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Minnesota Starvation Experiment - Starving for K Rations

Updated on September 14, 2016
Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty uses advanced degrees in preventive medicine, psychology, and TCM in research and treatment for public and private health agencies.

A Golden Rule of Nutrition

When you have access to adequate and effective nutrition, take advantage of it. Maintain the freedom and dignity to do so. Help others toward this freedom.

Say Uncle: Experiences In World Wars

War is difficult for nations, families, and individuals. During World War II, two of my uncles fought in the US Army in the European Theater.

One uncle I never met, because he was shipped home in a crate many years before I was born. His funeral was almost an open casket affair, the top half of the lid open, but the opening covered with a tight-fitting glass window to prevent rampant infectious overseas diseases from attacking mourners.

The second uncle was more successful, earning a Purple Heart that he locked away. When he shipped back and was able to return to the family farm late at night, his father had little to say. An old man, he'd been working 14 hours a day on the farm without enough help, since his son had left for the draft.

That 75-year-old's own father had fought in the American Civil War, worked a few years as a designer-engineer on the National Road and died suddenly the year my grandfather was born. The latter never served in the army; regardless, war changed all of these men and robbed them of parts of their lives, no matter how patriotically they had served or waited for a son to come home, maybe in a box.

These military men ate US Army rations during their enlistments.

US Army Rations In History

An uncle-in-law emigrated from the USSR and Ukraine before American entrance into WWII. Traumatized, he refused to discuss anything about that part of the world. The first part of his life became inaccessible. It was lost.

The Nazi regime attempted to starve Russians into submission. In the Leningrad of the Hungry Winter, the people ate all of the starving animals from the zoo, letting the bloods of slaughter flow steaming into the streets. They ate their pets, then captured and devoured the stray cats and dogs from the streets. When all of these food sources exhausted, they ate children, the evidence of the bones found in apartments. Ground meat could have been anything or anyone.

People expanded their cannibalism to include dead adults, wallpaper paste, and boiled leather goods, yet still they starved on a ration of 700 calories per manual laborer daily for 872 days -- Less strenouous work gained one only about 470 calories and children, about 420 each day: a small piece of bread and a cabbage leaf or two (today in North Korea, some people are permitted only ground corncob gruel once a day). In Leningrad, people began cutting off their own limbs to eat until January 27, 1944 when the Red Army broke the seige. One million people had starved to death in Leningrad alone. Similar atrocity visited other cities, while in the US, American doctors attempted to find ways to help the starving to recover from malnutrition after they were freed.

Countrymen of my uncle-in-law ate nothing on many days.

The Great American Starvation Experiment of WWII

From the US Army Medical Department Office Of Medial History.
From the US Army Medical Department Office Of Medial History.

Where Are the Keys?

Other military and civilian personnel suffered losses connected with World War II. Dr. Ancel Keys, who developed the K ration and other editions, designed methods for overcoming malnutrition in Europe post WWII, and advocated for the Mediterranean Diet in 1945 was one of these. Keys cannot be found on the US Army medical history web site. Author of a related book, Todd Tucker speculates that Keys received no acknowledgement, because of politics that blocked recognition for previous work done by those in charge, who may have passed that injustice down the ranks.

Ancel Keys worked very hard. As a teenager, he had shipped out to work at sea and haggled for goods with the Chinese at the docks in Asia, making himself understood with written Mandarin, since his accent did not catch on there. Returning home, he spent 3-4 months alone in the desert, living in a cave that was his work site. He spent daylight hours shoveling bat guano from the cave for fertilizer and had no expenses, his meals brought to him in the cave.

Returning home, Keys made quick work of college in record time. As a scientist and researcher, he was recruited away from one prestigious university after another, as well as the Mayo Clinic. He was pleased to work for the government in designing nutritional meals for the troops and excited about his study that would save the lives of starving people.

A total of 36 men originally agreed and were accepted to starve in Keys's study as an act of alternative service assigned to officially designated US Conscientious Objectors, of which there were 151 separate camps of about 12,000 men (others were released as 4 F).

We hear much about the US Japanese Interment Camps, but little about the starvation camp. .

The Mediterranean Diet was developed by the lead researcher in the Minnesota Starvation Experiment - Ancel Keys, Ph.D.

Conscientious Objector Slavery During WWII and an Experiment

The US draft board-certified Conscientious Objectors (COs) of WWII were largely from the Historic Peace Churches (largely Mennonite, Brethren, and Quakers/Friends, but including some others), although at least one CO was Jewish.

The COs were required to serve in the Civilian Public Service and live in camps nearly identical to former Depression-era work camps and period Japanese internment camps, which held such notables at George Takei, Pat Morita, and Congressmen Bob and Doris Matsui.

The COs all lived without privacy in rooms without doors or in areas divided only by sheets, just as did citizens in the the former Russian Empire after the October Revolution.

COs worked without pay or benefits and several died in this forced volunteerism and slavery, although most felt that they were doing something exciting and valuable. Some had been the sole support of their mothers and other family members.

Design and Results of the Experiment

One redeeming result of CO efforts was their “mystery shopping” of mental institutions while they volunteered within them. These efforts developed into an organization called the National Mental Health Foundation which today is active in promoting the rights of people with mental challenges.

Some of CO work was “busy work”, but some was important, like that of the COs that volunteered for Dr. Keys's Minnesota Starvation Experiment in order to help save staring people with its results. After a physical exam and the newly-instituted MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Test), 36 men were accepted for a controlled study.

They were fed regular meals for 3 months, then reduced to 50% of the daily requirement for an adult male of about 25-30 years of age and average weight and height. After the second 3 months, they were treated for malnutrition in order to determine best methods and materials for its treatment. The resulting knowledge was applied to Europeans starved by the methods of the Third Reich.

Some controversy surrounds the medical findings of the study and the application of its results to helping post World War II starvation victims. Not all of science found the results useful nor their application effective. Additional controversy is attached to the naming of the K ration, some officials of the era stating that "K" was a coincidence.

The Great Starvation Experiment: The Heroic Men Who Starved so That Millions Could Live
The Great Starvation Experiment: The Heroic Men Who Starved so That Millions Could Live

For a complete discussion by a top historian, see Todd Tucker's The Great Starvation Experiment. Additional material is available from Life magazine archives for 1945. Mr. Tucker gathered much of his research from sources that included personal interviews with Dr. Ancel Keys and several of the experiment's participants and staff persons, as well as from written and digital materials.


Undercover Patients are Heroes

One redeeming result of CO slave efforts was their “mystery shopping” of mental institutions while they worked within them. Findings developed into an organization called the National Mental Health Foundation, which today promotes the rights of people with mental challenges.

Interesting Findings to Consider

The starvation of subjects casued physical and psychological illnesses. One man cut off three of his fingers while chopping wood, but required many years in order to realize that this was an act of desperation to escape from the study. The men, selected in part for their capacity to get along well with others, became irritable and unhappy, paranoid and hypochondriacal. They dreamed of food. Some contracted TB.

Positive Application of Findings

Starvation is horrendous, and the Minnesota Starvation Experiment yielded workable means of

  • reversing malnutrition as well as
  • useful information about obesity and disease.
  • It also produced evidence that starvation shares many symptoms of a range of eating disorders,
  • suggesting the importance of both physical and psychological nourishment.

After WWII, many of the study participants became scientists and university professors. At least one continued to protest and march in protest against wars into his 80s and the era of the George W. Bush Administration. Another became an actor, another a statesman under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, another a curator of a major University of Minnesota library. Not only did many of these men regain a livelihood, but additionally, they made a difference throughout their lives.

War, Loss and Hunger

War has not only threatened people and liberated some individuals of their freedoms, it has produced results that stole lives, family members, livelihoods, and hope.

— P. Inglish

War has not only threatened people and liberated some individuals of their freedoms, it has produced results that stole lives, family members, livelihoods, and hope. It took not only lives and body parts, but also the psychological heart of some individuals.

Veterans returning from wars and not welcomed back (even in wars before Viet Nam) suffered even an additional unexpected trauma.

My uncles and grandfather were never the same afterward. I am thankful that some of their suffering has resulted in certain best practices in current medicine, health, and nutrition for all humanity. Please visit: The National World War II Memorial

World War II Memorial

WWII Memorial Gold Star Wall, Washington DC


© 2010 Patty Inglish MS


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    • juliancreative profile image


      8 years ago from cape cod ,massachuttes

      eye opening hub.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      9 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Thanks for adding you comments, MyWebs; they make an interesting perspective and you made history.

    • MyWebs profile image

      Anthony Goodley 

      9 years ago from Sheridan, WY

      When I was in the Army around 1984 we were given K-Rations that were from the WWII era to eat on a few occasions. I wish I could remember the dates on these cans, but it has been too long now. It is a bit scary to be eating something from a war my grandfather was in, but no one got sick from them! K-Rations have an unbelievable shelf life.

      My company was among the first soldiers to ever eat MRE's when they first came out. I much prefer the MRE's over the K-Rations.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      9 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      @star469 - This gives a new dimension to the Terry Sciavo starvation death. It's painful, no matter one's mental status. Cruel.

      Thanks for all the comments from everyone!

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      9 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      @William F. Torpey - It took a few years of never giving up the hunt for information to be able to find these things. Just a few clues here and there and finally it came out - in books in a used book store. Those places are treasure troves. Thanks for reading. Yes, war is hell - all 9 circles of it and its annexes.

      @Tammy Lochmann - Bet those are interesting stories form your family! I keep my eyes open for info that connects the dots for me in the clues I've had from family that passed on. No wonder they did not want to talk about some of it. On discussion boards among veterans, some servicemen say they have seen WWII rations handed out even in the early 1970s and still OK to eat. Not realy tasty, but edible.

    • profile image

      Tammy Lochmann 

      9 years ago

      I have been reading your hubs for a while now and I especially like your history ones. I intend to get my son to read this (he's 9). My husband and he are big history (especially WWII) enthusiasts. I never knew how the rations were developed. My husband and I both have veterans from WWII (both sides of the war) in the deceased but we have stories of what they went through.

    • stars439 profile image


      9 years ago from Louisiana, The Magnolia and Pelican State.

      Excellent hub. I always wondered what it might be like to starve to death. Now that I know, I pray no one lse does. God Bless You.

    • ethel smith profile image

      Ethel Smith 

      9 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

      The good old days eh. I guess given the right circumstances authorities would behave the same today. Thanks for the extra insight that your faily information brought to this hub

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 

      9 years ago from London, UK

      Interesting information about a horrible time. It definitely was a nightmare.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      What a good Hub, full of insight. Your research shines through, making it sad yet so interesting. Thanks for sharing and bringing it to our attention.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 

      9 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      This hub is a revelation for me. While I was aware of the severe hardships millions suffered in World War II I've never seen it expressed so graphically. I knew there was starvation, but I never thought about what they really meant and what those poor victims went through. War truly is Hell, isn't it? Thanks, Patty, for another informative, well-researched hub.

    • BetsyIckes profile image


      9 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Interesting post. I never really thought about this subject before! Thanks for posting!


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