From 1906 to 1940, millions of Americans in the South were afflicted with pellagra, a nutrient-deficiency disorder with a long list of symptoms, the final of which, after being untreated for up to about five years, is death. Pellagra can be caused by a lack of niacin (vitamin B3) in a diet or the body’s inability to absorb niacin properly because of underlying diseases or a poor diet in addition to addictions such as prolonged alcoholism. Those affected would suffer from debilitating weakness, prevalent skin lesions, rashes, diarrhea, hair loss, intolerance to sunlight (to both eyes and skin), poor concentration, and eventually a weakened and enlarged heart, anxiety, depression, and dementia. Symptoms, particularly the overwhelming skin lesions, would typically spike during the warm months, when more time was spent outside. Any skin exposed to the sun, especially faces and hands, would eventually become covered in spots, blisters, lesions, and bleed. Because of this, some thought that pellagra was a form of leprosy until more was learned about the disorder.
The three food staples in the South at this time were cornmeal, molasses, and fatback pork, none of which supply a wide range of nutritional value. At this time in the South, it’s estimated now that over 3 million Americans were affected by this disorder alone, resulting in over 100,000 deaths. The cause was at the time unknown, and many speculated that it could be spread through mosquito bites or that because of corn being a staple in most diets of those afflicted that the disorder was spread through the consumption of corn that was infected by an unknown germ or toxin, etc.
Neither hypotheses were correct, but the second was at least moving in the right direction, in a way. Many diets at this time, especially in the South, were very limited, and a high percentage of southerners were malnourished. Those that relied heavily on corn were more likely to develop the disorder because if corn is not treated with lime, an alkalizing agent, it is a poor source of niacin and other nutrients correlated with the disorder. We’ve always heard growing up how little nutrition corn has, right? Ultimately, this is why.
Native South Americans, especially, relied on maize in their diets and they developed the technique of adding lime to corn in the cooking process (which actually makes corn into hominy) to prevent the development of pellagra and to aid in digestion. Once the cause was discovered, treatment and alteration to diets were implemented, and today, cases of pellagra are rare in the United States, though it is still common in Africa, China, and Indonesia, especially among poverty-stricken populations and the homeless.
Also prevalent at this time were diseases such as yellow fever, malaria, both transmitted through mosquito bites, and hookworm, which we might today associate with dogs. Because of all of these misunderstood common diseases and disorders affecting so many lives, men, women and children alike, shaping the southerners’ day-to-day lives, many northerners looked at the sickly southern population and deemed them lazy, a scourge on society, and overall, inferior. This was very poor judgement on the northerners’ part. But then, judgement usually is poor. What does one person know about another? But overall, the South had a terrible time of it those forty or so years. If droughts, loss of income, deadly tornadoes, floods, etc. were not enough, they were hurting from the inside out.