1926 book - “The Hunger Fighters”.
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.
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
Pellagra, the “Scourge of the South”, which flourished like the Boll Weevil in
Dixie’s cotton fields.
It was a killer of the poor. Gout was for rich folks, Pellagra fed on poor
folks. And it fed well in those years. In 1915 thousands died in Mississippi alone.
The good doctor took a long look around the South before he unpacked his
laboratory test tubes. Pellagra stalked the land hand-in-hand with poverty.
It’s 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, the Jewish researcher decided that there was no bug - no
infectious side to this malady. You didn’t 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; the medical community, obsessed with
infectious diseases, snickered. He 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.
If I made up a Jewish millennium list, after placing my wife around 20th I’d
put Dr. Joseph Goldberger somewhere after Einstein, but stratispherically
above Abbie Hoffman, Marilyn Monroe, and that crowd.
Ted Roberts is a nationally syndicated commentator and Jewish humorist. His work
appears in the Jewish Press, as well as in Disney Magazine,
Hadassah, Wall Street Journal, and others. He lives in Huntsville,
from the August 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine