Un-Taming the Civilized Surface of the Science of Hunger:

Sociological Reflections on Forgotten Laboratories of Starvation in the Warsaw Ghetto

Dr. Sigal Gooldin

In 1942, a group of 28 Jewish physicians who lived and worked in the Warsaw ghetto collaborated in a joint effort to produce comprehensive, evidence-based, scientific knowledge on the effects of prolonged starvation on the human body. In the frame of this extraordinary project, clinicians and researchers who worked in two hospitals in the ghetto, and who were themselves subjected to semi-starvation and malnutrition, conducted a detailed and sophisticated study of the increasingly starved ghetto population. Using equipment that was smuggled from hospitals on the outside, they carried elaborated clinical examinations of adults and children who were diagnosed with ‘the hunger disease’, performed autopsies in patients who did not survive, and eventually summarized the results of the study in an edited manuscript that was ultimately smuggled out of the ghetto. In the preceding decades, the Hunger Disease Study significantly shaped scientific understanding of the effects of prolonged starvation on the human body. Indeed, following the publication of an English translation of the manuscript in 1979, the results of the study were widely acknowledged as bearing major scientific importance. Consequently, the Hunger Disease Study shaped mainstream bio-medical understandings of hunger, and it is still considered the most detailed and in many respects ground-braking account of semi-starvation.

However, while contemporary understanding of ‘the hunger disease’ (i.e. of pathological processes in semi- starvation) irreversibly rely on the scientific knowledge presented in the Hunger Disease Study, the concrete realities, and historical conditions in which this knowledge was produced and distributed are rarely considered relevant scientific facts. In this sense, paraphrasing Knorr-Cetina (1981), contemporary scientific knowledge on the hunger disease “hides more than it tells on its tame and civilized surface, for it deliberately forgets much of what has happened in the laboratory”.

In this paper, I seek to ‘un-tame’ the civilized surface of contemporary science of hunger, by means of ‘un- forgetting’ what has happened in the laboratory. Drawing on a discourse analysis of the study’s protocol, its published results, and public reactions to its publication in English from 1979 onwards, I argue that un-forgetting the extraordinary scientific event known as The Hunger Disease Study, can critically enrich our understanding of relations between the holocaust and scientific knowledge production.