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Brooks Wilson's Economics Blog: Pellagra

Friday, August 12, 2011


Many Americans have suffered during the Great Recession and subsequent slow recovery but we should recall how fortunate we are to live now rather than during the Great Depression.  While reading Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry, by Holly George Warren, was moved by the following account of the death of Nora Autry, Gene’s mother.
Nora Autry…suffered from pellagra, c scourge during the Depression among impoverished Americans whose diet consisted primarily of corn.  Pellagra raged in epidemic proportions in the South and Southwest in the 1930s.  The disease occurs when a person does not get enough niacin (B3) or tryptophan (an amino acid) in the diet.  It can also occur if the body fails to absorb these nutrients.  Pellagra is characterized by red, scaly skin sores (dermatitis), diarrhea, inflamed mucous membranes, and mental confusion and delusions.  Early stages of pellagra often exhibit as malaise, apathy, weakness, and lassitude.  The final phase of the illness is dementia, which can become so severe it mimics schizophrenia, including delusions, hallucinations, and stupor.  Then comes organ failure and death.  According to epidemiological data collected during the U.S. pellagra epidemic in the 1930s, women, children, and the elderly of both sexes were most commonly stricken with pellagra while infants, adolescents, and working young males were affected least frequently.  Medical professionals theorized that the disparity in prevalence resulted from an unbalanced distribution of food within households.
The Pellagra epidemic is more than a tragic story, it teaches about societal organization.  Households do seem to be the appropriate unit of measurement and not the individual.  The strongest, most productive members of the household could have withdrawn and had more resources for themselves but they remained, sacrificing for the household.  Other household members sacrificed to protect the households’ current and expected future income.  It is unlikely that the strongest members of the household took what they needed, exploiting the weaker members, because the weak like the strong were free to withdraw from the household if their prospects as individuals were better.


  1. I agree, we are very fortunate to live in the time that we do, and this is a very humbling post, but I keep hearing from everywhere that we, and our children are going to pay the price for the situation our nation is in now. What do you think they mean by this? Do you think we will regress this far to another depression?

  2. I agree that we do live in a much better time, even though we are currently in the great recession. Unemployment right now is below 10%, compared to peaking at 25% during the depression. Many of safety nets that we have today were non-existent during the depression. Social Security was created during the depression, Medicare and Medicaid would not come for another 30 years. Many people, myself included do have issues with these programs, but if nothing else, they do provide a safety net for the elderly and low income individuals. My only concern is that with these programs are we going to extend the recession, not fall into a depression, but instead be forced into a slower recovery than we otherwise would have had if instead of paying into social security, medicare and medicaid, companies were able to retain these funds and use them to begin hiring workers. If they were able to that, then that could provide income for employees that otherwise would not be there and those employees could then purchase products and for their own companies they could increase a companies productivity and grow their production possibilities frontier.

  3. Calin O. Baban said...

    I also agree. The great depression was much more difficult to cope with compared to the 2008-2011 depressions. The current depression didn’t affect industrial production levels half as hard as the great depression. One thing why that may have happened is because the industrial manufacture sector shifted towards a services industry This one think may have had a huge impact why the current recession did not affect the US as hard as it could have.

  4. Shawna Ratliff1/9/11 7:18 PM

    I agree that we are fortunate to be Americans and live with the "luxuries" that we do. I also agree that as a household, families are stronger than if they seperate and leave the weak to fend for themselves, or if the weak leave to do for themselves and leave the rest of the family. I like the fact that you stated that not only the stronger could leave for better things, but that the weak could have left as well. Another strong point was that the stronger more likely let the weaker of family members eat first before.

  5. This was a sad, preventable disease that effected so many people. I see families today that still function in the same way as described, just not with food. For example, I have seen kids and husbands have brand new cars, the best clothes, all while the moms and wives are wearing the same thing everyday and driving a 15 year old car. Though in today's times, I believe this is more of a choice rather than by force.
    Gena Harcrow