Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/December 1884/Starvation: Its Moral and Physical Effects

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THE recent case of cannibalism at sea opens up some curious questions as to the effects of fasting on the moral nature of man. To the superficial observer, death by starvation simply means a wasting of the body, a horrible agony, an increasing weakness, a lethargic state of the brain, and a sleep from which there is no awakening; but is this all that it means? While this is going on, let us consider whether or not the intellectual faculty, and with it the power of distinguishing right from wrong, is not also undergoing a process of wasting and death, even before that of the material part, for, however dangerous it may be to received opinions to associate the material nature of brain with the moral nature of our being, we are bound to do so to elucidate some of the facts connected with this case.

Reasoning by analogy, we find that, in many cases of bodily disease, the state of the mind is the first indicator of the mischief going on in the system. Take even such a simple thing as indigestion, which, as every one must know, is only a manifestation of a deranged stomach, and what do we find? That the lowness of spirits induced by this affection may vary from slight dejection and ill-humor to the most extreme melancholy, sometimes inducing even a disposition to suicide. The sufferer misconceives every act of friendship, and exaggerates slight ailments into heavy grievances. So in starvation, the power of reason seems paralyzed and the intellectual faculty dazed really before the functions of the body suffer, or even the wasting of its tissue becomes extreme. Such being the case, the unfortunate individual is not accountable for his actions, even if they be criminal in character, long before death puts an end to his sufferings.

The most deep-rooted and powerful feelings of human nature—the love of a mother for her offspring—are perverted in cases of starvation, for we read in Josephus that during the siege of Jerusalem, under Titus, mothers ate their own children. A similar case is mentioned in Scripture as occurring during the famine in Samaria (2 Kings, vi, 29); if, in such a case, the intellectual faculty was not utterly disorganized, no amount of human agony would account for such complete perversion of nature.

Referring to this state, Aitken observes: "A depression of the nervous state is very early manifested in the impaired energy of all the vital functions, the weakened condition of the intellectual faculties and moral feelings, and diminution of the general sensibility." As vital activity and mental power are simply the manifestation of consumption of material, and, unless the supply of that material in the shape of food is kept up, a progressive waste of both must necessarily ensue; and that which depends for its manifestation on the material—that is, food—must be the first to go, that being in this case the intellectual faculty—the power of distinguishing right from wrong.

An old writer (Guianerius) says, "Anchorites, monks, and the rest of that superstitious rank, through immoderate fasting, have been frequently mad," showing that even in early times the fact was known and believed that want of food perverted the higher attributes of the mind before it destroyed life.

What are the symptoms of death from want of food, and how long can man subsist without solid or liquid nourishment? According to the experiments of Chossat, death takes place in from eight to eleven days, and after forty per cent of the weight of the body is consumed. Now, as this means more of certain tissues than others, it may be interesting to mention those that suffer most. The fat wastes ninety-three per cent of its weight; the blood, seventy-five; the spleen, seventy-one; the liver, fifty-two; the heart, forty-four; the bowels, forty-two; and the muscles, forty-two. On the other hand, the following parts waste much less: thus, the bones waste sixteen per cent; the eyes, ten; the skin, thirty-three; the lungs, twenty-two; and the nervous system, i, e., the nerves, only two per cent. The point worthy of attention is the almost total consumption of fat before death takes place; in fact, death by starvation is really death by cold. As soon as the fat of the body goes—and fat is the principle that keeps up the heat—death takes place; the temperature of the body diminishes but little until the fat is consumed, then it rapidly falls.

Chossat—whose experiments on dumb animals are most painful to read—is of opinion that death from exposure to intense cold and death from starvation are one and the same, as, in the torpor of death from want of food, the application of warmth to the body immediately restored consciousness, showing that heat is closely related to the principle of life, as manifested through the nervous system in its more subtile sense.

The symptoms of starvation from want of food are—severe pain at the pit of the stomach, which is relieved on pressure; this subsides after a day or two, but is succeeded by a feeling of weakness and "sinking" in the same region; then an insatiable thirst supervenes, which, if water be withheld, thenceforth becomes the most distressing symptom. The countenance becomes pale and cadaverous, the eyes acquire a peculiarly wild and glistening stare, and general emaciation soon manifests itself. The body then exhales a peculiar fœtor, and the skin is covered with a brownish, dirty-looking, and offensive secretion. The bodily strength rapidly declines; the sufferer totters in walking, his voice becomes weak, and he is incapable of the least exertion. The mental powers exhibit a similar prostration: at first, there is usually a state of stupidity, which gradually increases to imbecility, so that it is difficult to induce the sufferer to make any effort for his own benefit, and on this a state of maniacal delirium frequently supervenes.

Before death takes place the body appears to be undergoing putrefaction, so that, though it seems to waste in one way, the power of the system to eliminate the effete products is paralyzed, and these, instead of being burned off, as they are when the proper nourishment of the tissues is going on, remain and decompose; in no other way can the fœtor during life be accounted for, and the rapid decomposition after death. This accounts also for the fact that cholera, fever, and blood-poisoning are so much more fatal in the badly-fed than they are in the well-to-do; the low state of the vitality induced prevents the elimination of the poison, and the sufferer dies, not by the virulence of the disease, but by his inability, through weakness, to throw it off. Pestilential diseases always follow in the wake of famine, and destroy more than perish from actual starvation.

To show how long life may be carried on with a very little food, the following case may be interesting: In February, 1862, a man thirty-six years of age was discovered in a stack near Morpeth dying from starvation. All attempts to rally him failed, and he ultimately died. He was an intelligent man, and had been editor and proprietor of a penny journal called the "Falkirk Liberal." A diary was found in his possession containing entries of his condition from February 8th to 25th, from which it appeared that during the seventeen days he had twice tasted a piece of bread, but that for the last thirteen days he had been entirely without food. During the first ten days of the thirteen he was able to obtain water, but on the eleventh day he found his legs were useless, and he lost all motive power in his lower extremities, so that half his body appeared to be dead.

There is also the well-known case of the fat pig that was buried in its sty under thirty feet of the chalk of Dover Cliff for one hundred and sixty days, and which was dug out alive at the end of that time, reduced in weight from one hundred and sixty pounds to forty pounds, or no less than seventy-five per cent ("Transactions of the Linnæan Society," vol. xi, p. 411). The extraordinary prolongation of life in this case may be attributed to the retention of the heat of the body by the non-conducting power of the chalk, and to the retention of its moisture by the saturation of the air in its immediate vicinity, and restriction of its movements.

As might be expected, the old can live longer without food than the young. In youth, the growth of the body causes more rapid consumption of nourishment, and the supply and the waste are more quickly got rid of; further than this, the nervous system, though more buoyant in youth, is less stable, so that the young perish quickly when the supply of food is cut off, from the want of sustaining power in the nervous system. This was illustrated in the recent case of cannibalism, the boy being in a dying state, when the men, so far as their muscular power was concerned, were strong enough to accomplish the terrible deed they did.

In the case of the Welsh fasting girl, death took place after deprivation of food for eight days. During the first few days she was cheerful, but later on it was found she could not be kept warm; she then lapsed into a state of torpor, from which she could not be roused, and died.

Four men and a boy were imprisoned in a mine from April 11th to April 19th; they had access to water, but no food, between those dates. When liberated, they all recovered; the damp atmosphere and their access to water being powerful factors in their aid.

Another curious fact to be observed in those who recover after prolonged starvation is their unwillingness to be questioned on the subject, and their inability to give any coherent version of their sufferings and feelings, showing plainly that the mental power was too torpid to take impressions at the time. In the recent case of cannibalism, their suffering was aggravated by intense thirst, but they seem to have been able to give a graphic account of the horrors of their situation, which is not usually the case.

The history of starvation points to this fact, that the moral sense dies before the physical being; and some interesting intelligence may-be gathered by a study of this subject in its broadest basis as a national question, where it relates to the intellectual and social qualities of race in ill-fed and well-fed countries.—Health.