The Corn Disease

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Some 9,000 year’s ago, farmers in southern Mexico first domesticated a type of grass which eventually became the grain we now all call corn. Thanks to it being easy to grow and having high yields, corn quickly spread across the Americas, becoming the staple food supply for countless Native Americans. When Europeans first arrived in the Americas, they at first avoided corn, believing that they were technologically superior because they ate a wheat based diet, which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. However, over time they eventually gave up on such high ideals, bringing it back to Spain where it quickly spread to Italy, West Africa, and then across Europe and eventually the world.

Though corn was eventually widely grown around the world, it was not seen as a staple crop for many centuries. This began to change as the increasing world population made it more difficult for people to grow enough food. In the late nineteenth century, many areas in Europe switched completely from wheat to corn, taking advantage of the yellow grain’s higher yields, with northern Italy especially taking advantage. While things at first seemed to work out just fine, in the 1880’s an epidemic of some new and terrible disease broke out, infecting hundreds of thousands of people. The disease started with people developing a terrible rash and diarrhea, and ended with dementia and death. So you know, not really that great of a situation. The scientists of the time, not being complete idiots, noticed that the disease, which they called pellagra, based on some Italian words, only affected those who had switched over to a corn diet. As a result, they decided that the corn must have some toxin in it that made people sick if too much was eaten. This was somewhat confusing given that the Native Americans had been eating large amounts of corn for centuries, but the scientists just basically declared “eugenics” and went with it. This led to a decline in corn consumption and a campaign to end the planting of corn in France.

While all of this was going in Europe, people in the United States continued to eat corn as happy as you please, with little to no ill affects. However, this all changed in 1902, when pellagra appeared in the South. By 1906 it was full blown epidemic, affecting hundreds of thousands of people and killing tens of thousands each year. The sudden outbreak stumped scientists because it made no damn sense. The people in the South had long used corn as a staple in their diet; the Southern diet of the time mostly involving cornmeal, meat, and molasses; and the pattern of infection seemed to affect certain groups at random. The most common groups to get pellagra were the poor, orphans, prisoners, and people in mental institutions, with women being especially susceptible. To further confuse things, the disease was not found in other nearby groups, such as prison guards.

Though the pellagra epidemic was killing thousands of people every year, the U.S. government didn’t get around to doing something about it until 1915. Backed by government funding, a man named Dr. Joseph Goldberger, began to study pellagra, and not being a complete idiot, quickly connected the problem to a diet too dependent on corn. Dr. Goldberger showed that eating less corn could cure pellagra, a declaration the Southern politicians reacted to by telling him to fuck right off. The people of the South were already dealing with widespread poverty and stereotypes about them being lazy idiots, so the added on idea that they had terrible diets was just a little too much for the Southern leaders to swallow. As well, the majority of poor people in the South lived on small plots of land, and the only way they could feed themselves was by growing corn. Even if the politicians had been supportive of change, it wasn’t like anybody had the money to improve diets, given that the South was poor as shit and the U.S. government had no interest in helping them out.

Undaunted, Dr. Goldberger continued his research to try and identify exactly what needed nutrient was missing from the Southern diet. Unfortunately, he died in 1929 without figuring it out. However, in 1937, other scientists connected pellagra with a niacin deficiency. As it turned out, Native Americans had long soaked their corn in lime because if they didn’t the body was unable to digest most of the niacin in corn, something they had forgotten to mention while they were dying of Old World diseases and being murdered for their land. As well, the outbreak in the U.S. could be tied to the introduction of a new corn milling process in 1900 called degermination. By removing a part of the corn kernel called the germ, corn would last much longer in storage, but at the loss of all the nutrients in the germ, including niacin. This loss was just enough to tip the balance and cause the pellagra outbreak. Finally, women were more susceptible because the estrogen in their bodies limited niacin intake. In 1938, the U.S. began a program of fortifying various foods with niacin, which resulted in the end of pellagra as a public health risk.