Growing up, my parents insisted that I eat my vegetables. They claimed that eating string beans would increase my beauty and sharing collard greens at New Years would bring wealth; but, they never told me that eating these foods would prevent certain diseases like pellagra.
I discovered pellagra when reviewing the death certificate of my paternal great, great grandfather Hammon Grant. The death certificate, completed by his eldest son Paul, reveals that Hammon died in Bamberg County, SC on February 16, 1915 at the age of 56. It describes the cause of death as “Pellagra”, also mentioning the duration of his condition lasting 7 months. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), pellagra is a dietary disease caused by insufficient amounts of niacin (vitamin B3) in the body.
The early 20th Century marked an epidemic of pellagra related deaths in the southern states. As a South Carolina sharecropper with a large family in the early 1900s, I imagine that Hammon ate simple dishes consisting of root vegetables, corn, rice, and occasionally pork because of their affordability. His lifestyle and income were dictated by crop sales and subsequently when the economy suffered it directly affected his livelihood. A number of those who died during the pellagra epidemic in the early 20th Century were poor farmers, like Hammon, who ate a diet rich in corn for a good portion of the year. This definitely makes me think twice about all of the fast food restaurants exposed in Super Size Me for using corn as the main ingredient in many of their foods.
In 1914, the surgeon general assigned Dr. Joseph Goldberger to study the disease. Alan Kraut, author of Goldberger’s War: The Life and Work of a Public Health Crusader, suggests that Goldberger’s research proved that pellagra is not contagious and it is, in fact, a dietary disease. Since then, researchers have discovered that a balanced diet – including niacin rich foods such as chicken, turkey, crimini mushrooms, asparagus, tuna, and salmon – prevent the onset of pellagra.
As an adult, I’ve made some major dietary changes in hopes of avoiding some of the health issues my family members have endured over several generations. These days, I follow a pescetarian diet with limited dairy intake. The decision to stop eating certain meats and limited dairy was a bit difficult because for so long I never thought I’d be able to survive without my step-father’s macaroni and cheese and fried chicken. But, I’m fortunate to have the knowledge and money to make healthier food choices. Thousands of people around the world still suffer from pellagra and die from complications related to the disease simply because they do not have access to healthy nutrition. It’s incredible to me that in an Information Age people have similar experiences as my ancestor who died from the disease almost 100 years ago!
Hammon’s illness must have been incredibly painful and scary experience for him, his family members and the southern communities. Judging from the photos of pellagra patients, the disease seems to consume the body, physically (and possibly spiritually) transforming the patient. I can only imagine what Hammon went through those last seven months of his life. I wonder, Was he able to identify it early on?, Did he continue to work despite his illness?, Did other members of the household develop pellagra or other dietary illness? In any case, his unfortunate death motivates me to prioritize my health and share what I learn with others.
Click here to hear Alan Kraut discuss Goldberger’s research on pellagra with Mike Pesca on NPR’s Day to Day.