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  Goldberger and the "Pellagra Germ"

Joseph Goldberger's theory on pellagra contradicted commonly-held medical opinions. The work of Italian investigators as well as Goldberger's own observations in mental hospitals, orphanages, and cotton mill towns, convinced him that germs did not cause the disease. In such institutions, inmates contracted the disease, but staff never did. Goldberger knew from his years of experience working on infectious diseases that germs did not distinguish between inmates and employees. Lombroso had speculated that spoiled maize caused pellagra.

Goldberger found no evidence for that hypothesis, but diet certainly seemed the crucial factor. Shipments of food which Goldberger had requested from Washington were provided to children in two Mississippi orphanages and to inmates at the Georgia State Asylum. Results were dramatic; those fed a diet of fresh meat, milk and vegetables instead of a com-based diet recovered from pellagra. Those without the disease who ate the new diet did not contract pellagra.

Experimenting on Mississippi Prisoners

Critics, many unable to part from the germ theory of pellagra, raised doubts. Goldberger hoped to squelch those reservations by demonstrating the existence of a particular substance that when removed from the diet of healthy individuals resulted in pellagra. With the cooperation of Mississippi's progressive governor, Earl Brewer, Goldberger experimented on eleven healthy volunteer prisoners at the Rankin State Prison Farm in 1915. Offered pardons in return for their participation, the volunteers ate a corn-based diet. Six of the eleven showed pellagra rashes after five months.

Expert dermatologists made the actual diagnosis of pellagra to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest on Goldberger's part. Although many scientific colleagues sang Goldberger's praises, even mentioning a Nobel nomination, others still doubted. In the pages of the Journal of the American Medical Association, critic W.J. MacNeal challenged the results. One Birmingham physician referred to the experiment as "half-baked." Still others thought the whole experiment a fraud.

Goldberger's Filth Parties

Angry and frustrated, Goldberger would not give up trying to persuade his critics that pellagra was a dietary disorder, not an infectious disease. He hoped that one final dramatic experiment would convince his critics. On April 26, 1916 he injected five cubic centimeters of a pellagrin's blood into the arm of his assistant, Dr. George Wheeler. Wheeler shot six centimeters of such blood into Goldberger. Then they swabbed out the secretions of a pellagrin's nose and throat and rubbed them into their own noses and throats. They swallowed capsules containing scabs of pellagrins' rashes. Others joined what Goldberger called his "filth parties," including Mary Goldberger. None of the volunteers got pellagra. Despite Goldberger's heroic efforts, a few physicians remained staunch opponents of the dietary theory of pellagra.

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Photo: Dr. Goldberger seated at the hospital
Goldberger seated
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