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Goldberger's War

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Goldberger's War
The Life and Work of a Public Health Crusader

By Alan M. Kraut
Hill and Wang, NY: 2004
ISBN: 978-0-8090-1637-2

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - October 24, 2014

Dr. Joseph Goldberger is one of those men whose work changed the course of human history, but of whom, unless you studied medicine or nutrition, you've probably never heard of. In 1874 Goldberger was born in Giralt. At the time of his birth, the town was located within confines of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He immigrated to the United States, with his family, when he was a young boy. His family was Jewish, and Yiddish was probably his primary language. Goldberger was studious and had a brilliant mind, so much so that he graduated high school at the age of sixteen and immediately entered the College of the City of New York to study engineering. While there he discovered that it wasn't an engineer that he wanted to become, but a doctor. With alacrity he transferred to the City College of Bellevue to pursue his medical degree. He graduated at the age twenty, making him too young to be official declared a doctor. He had to wait until his twenty-first birthday, before he was officially granted his medical degree. He jumped straight from medical school into a residency program and from there, directly into family practice. However, Goldberger found family practice to be a bit on the boring side and set about finding a more venturesome form of doctoring, and eventually he joined the U.S. Marine Hospital Service, known today simply as the U.S. Public Health Service.

He spent the rest of his life investigating various infectious diseases, often becoming a victim of the self-same diseases as he was studying. In the end, however, his claim to fame was the fact that he discovered that Pellagra was a nutritional disease that could be cured by eating a proper diet. It is thanks to Goldberger that you've probably never heard of pellagra. However, your grandparents or great-grandparents probably did. In the early 1900's pellagra was epidemic throughout much of the American south, and sporadic epidemics had occurred in Europe for hundreds of years. Pellagra was a disease that killed hundreds of thousands of American's, and it was due to a deficiency of niacin (a B vitamin) in the diet. Yet for decades many in the medical establishment thought that it was either an infectious disease or caused by people eating moldy or rotted corn that was infected with a toxin.

In Goldberger's War, Alan M. Kraut chronicles the life and works of this remarkable man, from his early life through to his untimely death in 1929. Over the course of this study, Kraut examines Goldberger's education and the events that brought him to the Public Health service, he also chronicles his career and married life, and details his research on a number of diseases. Most important, he provides a comprehensive analysis of the controversies and successes of Goldberger's pellagra research, along with a brief overview of the research conducted on the disease after his death. This biography of Goldberger is the most academically rigorous one to be published, to date. Whenever possible, Kraut used primary sources to document his research. For example, based partly upon immigration documents Kraut contends that Goldberger was nine-years-old when he arrived in the United States, whereas most accounts state that he was six, based mostly on family remembrances. Kraut included excerpts of many of the letters that Goldberger wrote to his wife Mary. Kraut has also included copious endnotes and additional sources that will be of interest to anyone seeking to delve more throughly into Goldberger's life and medical achievements.

From beginning to end this biography is engaging and it is written in a narrative style that will be particularly appreciated by general readers and historians alike. Kraut provides sufficient background and scientific information to make this book accessible to all readers, no matter your level of education or age. Best of all, he has brought to the fore a man who has been virtually forgotten. Yet, during his lifetime, he was a real life hero whose name and exploits were reported in newspapers across the country and whose deeds continued to be reported upon well into the 1950's. He even made an appearance in several comic books as a public health superhero!

Goldberger's War is an excellent book that should be read by anyone with an interest in public health, medical history, nutritional diseases, or who is simply looking to learn about a remarkable man whose deeds should never be forgotten.


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