Hunger and its Children

The Irish Famine, painted by George Frederic Watts c. 1848-1850, depicts a young family evicted from their home. The Watts Gallery.
The Irish Famine, painted by George Frederic Watts c. 1848-1850, depicts a young family evicted from their home. The Watts Gallery.

By Peter Quinn, Contributor
August / September 2013

Schizophrenia and other diseases associated with starvation.

The outward physical consequences of famine and severe malnutrition have been long known. They are the same everywhere. In his recent history of the Irish Famine, The Graves Are Walking, John Kelly describes them this way: “In the later stages of starvation, the eyelids inflame, the angular lines around the mouth deepen into cavities; the swollen thyroid gland becomes tumor-sized; fields of white fungus cover the tongue, blistering mouth sores develop, the skin acquires the texture of parchment; teeth decay and fall out, gums ooze pus, and a long silky growth of hair covers the face … Hunger edema—a grotesque swelling—is also common.”

It wasn’t until World War II, however, that the first scientific efforts were made to understand and chronicle the effects of starvation on the metabolism and circulation. The pioneers in this field were a score of Jewish doctors locked up by the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto. Victims as well as observers, these doctors methodically recorded the withering impact of caloric deprivation on bodily functions.

There has never been much doubt that starvation has psychological as well as physiological consequences. But as Lizzie Collingham points out in her instructive and enlightening book, The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food, it wasn’t until after the war that scientists got around to considering exactly what the long-term implications might be.

According to Collingham, studies done on the survivors of the Leningrad siege and the Dutch Hunger Winter “suggest that the foetus of a woman exposed to famine, especially in the first and second trimesters of pregnancy, will be adversely affected later in life. Dutch adults with a genetic predisposition to suffer from mental disease were more likely to suffer from schizophrenia and psychotic depression if they had been in the womb of a woman starved in the winter of 1944-45.”

In Famine: A Short History, Irish economist and historian Cormac Ó Gráda adds that studies done of “subjects born before, during, and after the 1959-61 famine in the badly affected Wichu region of China’s Anhui Province has also found that children conceived during the crisis stood a much higher risk of schizophrenia.”

The surface manifestations of hunger may heal and go away but, Collingham concludes, the inner wounds endure: “ … mothers who suffer from unusually severe conditions will pass on the impact of their experience over two generations.” Along with weakened constitutions that left babies with lifelong vulnerabilities to disease, disablement and early death, “there is sufficient medical evidence to confirm that the physical repercussions of the famines of the Second World War are still echoing down through the generations, to the present day.”

The genetic scars and mutations inflicted by famine on the body and mind are still coming into focus. Yet it’s already clear that they are more punishing, profound, and enduring than previously imagined. Given the depth and duration of hunger in places like 19th-century Ireland, the legacy will probably never be properly reckoned. And today, with a billion people living day-to-day on the cusp of starvation—the majority of them women and their children—we can only wonder at what winds are being sown and what whirlwinds will be reaped.

One Response to “Hunger and its Children”

  1. Stefanie Loeffler says:

    My mother and her “Irish twin” both born in the mid 1950s suffer from schizophrenia (my mother passed away at age 54). My 4 of my mother’s great grandparents were born during and around the famine. My mother’s mother mother’s mother, was conceived in 1849, Ireland. She immigrated to the US without parents abt 1860-61. My mother also has bipolar siblings. My mother did not respond well to her meds, and lived in and out of homes and hospitals from age 33 until her death. I have read Stalking Irish Madness by Patrick Tracey and Saints Scholars and schizophrenics by Nancy Schepner Hughes. I too have written about my life growing up in an Irish-Catholic family plagued with schizophrenia and self published the book under a pen name. I would like to know more about this. Thanks! -Stefanie

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