Goldberger's War The Life and Work of a Public Health Crusader

Alan M. Kraut

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

336 Pages



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Winner of the American Public Health Association's Arthur Viseltear Prize
Co-Winner of the Society for History in the Federal Government's Henry Adams Prize
Winner of the Watson Davis and Helen Miles Davis Prize

Goldberger's War chronicles one of the U.S. Public Health Service's most renowned heroes—an immigrant Jew who trained as a doctor at Bellevue, became an early recruit to the federal government's health service, and put an end to an American plague. And he did so by defying conventional wisdom, experimenting on humans, and telling the South precisely what it didn't want to hear.

In this engaging and well-reserached study, Alan M. Kraut shows why Dr. Joseph Goldberger's life became, quite literally, the stuff of comic-book storyboards. On the front lines of the legendary public health battles of the early twentieth century, he fought the epidemics that were then routinely sweeping the nation—typhoid, yellow fever, and diphtheria. In 1914, after successfully confronting (and often contracting) the germ-borne plagues of his day, he was assigned the mystery of pellagra, a disease whose cause and cure had eluded the world for centuries and which was then afflicting tens of thousands of Americans every year, particularly in the emerging "New South." Dispatched to find a medical solution to what prevailing wisdom assumed was another germ-borne disease, Goldberger discovered its cause in a dietary deficiency and spent years conducting experiments (some on himself and his family) to prove he was right. But finding the cause of pellagra was just half the fight; its cure required nothing less than challenging the economy, culture, and politics of the entire South.


Praise for Goldberger's War

"Impressive . . . Provides a wealth of new and detailed information about Goldberger's subsequent research in pellagra's cause and prevention . . . The researcher, public health crusader, husband, and father has received the insightful attention and thoughtful analysis he deserved."—Susan E. Lederer, The Journal of American History

"At the dawn of the twenty-first century, when the health problems of so many Americans are related not to germs or other pathogens but to behavioral, lifestyle, cultural, and economics factors, Alan M. Kraut's exhaustively and engagingly written account of physician Joseph Goldberger's life, work, and influence is a timely and important read contribution to the annals of the social history of medicine and public health . . . Joseph Goldberger was a hero and a role model, and Kraut has served both his memory and all of us well with this meticulously researched and sensitively crafted portrait that successfully marries the social history of medicine with biographical and narrative history. In his acknowledgements, Kraut admits that one of his colleagues ‘asked me whether my high regard. It is fair to conclude that Kraut has succeeded in this regards . . . In our cynical age often bereft of genuine heroes and admirable role models, Kraut has done both the scholarly community and the general reading public a great favor in crafting this tribute to the life, work, and legacy of a crusading physician and public health advocate. It is a role model we will continue to need, for as Kraut concluded, ‘Goldberger's war never really ends. We just send in fresh troops.'"—Allen J. Share, Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

"A fascinating story that is not only a classic narrative of American opportunity and immigrant achievement but also a revealing contribution to the histories of medicine and public health, social policy, and scientific practice and bioethics."—Charles E. Rosenberg, Harvard University

"A fascinating examination of the impact and limitations of one individual's efforts to effect social and scientific change. Of special interest to American Jewish historians, the book provides a snapshot of the important role of profession in modern Jewish identity, while also examining Goldberger's understanding of his own Jewishness. Jewish and southern historians alike will appreciate the insight Kraut provides into one American Jewish professional's observations about the socio-economic structures of the New South . . . Kraut amply fulfils his charge as a biographer by offering a convincing case for Goldberger's triumphs and warts: his passionate and detailed study of pellagra from both human and biochemical perspectives, as well as his untroubled use of convicts and mental patients as human subjects. Goldberger truly can be, as Kraut desires, an historical case study for today's public health crusaders battling AIDS, another disease significantly affected by socio-economic forces."—Jane Rothstein, Texas Christian University, Southern Jewish History

"Kraut skillfully weaves together the personal and public sides of Goldberger's life . . . This thoroughly readable book is based on exhaustive research in primary sources . . . [Exhibiting] admirable thoroughness, he has mined the many recent works on medical history and the New South."—Elizabeth W. Etheridge, Longwood University, The Journal of Southern History

"Kraut carefully follows Goldberger's detective work as he tracks down the mysterious [cause of pellagra] and fights against the prevailing views of his times . . . [The book is] interesting and at times exciting."—Jeremy Brown, The Jerusalem Post

"Kraut, a history professor at American University, has a voluminous knowledge of Southern politics, economics, and society. He expertly explains the circumstances that impacted Goldberger's patients: the rise of the textile mills, the meagre wages, the backbreaking labor . . . Goldberger will be remembered because he implicated poverty and politics as contributors to disease. As Kraut points out in this thoughtful book, AIDS, tobacco addiction, diabetes, and other illnesses have taken pellagra's place, and such lifestyle diseases will continue to provide new challenges for public health crusaders."—Kathleen Nelson, The Boston Globe

"Engaging . . . In this engrossing story of an American medical hero whose work and life illustrate the intertwining of medical, social, and political history, Kraut shows us that the research and practice of physicians can help to explain how people become sick, but that especially for diseases for which there are no vaccines, prevention and treatment must involve a conscious reorganization of the ways people live and of the social and economic factors that shape their choices."—Naomi Rogers, Ph.D., Yale University, The New England Journal of Medicine

"Alan M. Kraut's fine tribute to [Goldberger] does equal justice in describing the early public health movement in this country, and the Southern political, cultural and economic climate that required change."—Jewish Book World

"Inspiring, brilliantly researched, and engaging written. Anyone interested in public health, the politics of medicine, or the impact ochof Jewish immigrants on American life will savor this book."—Jonathan D. Sarna, author of American Judaism: A History

"Professor Kraut illuminates the political climate operative at the time and its effect on the public's health. In particular, [his book] provides insights into the 'culture' of the U.S. Public Health Service in the early part of the 1900s . . . A remarkable snapshot of the application of epidemiological principles to the enhancement of public health in the United States in the first third of the [20th century]. The author's linkage of the personal life of a 'public health crusader' with his scientific discoveries makes [this book] a fascinating as well as instructive document."—Dr. Jerrold M. Michael, Rear Admiral (Ret.), USPHS, Professor of Global Health, George Washington University, Frontline

"A skilled recounting of Goldberger's life . . . I recommend this book to every health care professional in his or her formative years. Curriculum committees often overvalue facts and neglect role models. It would be easy to remove 313 pages from today's overstuffed medical curriculums and substitute this narrative of Goldberger's life."—Jesse Roth, The Journal of Clinical Investigation

"Of particular interest to faculty and students of public health, preventive medicine, and public policy is the book's interface of science and health policy . . . Professor Kraut illuminates the political climate operative at the time and its effect on the public's health. In particular, this book provides insights into the 'culture' of the U.S. Public Health service in the early part of the 1900s . . . The book provides a remarkable snapshot of the application of epidemiologic principles to the enhancement of public health in the United States in the first third of the 1900s. The author's linkage of the personal life of a 'public health crusader' with his scientific discoveries makes it a fascinating as well as instructive document."—Jerrold M. Michael, School of Public Health and Health Services, The George Washington University, The American Journal of Epidemiology

f1 "Most notable in this absorbing biography by Kraut is its wealth of detail, providing a comprehensive picture of Dr. Joseph Golberger's determination and of this pioneer public health officer's vital effort in the early decades of the 20th century to identify causes of, and to wipe out, diseases such as diptheria, typhoid and yellow fevers, typhus, and, most puzzling of all, pellagra . . . For medical historians, health care professionals, and biographers. Highly recommended."—A. R. Davis, emerita, Johns Hopkins University, Choice

"A full-fledged profile of the physician whose investigation into the cause of pellagra outraged many southerners by concluding that it was a lifestyle disease brought on by poverty and poor diet. Kraut, who took a broad view of public health in Silent Travelers, narrows his focus here to the life and work of a single doctor. Beginning with the Goldberger family's immigration to the US in 1883, when Joseph was nine, the author describes his subject's youth, education, [and] entry into the U.S. Marine Hospital Service (later the U.S. Public Health Service) . . . In 1914, Goldberger took over pellagra studies in the South. Gathering information first from library research and then from field studies, he began experiments at two orphanages and an insane asylum that demonstrated pellagra sufferers could be cured by proper diet. With the help of Mississippi's governor, who offered pardons to prisoners who volunteered, he set up a controversial experiment showing that poor diet could induce pellagra in healthy men . . . Goldberger turned next to the search for the specific nutrient that prevented the disease. His death in 1928 came nine years before the answer, niacin, was found, but his status as crusader against pellagra had been secured by years of dogged fieldwork."—Kirkus Reviews

"At the turn of the twentieth century, the American South was plagued by pellagra, a disease characterized by dermatitis, diarrhea, dementia, and death. In 1912, South Carolina alone reported some 30,000 cases, with a 40 percent fatality rate. Of unknown etiology, pellagra had public-health officials stymied. Enter Joseph Goldberger. In 1914, this public-health physician was assigned the task of finding the cause and cure for what had come to be called 'the scourge of the South.' In this biography, substantially documented from Goldberger's personal and professional correspondence, Kraut recounts how the idealistic physician faced down several dread diseases while tackling the politics of public health. Often becoming a willing subject of his experiments, he put his life at risk as bravely as any infantryman, contracting three of the sometimes-fatal ailments he sought to cure, including typhus and yellow fever. His is the inspiring story of a man who confronted the grim reality of infectious disease in pursuit of a healthier future for America."—Booklist

"The title in this fascinating history refers not to any military battle, but to a doctor's successful fight against the disease known as pellagra. Until Joseph Goldberger proved otherwise in the early 20th century, the illness, a scourge of the South, was believed to be an infectious disease. Goldberger's diligent research and tireless campaigning demonstrated that it was, in fact, due to dietary deficiencies. (Later researchers showed that pellagra resulted from a lack of niacin.) Using both primary and secondary documents, Kraut, a professor of history at American University, traces Goldberger's life from his late-19th-century childhood on the Lower East Side of New York City to his rise through the U.S. Public Health Service . . . Kraut shows how Goldberger worked to push for the eradication of the disease-even using radical methods, such as injecting forms of the disease into himself, his wife and other subjects. Kraut also subtly demonstrates how such factors as religion, class and regionalism played themselves out in Goldberger's life. The son of Orthodox Jews, Goldberger married the grandniece of Confederate leader Jefferson Davis, but not before both families struggled with the intermarriage. And as Kraut shows in this engaging and multilayered American history, much of the fight against Goldberger's findings came from Southerners who were concerned that his work would reinforce the region's image as backward."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Alan M. Kraut

  • Alan M. Kraut is a professor of history at American University. His book Silent Travelers: Germs, Genes, and the Immigrant Menace won the Theodore Saloutos Memorial Book Award from the Immigration and Ethnic History Society. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland.