The Forgotten Plague

PrintPrintEmailEmailOblivion is a virtue in a disease. Cancer, AIDS, diabetes, and even tuberculosis are too much with us, but hardly anyone knows what pellagra is because the disfiguring deadly illness is virtually nonexistent in America today.

For the first third of this century, pellagra was a scourge across the American South, killing thousands and afflicting hundreds of thousands more. Its cause was unknown, and there was no treatment, let alone cure. Victims were shunned like lepers, and by 1914 the sickness was a national scandal.

The conquest of pellagra was a triumph of epidemiology over an affliction perhaps as ancient as the Bible, but it was also a triumph of one remarkable man, a medical Sherlock Holmes who fought ignorance, politics, and injustice as well as the disease. Even when the mystery of this preventable killer was solved, pellagra raged for another generation. It was as if the disease mocked science as crucial but insufficient. Pellagra is no longer a national health threat, and that is exactly why the experience of its conqueror is worth retelling.

Pellagra was known as the disease of the three D’s: dermatitis, diarrhea, and dementia. Victims suffered scaling, leprous skin, intestinal distress, lethargy, and depression. The trademark symptom was a butterfly rash—an ugly symmetrical blotch that spread across the victim’s face—marking him or her for all to see. Advanced stages involved hallucinations and even madness.

The name comes from the Latin for “rough skin,” and the term first appeared in a 1771 treatise by Francesco Frapolli, a Milanese who heard it from peasants. The illness may far predate its discovery. (Job may have suffered from it rather than the syphilis or leprosy that some theorists suggest.) Pellagra was a serious problem in southern Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when Goethe commented on the sickly brown complexion of Italian women who subsisted on corn and buckwheat.

The disease was little noticed in America until March 1902, when an impoverished Georgia farmer, driven by 15 years of suffering, consulted an Atlanta doctor named H. F. Harris. Every year the young man came down with a bizarre spring fever. In early February he would develop strange symptoms, and by May or June his weight would fall below 100 pounds and he’d be stricken with blisters. By the summer’s end he had always recovered. The doctor told him to move to a cooler climate and avoid rotten corn.

 

Dr. Harris recognized the oddity as pellagra, and he reported the case to the state medical association. Within a decade it was an epidemic across the South and was probably the region’s greatest threat to mental health. Soon there was evidence that it had been around a long time. In 1916 Dr. W. J. Kerr, former chief surgeon at the notorious Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia, said it was probably pellagra and not typhoid that had killed hundreds of Union prisoners in 1864. In the Southern epidemic children were the most likely to die, along with adults already stricken with illnesses like tuberculosis. Death could arrive in six months.

One known constant was pellagra’s long association with corn. Polenta eaters in Italy and cornpone consumers in Alabama were equally beset. Even so, early-twentieth-century doctors did not significantly explore the possibility of a dietary cause for the disease, or for such other ailments as beriberi that we now know result from nutrient deficiencies. Vitamin research was in its infancy, and science still focused on microbes as the cause of common diseases.

By the early twentieth century tuberculosis, cholera, diphtheria, typhus, tetanus, syphilis, and plague were known to be bacterial. Amoebas and bacteria caused dysentery. Malaria and yellow fever were transmitted by mosquito, which indicated an infectious element. Doctors fell into two broad camps concerning pellagra: Corn, moldy or otherwise, was blamed by some who became known as Zeists, named for the botanical name of maize. The anti-Zeists, a diverse lot, blamed various other substances and infectious media.

Like all mysteries, this one was seen through the prism of personal prejudice. Corn was America’s biggest crop, and corn growers were appalled that their product might be considered unwholesome. Many people instead blamed the enormous number of Italian immigrants as carriers. Others, reflecting a growing interest in eugenics, took pellagra to be hereditary. Some Southerners, sensitive about their region’s reputation for hookworm and backwardness, denied there was any problem at all.

But there was indeed. The disease hit hardest in the poorest, most remote places and was grossly underreported as it moved across the South, but by 1915 reliable estimates put the number of cases at between 75,000 and 165,000 out of an estimated 32.5 million people, with a mortality rate of perhaps 5 percent. Those numbers would continue to rise in the years ahead despite every effort to keep them down, for pellagra was not associated only with corn.