03 January 2017

Newfoundland and Nutrition in the 1940s #nlpoli #cdnpoli

Scholarly papers seldom get the attention of the news media.

When a paper combines a well-known, emotionally charged issue – aboriginal residential schools – with intimations of racism and unethical medical experiments on unwitting human subjects, it’s hard not to get noticed.

Ian Mosby's paper published in 2013 deserves attention for many reasons, but one of the areas not likely to get noticed by most readers is one that would be familiar to many in Newfoundland and Labrador. 

Mosby’s article starts with a long, but provocative title:  “Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942–1952.”  In the words of the abstract from the paper, it describes nutritional surveys and experiments conducted in some parts of northern Canada in the 1940s and 1950s. These were, the abstract tells us, an “unexamined episode of exploitation and neglect by the Canadian government.”
If you don’t want to read the whole article, you can find plenty of media coverage. 

Some reporting actually contains elements from the paper that contradict one another.  For example, the paper contends the research was an example of exploitation and neglect, and that the researchers view “Aboriginal bodies as ‘experimental materials’”.[Page 148]  At the same time, the researchers noted in 1942 that they suspected that many of the failings attributed to native people such as laziness may actually be caused by poor nutrition, circumstances that were beyond the control of the individuals themselves.  This hardly seems like the attitude of a racist but we live in a world where people can be compensated by the federal government for their experiences in a residential school system different from the one operated in Canada based on popular sentiment as much as anything else.

The Newfoundland Connection

A Telegram story by Steve Bartlett on the Mosby paper noted a reference to this province:
At St. Mary’s school, on the other hand, the high incidence of riboflavin deficiency led to the introduction of “Newfoundland Flour Mix” – a product that could not be
legally sold outside of Newfoundland under Canada’s laws against food adulteration because it contained added thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and bonemeal. [Page 162]
Bartlett also posted something on his Telly blog about the flour as well.  The flour turned up in a paper by Leonard Pett about an experiment in which some children received bread made with the fortified flour:
It was titled "Development of Anemia on Newfoundland Enriched Flour."
Although scientifically unproven that the flour caused anemia levels to rise, Pett noted "the fact remains that no beneficial effect was observed from the iron in enriched flour."
He suggested more research was required, but admitted "such studies are often omitted or are confined to certain animal experiments rather than to humans."
Mosby argues the anemia "seems to have simply highlighted one of the main barriers to the kinds of human experiments being advocated by Pett - when confronted with the possible risks, few would consciously choose to allow themselves or their children to take part in such a study."
The Flour

Bartlett’s got the basics of the flour story but the details are useful to put the information in the aboriginal nutrition story in the wider context Moseby seems to have missed.

In 1943, the Commission Government required that all flour sold in Newfoundland contain added thiamine (2 mg per pound), riboflavin (1.2 mg), niacin(16 mg) and iron (13 mg). Starting in 1947, the Commission required that flour contain to provide about 500 mg of calcium per pound.

An international group of medical experts surveyed nutrition in Newfoundland in 1944 at the request of the Commission Government.  The team examined 868 men, women, and children in St. John’s and other communities on the island. public health nurses assisted the team in St. John’s and in the other communities either by having volunteers ready or by helping to spread the word shortly after the team arrived in a community.

In St. John’s and St. Joseph’s, the local public health nurse had the volunteers assembled at a school when the team arrived.  In other places,
within a few minutes of our arrival at an outport the public health nurse, the ranger, school teacher, priest or minister, or all, would arrive to volunteer their services. After we had explained the purpose of our visit, we requested that they help by getting everyone possible to the school for examination. The success of this method of obtaining subjects is evidenced by the fact that in half day visits to Terrenceville, Bay L'Argent and Harbour Mille, with populations of 300, 298 and 383 respectively,* we examined 33, 51 and 22% of the populations. At the outports, as well as in St. John's, the subjects consisted as a rule of family groups with few adult working males.
The team conducted physical examinations and took blood and urine samples for later analysis.  They also took photographs of some of the physical condition of some of the volunteers. They published the results of their survey  - including some of the photographs - in the March 1945 issue of  Canadian Medical Association Journal.  Most of the same team repeated the survey in 1948, with the results published in the April 1949 CMAJ. 

More Research

The large, government-sponsored surveys conducted in the 1940s in Newfoundland were just two such studies.  Other, smaller teams had conducted similar surveys in Newfoundland before 1944.  V.B. Appleton published the results of his survey of deficiency diseases in a community in southern Labrador in 1921. There are other studies and correspondence on nutrition in government records going back to the turn of the last century.

The thing is that the government didn't do much about the issue until the arrival of Commission government in the 1930s.  There are also very useful statistics on public health from around the time of Confederation that shed some light on the condition of the country a half century ago. That will tell you not only about social conditions then but also today since we still deal with the consequences of events that long ago and longer.


Note:  This post was originally drafted in August 2013.  While the immediacy of the issue has gone away,  the background is still useful and interesting.