Eating Disorders: The Minnesota Starvation Experiment

There are some stories out there that will frighten or disgust readers. The Minnesota Starvation Experiment is one of those few stories that were ultimately invaluable to the understanding of eating disorders but also unethical and frightening.

The MSE happened over 60 years ago running November 19, 1944 to December 20, 1945. The goals of the MSE was simple;  First, to produce an accurate disquisition on the subject of human starvation based on the simulation of severe famine (or hunger) and to use the scientific results from the experiment produced to guide the Allied relief assistance to victims of famine in Europe and Asia at the end of World War II.

There was 36 volunteers; The 36 CPS participants in the Minnesota Starvation Experiment were: William Anderson, Harold Blickenstaff, Wendell Burrous, Edward Cowles, George Ebeling, Carlyle Frederick, Jasper Garner, Lester Glick, James Graham, Earl Heckman, Roscoe Hinkle, Max Kampelman, Sam Legg, Phillip Liljengren, Howard Lutz, Robert McCullagh, William McReynolds, Dan Miller, L. Wesley Miller, Richard Mundy, Daniel Peacock, James Plaugher, Woodrow Rainwater, Donald Sanders, Cedric (Henry) Scholberg, Charles Smith, William Stanton, Raymond Summers, Marshall Sutton, Kenneth Tuttle, Robert Villwock, William Wallace, Franklin Watkins, W. Earl Weygandt, Robert Wiloughby and Gerald Wilsnack. 25 were members of the Historic Peace Churches.

The experiment was divided into 4 periods.

  1. Control Period: A twelve week period in which the volunteers received a diet of approximately 3,200 kilocalorie of food each day. The clinical staff also conducted anthropometric, physiological and psychological tests in order to characterise the mental health of the volunteers
  2. Semi-Starvation Period: A twenty-six week period in which each volunteer’s dietary intake was cut to only 1,560 kilocalorie per day and included food typically found in the diets of the victims of famine in Europe and Asia; included victims of famine in Europe and Asia
  3. Restricted Rehabilitation Period: A twelve week period where the participants were divided into four groups of eight men and each group received a controlled rehabilitation diet, consisting of one of four different caloric energy levels. Then the men were further subdivided into subgroups receiving differing supplements arrangements.
  4. Unrestricted Rehabilitation Period: An eight week period where dietary intake was unrestricted but still monitored

The researchers tracked each volunteers’ weight as a function of time elapsed since the beginning of the starvation period. For each participant, the weight versus time plot was expected and performed to form a particular curve; the prediction weight-loss curve. The characteristics of the weight-loss curve was decided before the start of the experiment. If a subject did veer of his curve, his intake was adjusted for the next week but it was usually adjusted. The shapes of the curves were chosen “based on the concept that the rate of weight loss would progressively decrease and reach a relative plateau” at the last weight.

In the semi-starvation period many men reported a decline in both physical energy and personal motivation. A subject writes “They would coddle [the food] like a baby or handle it and look over it as they would some gold. They played with it like kids making mud pies,”. Eating became ritualised affair and was the only source of fascination and motivation for the volunteers. Men also collected recipes and obsessed over food.

After the semi-starvation ended and restricted rehabilitation period started: the physical rehabilitation processed but the volunteers mental states detoriated and declined and the plate licking and aggression continued, a participant even chopped of three fingers. After a few months the participants’ social behaviour stabilized but a subgroup (like anorexics and bulimics) binged continuously and at least one man was hospitalised after having his stomach was pumped.

A conclusion from the study was that prolonged semi-starvation produces significant increases in depression, hysteria and hypochondria as measured using the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory.

How ever gruesome or unethical the MSE was, the information collected from the experiment was invaluable to the treatment and rehabilitation of people suffering from eating disorders.