Winter 2011-2012

Ingestion / Back From the Dead

Sir Jack Drummond’s life-saving mixture

James Fergusson

“Ingestion” is a column that explores food within a framework informed by aesthetics, history, and philosophy.

On 15 April 1945, the British Eleventh Armoured Division liberated the Nazi concentration camp at Belsen. Recently recruited, and trained to deal with German Panzers, the young tank crews were utterly overwhelmed by what they found—some sixty thousand skeletal prisoners, most of them seriously ill, as well as thirteen thousand unburied corpses. The retreating Germans had sabotaged the camp’s water supply, and typhus was raging.

The British ordered the captured German guards to start burying the dead, while trying to feed the living from their army rations, but the inmates’ digestive systems were unable to cope with the canned meat known as “bully beef.” One of the effects of starvation is stomach shrinkage, which prevents the victim from ever ingesting enough. Within a fortnight, another nine thousand were dead. The soldiers knew they were out of their depth and summoned expert help in the form of Sir Jack Drummond, chief scientific advisor to Britain’s wartime Ministry of Food, who arrived a month after the relief of Belsen.

The camp was not Drummond’s first experience of mass starvation. Earlier in the year, he had traveled in secret with a party of other scientists through the collapsing Nazi lines in the western Netherlands, where he found a population subsisting on sugar beets and fried tulip bulbs. Some thirty thousand people had already starved to death during the notorious Hongerwinter of 1944. The result of the scientists’ visit was Operation Manna, in which Royal Air Force Lancasters dropped some seven thousand tons of food for the starving Dutch in the course of a week.

Belsen’s survivors, however, required more than airlifted K-rations. “Collapse and death from starvation come with startling suddenness,” Drummond forlornly noted in a handbook called Nutrition and Relief Work, which was published in early 1945 and became the standard reference manual for the Allied forces during the liberation. “The actual cause of the rapid fatal termination is not known. Resuscitation after the terminal phase has begun is very difficult to achieve. … Ordinary food is useless.”

Bully beef was rapidly replaced with a kind of sweetened rice porridge called “Bengal famine mixture,” which had been used during the Bengal famine of 1943—an even worse catastrophe that killed as many as four million. But even this recipe could not save the worst-affected victims. Weakened European stomachs had difficulty digesting rice. In extreme cases, an entirely new form of emergency treatment was administered: an injection of glucose and vitamins known as “Drummond mixture” after its inventor. Drummond doubtless saved thousands from an agonizing death, although not even he could prevent another four thousand from expiring during June. In total, almost fourteen thousand Belsen inmates died after the Allied liberation.

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