1958: Galveston physicians render infants Vitamin F deficient

There seems to be a dedicated readership numbering in the solid single digits who faithfully read each entry I post here. Those who would not be counted in such a group are encouraged to read my last post, Vitamin F, to obtain the relevant background that will give context to this one. It is very difficult to render human beings symptomatic with essential fatty acid deficiency, but nothing is impossible in the misguided hands of an unethical doctor. This post reveals doctors at a Texas hospital engaged in just such an experiment. The 1958 publication in Human Nutrition can be viewed here (PDF).

I wasn’t kind to physicians when I wrote the first post, and I’m even less so inclined to be now. I noted that in spite of clear evidence in 1930 that linoleate and docosahexaenoate are essential to human health and must be obtained from the diet, doctors administering total parenteral nutrition in the 1970s and 80s repeatedly made their patients ill by omitting these nutrients from their intravenous diets. But if you read Hansen et al. (PDF), something more sinister is afoot. This is a human nutritional intervention study. The patients were clearly not provided informed consent. Without any possible benefit, they were intentionally malnourished as infants in a way that was almost certain to cause them harm. The researcher’s objective for the study could be summarized like this: ‘What if we fed infants a diet intentionally devoid of essential fatty acids—what do you think would happen to them?’ With unbridled enthusiasm for this experimental test on human subjects—they found out.


Original caption: “Fig. 2 Appearance of skin of 6-week-old twins. A, Given a skim milk mixture lacking linoleic acid. B, Given a milk mixture containing linoleic acid.”

“The chief criteria of selection are that parents seem anxious to cooperate and their infants are normal neonates.” Translation: “We looked for parents who wouldn’t give us any shit about the fact that we were experimenting on their kids, and we wanted kids who were healthy so that if what we did made them sick, it would be easy to pick that out.”

The researchers proceeded to feed the kids a skim milk formula rendered nearly devoid of fat. The health consequences of such inadequate nutrition were soon obvious. Specifically, the infants had diarrhea in the form of “frequent, large, dark-brown, sirupy bowel movements.” They had perianal irritation. They had skin abnormalities, including thick, leathery, cracking dry skin; severe excoriation in the diaper region; fissures exuding plasma; and desquamation. According to Hansen et al., “This was particularly apparent in the colored infants where the fine, flaky, white scales stood in contrast to the dark background.” A female infant developed a severe staphylococcal infection of the thoracic cavity and was hospitalized.

At some point, someone had the common sense to call the game off. But tellingly, they often added back just saturated fat, betting again that the kids would remain sick until they supplied polyunsaturates as well. When normal milk was supplied to the experimental subjects, and they promptly recovered normal skin and bowel function. The more ominous symptoms of developmental delay and loss of sight associated with omega-3 fatty acid insufficiency were not reported. The perpetrators of this act of human experimentation are probably all dead. The test subjects themselves would now be about 60.

If there is a moral to this story it would be, “Always read your lagging references.” Those are the ones that you identified, but could not read in time to include them as citations because they were old, paywalled, or otherwise obstructed. Hansen et al. (PDF) was one of them, published as it was in 1958, and I didn’t read it until long after Vitamin F was written and posted. There is another moral to this story, and that one would be that the entitlement of the powerful knows no limits unless such limits are externally imposed upon them by other, equally powerful entities. In a democracy, all such power brokers must be fully transparent in their actions and answerable for their actions in a court of law. One hopes that the American era of uninformed human experimentation is over. I was personally quite shocked to see that in 1958, when I was a toddler, it was very much in business.

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