Joseph Goldberger, a physician and scientist, holds a prominent position in the annals of Mississippi’s medical history for his critical work battling pellagra, a dreaded disease. In 1915 Goldberger conducted a controversial medical trial with prisoners at the Rankin State Prison Farm, near present-day Whitfield, that determined that pellagra was a nutritional disorder.
The son of a sheepherder who later became a grocer, Goldberger was born near Giralt in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now Giraltovce, Slovakia) on 16 July 1874 and immigrated with his large German-speaking family to New York City by 1883. His parents, Samuel and Sarah Goldberger, were Orthodox Jews who valued education, and in 1895 Goldberger received a medical degree from the city’s Bellevue Hospital Medical College. He soon began a career in public health, working as a physician with the US Marine Hospital Service (now the US Public Health Service). He came south by the late 1890s to battle epidemics such as yellow fever and malaria.
Goldberger’s work in Mississippi began in the summer of 1905 when he was assigned to Vicksburg for quarantine duty during the last substantial US yellow fever epidemic. Goldberger married Mary Humphreys Farrar on 19 April 1906 in New Orleans. The daughter of a prominent New Orleans attorney, Mary was the great-grandniece of Confederate president Jefferson Davis as well as the great-granddaughter of Mississippi governor B. G. Humphreys. Mary was intelligent, idealistic, and extremely committed to her husband’s scientific work, and her Mississippi ties facilitated her husband’s work in the state.
Goldberger subsequently turned his attention to pellagra, a major cause of death and illness. Mississippi had the highest pellagra fatality rate in the South, with almost eleven thousand cases (more than a thousand of which resulted in death) reported in 1914. In the spring of that year, Goldberger studied the prevalence of pellagra at the Methodist and Baptist orphanages in Jackson and concluded that the disease was not infectious but rather resulted from the common diet of the southern poor—cornbread, pork, and cane syrup. The following August, he initiated feeding experiments at the Methodist orphanage, largely eliminating the disease there.
His success encouraged him to propose to Gov. Earl Brewer and the Mississippi State Board of Health a demonstration to test his hypothesis that pellagra was a dietary deficiency. With the authorities’ full cooperation, Goldberger, assisted by Dr. George A. Wheeler, induced the disease in healthy volunteer convicts at the Rankin Farm by changing their diet. Twelve of the institution’s seventy white male convicts accepted Gov. Brewer’s offer of a pardon in exchange for participation in the experiment. The men were observed from 4 February to 19 April 1915 as they performed their usual work routine and ate their usual diet, which included a variety of vegetables grown at the farm and dairy products. No evidence of pellagra appeared during this period. Beginning on 19 April, however, the prisoners received a diet typical of many southerners: biscuits, mush, grits, brown gravy, cornbread, sweet potatoes, cane syrup, and coffee.
Although one of the twelve subjects was discharged from the experiment in July because of prostatitis, the remaining eleven, whose ages ranged from twenty-four to fifty, remained on the restricted diet until the study ended on 31 October 1915. Six of the eleven men developed pellagra symptoms, including the typical dermatitis as well as gastrointestinal complaints. All twelve men subsequently received full pardons, and the six men who had developed pellagra symptoms fully recovered.
The experiment proved that the disease was caused by dietary deficiencies and was not infectious or communicable. After further research, Goldberger concluded that the important pellagra preventative was “a heretofore unrecognized or unappreciated dietary factor,” which he designated “factor P-P,” for “Pellagra Prevention.” Subsequent scientists determined that pellagra is caused by a lack of niacin.
Most Mississippians embraced Goldberger’s work. In April 1916 the state legislature authorized any county or group of counties to establish pellagra hospitals, and the number of pellagra deaths in the state fell from 1,535 in 1915 to 561 in 1925. Goldberger returned to the state during the Great Flood of 1927 to battle the disease again. He died of renal cell cancer on 17 January 1929.
- Alan M. Kraut, Goldberger’s War: The Life and Work of a Public Health Crusader (2003)
- Lucius M. Lampton, Journal of the Mississippi State Medical Association (February 2005)
- Robert P. Parsons, Trail to Light: A Biography of Joseph Goldberger (1943)
- Milton Terris, ed., Goldberger on Pellagra (1964)