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Hunger Fighters

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Hunger Fighters
By Paul de Kruif
Pocket Books, 1942

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - October 20, 2014

Hunger Fighters is, today, a little known work by Paul De Kruif (1890-1971), author of the still widely read Mircrobe Hunters. This volume, which was first published in 1928, contains eleven unforgettable essays that chronicle the exploits of some of the early pioneers of the food sciences who were instrumental in discovering the causes, and cures, of numerous diseases and disorders that affected the human food supply and human health. Best of all, these highly readable essays are inspirational in nature, and will help encourage budding scientists to explore possible careers in botany, plant science, agriculture, chemistry, food science, nutritional science, and related areas.

The essays in this collection are organized into four books, covering wheat, meat, maize, and 'the hidden hunger', and apt term for disorders caused by vitamin deficiencies.

Book One - Wheat: This section contains two essays that detail the search for hardier and more productive varieties of wheat. These essays highlight the work of Mark Alfred Carleton and Angus Mackay, who strove to find and develop strains of wheat that were resistance to the rust fungus and drought, and which would produce higher yields to feed the worlds growing population.

Book Two - Meat: This section deals with diseases of livestock, and highlights the work of Marion Dorset, John Mohler, Friedrich Loeffler, and Edward Francis. The first of the three essays in this section follows Dorset's search for the cause of plague that was killing hogs in the thousands. Once Dorset determined that the cause was Pig Cholera, he set out to discover a way to make pigs immune to the disease. The second essay chronicles the work of Loeffler (a German) and Francis (an American) to discover the cause of, and cure for, foot-and-mouth disease, a disease that was plaguing cattle in both countries. The last essay in this section examines the efforts of Francis to eliminate Tularemia in wild rabbits, a sometime deadly disease that was easily transmitted to humans.

The third book in this volume has three essays devoted to maize. These essays detail how it was developed into the modern crop we know today in this country as corn, as well as the efforts of George Harrison Shull to develop new and harder varieties of maize, and George Hoffer who worked to develop varieties that could be raised in a wide range of environments.

The fourth book in this volume chronicles the exploits of the scientists that went in search of the causes of what they thought were human diseases, only to discover that the various diseases they were researching where in reality disorders caused by vitamin deficiencies. The first of the three essays in this section deals with the work of Stephen Moulton Babcock whose developed a technique for measuring the butterfat content in milk and cheese. His research also lead to the development of nutritional science. The second essay is devoted to the work of Harry Steenbock, who discovered that the lack of Vitamin D was the cause of rickets, and that sunlight increased the amount of vitamin D in organic substances. By extension, he discovered that using ultra violet light to irradiate milk increased the level of vitamin D in the milk, and the fortification of milk with this vitamin virtually eliminated rickets in the human population. And lastly, we come to the essay on Joseph Goldberger. De Kruif saved the best for last. In this essay, De Kruif provides a concise and lively overview of Goldberger's efforts to discover the cause of Pellagra, a disease that was killing thousands of Americans each year. Along the way De Kruif illustrates how Goldberger determined that it was a disease caused by a nutritional deficiency and how a few simple changes in the diet would prevent the disease, and actually reverse in those already suffering from this scourge.

Hunger Fighters is not only an informative book, but it is also an entertaining book to read. De Kruif wrote in what today would be called a narrative style. The essays include dialogue, both internal and external, insights into how each researcher carried out his work, the factors that motivated their efforts, and the importance of their discoveries. In the process he livens up these essays with dollops of trivia, not only about the researchers under discussion, but also about their predecessors and how these even earlier researchers influenced the scientists that came after them.

For those interested in the history and works of Dr. Joseph Goldberger, you will find not only the essay on Goldberger of interest, but also those on the development of maize. The essay on Goldberger is entitled "The Soft-Spoken Desperado: Goldberger" and the essay, "New Soil From Old: Hoffer" offers some insights into how corn became a staple crop in the American south.


Related Reviews:

Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism, by Marion Nestle.
An intriguing look at the politics of food safety, and the emerging threats to the American food supply.

Goldberger's War: The Life and Work of a Public Health Crusader, by Alan M. Kraut.
A detailed biography of Dr. Joseph Goldberger, a Jewish immigrant to the United States who discovered the root cause of pellagra, a disease that often killed its victims and which, as Goldberger discovered, could be easily cured by a change in diet.

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