Joseph Goldberger

Man responsible for curing Pellagra (Vitamin B3 deficiency)

In 1902, the very first case of Pellagra was reported in the United States. By 1906, the disease had progressed to epidemic proportions. By 1912, the state of South Carolina alone reported 30,000 cases of the disease… and it became clear that it wasn’t going to go away on its own.

And as time went by, it got worse. Pellagra was a mysterious disease back in those days. It was mostly attributed to the consumption of spoiled corn. Back in those days, the idea that a nutritional deficiency could possibly be the cause of the epidemic had circulated to a point (scientists of the day like Theophile Roussel and Casimir Funk had already proposed such theories) – though much more popular was the belief that bad corn was making people sick.

But there were some strange facts about Pellagra that made it difficult to figure out. It tended to be a big problem in hospitals, prisons, and orphanages. But in such places, it tended to affect the inmates, but never the staff. The rich and wealthy almost never contracted the condition – while it was rampant among the poor.

Some even believed the disease to be infectious, and there were some who advocated the idea that it was actually hereditary.


Pellagra in the US in the early 1900s

Before the cure was found, Pellagra sufferers were shunned much as lepers were in ancient times. People were afraid of the disease because they didn’t know what it was or what caused it. Eventually, some hospitals event stopped accepting Pellagra patients.

Treatment methods for the disease ranged from arsenic, to calcium sulfide, to autoserotherapy, to static electric shock. Between the years of 1906 and 1940, more than 3 million Americans would be affected by the affliction, with 100,000 deaths piling up as a result.

But in 1914, a man by the name of Joseph Goldberger was asked by the US Surgeon General of the day (Rupert Blue) to investigate the disease.


Joseph Goldberger

Joseph Goldberger was a physician who had done extensive work in the fields of disease prevention in other places, including Mexico, Puerto Rico, Louisiana, and Mississippi. As a physician, he had gained a lot of experience in fighting disease through his work with Yellow Fever, Typhoid Fever, Typhus, and Dengue Fever.

But many would probably say that his work on the Pellagra epidemic would end up being the most prolific that he would ever accomplish – despite the fact that he really didn’t receive much of his deserved praise until after he had passed away.

It was Joseph Goldberger who, through a series of experiments and discoveries accomplished through dietary restrictions in prisons over the course of his work on the illness, discovered that Pellagra was actually caused by the lack of an unknown nutrient.

He successfully tied the heavy corn-based diet of the day (consumed mostly by people in poor economic circumstances, like prisons and orphanages) to an increased risk of the disease, and discovered that when the diets of affected individuals were supplemented with more diverse food options and meat-based proteins, those who suffered from the malady got better.


The results of his work

At first, his discoveries were rejected, as they were unpopular among proud and wealthy southerners. Despite the success of his experiments and observations (including a successful change of diet in one orphanage that completely eradicated the disease from all of the residents), he made little progress socially and politically in the fight against the affliction until later on in his life.

A man named Conrad Elvehjem was actually the person responsible for discovering the exact mechanism behind the problem – a lack of a specific nutrient called the B Vitamin, Niacin. This discovery was not made until 1937 – eight years after Joseph Goldberger’s death in 1929.

Joseph Goldberger was nominated five times for the Nobel Prize for his work in the field of medicine, and to this day, his papers are held at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland, in the USA.