Sir Robert McCarrison
IN NOVEMBER, 1921, a great English physician, Sir Robert McCarrison, visited ourcountry at the invitation of the University of Pittsburgh to deliver the sixth MellonLecture before the Society for Biological Research. The subject of his paper was"Faulty Food in Relation to Gastro-Intestinal Disorders," and its salientpoints centered on the marvelous health and robustness of the Hunzas, who dwell onthe northwestern border of India. This region is located where Afghanistan, Chinaand Russia converge, with Tibet 300 to 1,000 miles to the east.
PLATE 1: MAP OF INDIA SHOWING HUNZA
The sturdy, mountaineer Hunzas are a light-complexioned race of people, much fairerof skin than the natives of the northern plains of India. They claim descent fromthree soldiers of Alexander the Great who lost their way in one of the precipitousgorges of the Himalayas. They always refer to themselves as Hunzukuts and to theirland as Hunza, but writers in this country insist on calling them Hunzas. This islike calling Englishmen "Englands" and calling me a "U.S.A'"Nevertheless, that is the usage that has developed. Lt. Colonel Lorimer, who willbe mentioned later, suggests the term Hunzei.
The Hunza background is one of huge glaciers and towering mountains, below whichare ice-fields, boulder-strewn torrents and frozen streams. The lower levels aretransformed into verdant gardens in summertime. Narrow roads cling to the crumblingsides of forbidding precipices, which present sheer drops of thousands of feet, withmany spots subject to dangerously recurrent bombardments of rock fragments from overhangingmasses.
The Hunzas live on a seven-mile line at an elevation of five or six hundred feetfrom the bottom of a deep cleft between two towering mountain ranges. Some of theglaciers in this section of the world are among the largest known outside the Arcticregion. The average height of these mountain ranges is 20,000 feet, with some peaks,such as Rakaposhi, soaring as high as 25,000. This mighty, snow-clad mountain dominatesthe entire region. Its glistening ramparts are visible from Baltit, the capital ofHunza, downwards on the Hunza side of the river. A spectacle of breath-taking beauty,the main peak rears itself in a mass of gray rock too steep to hold snow and is usuallyscarfed by clouds.
The Hunza gorge is a remote country rarely penetrated by travelers. Because of thescarcity of food, supplies and transport, Government permission is requisite to travelto Gilgit and Hunza. To the general public, this region is closed. On rare occasions,daring travelers return with glowing tales of the charm and buoyant health of thispeople.
In summer or winter, one is never out of sight of snow. There are freezing winterswhich keep the entire population more or less housebound for several months. In summerthe mercury may climb to 95 degrees in the shade. One explorer remarked that up inthe mountains "one side of one's person may be in danger of frost- bite, whileon the other side one- might easily get sunstroke."
Colonel Lorimer, who spent several years in Hunza, wrote me that when he was in Aliabadhe discovered that no single physical aspect of Hunza was permanent. For months inthe winter the landscape is all one drab, monotonous, monochromatic stretch. Houses,apricot trees, fields, revesting walls, all are of a uniformly dingy and depressinggray. And to intensify such utter colorlessness there are low-hanging, motionlessclouds. The whole picture is dreary, uninspiring, almost lifeless.
Then in summer the miraculous awakening takes place. Life returns and color is rebornin the rich greens and yellows of the crops and trees. This metamorphosis occursin all the village oases of this mountain country, from Ladakh to Chitral. But thesouthern Hunza oasis is probably larger and certainly more picturesquely framed thanany other in Gilgit Agency. It is best seen in its entire sweep from Nagyr acrossthe river.
The little patch of Hunza is most interesting in spring before the green has appeared;but when the whole of it is studded with the sparkling blossoms of the apricot trees,pastel-tinted in pink and white, with every other growing thing still inert despitethe radiance of bright sunshine and pure blue sky, it is an idyllic vision of delight.The blossoms mass in twinkling and riotous profusion, flooding the stage with theirdazzling beauty.
In its green phase, the attraction of the oasis lies in the restful, unglitteringemerald of its trees and crops, a shield against the stark, harsh glare of the surroundingcountry, stripped and bathed by fierce sunlight. But very soon the crops soften toyellow and the contrast becomes less striking.
The Hunza crops are, however, deceptively magnified by the sheer majesty of theirgrandiose setting. At a distance they are quite as impressive as their spectacularbackground; seen at close range most of them, the wheat and barley especially, dwindleto mediocrity. Neither is the charm of this enchanting paradise of Southern Hunzadue to any specific grace or particular distinction, but rather to its comparativespaciousness, its variety of surface detail, its tidiness, and most of all to itslarge-scale setting.
Colonel Lorimer, Sir Robert McCarrison, in fact all travelers who visited the Hunza-land,have been particularly impressed by its atmosphere of peace and by the splendid healthand amiability of its people.
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Sir Robert McCarrison first attracted attention when he was but twenty- five yearsold by discovering that three-day fever, which was so widely prevalent in India,was caused by the bite of the sand-fly. He followed this scientific disclosure withnine years of medical work in the political province called the Gilgit Agency, whichconsisted of six separate districts, including the villages of the Hunzas. In thissection of India, goitre and cretinism were alarmingly rampant, but the Hunzas werestrangely immune. McCarrison discovered that goitre could be acquired by the drinkingof polluted water. To prove it, he experimentally subjected himself and fifteen volunteersto the disease and then effected a cure by removing the cause.
The Hunzas, as well as other peoples in that region of the world, seem to sufferfrom eye disorders that are due to the lack of stoves and chimneys. A fire is madein the middle of the floor and the smoke escapes from a small hole in the roof. Thegathering smudge in the air is a constant irritant to their eyes.
McCarrison was otherwise amazed at the health and immunity record of the Hunzas,who, though surrounded on all sides by peoples afflicted with all kinds of degenerativeand pestilential diseases, still did not contract any of them. In his Mellon Lecturehe said, "They (the Hunzas) are unusually fertile and long-lived, and endowedwith nervous systems of notable stability. Their longevity and fertility were, inthe case of one of them, matters of such concern to the ruling chief that he tookme to task for what he considered to be my ridiculous eagerness to prolong the livesof the ancients of his people, among whom were many of my patients. The operationfor senile cataract appeared to him a waste of my economic opportunities, and hetentatively suggested instead the introduction of some form of lethal chamber, designedto remove from his realms those who by reason of their age and infirmity were nolonger of use to the community."
So vibrant was the health of those Hunzas with whom McCarrison came into contactthat he reported never having seen a case of asthenic dyspepsia, or gastric or duodenalulcer, of appendicitis, mucous colitis or cancer. Cases of oversensitivity of theabdomen to nerve impressions, fatigue, anxiety or cold were completely unknown. Theprime physiological purpose of the abdomen, as related to the sensation of hunger,constituted their only consciousness of this part of their anatomy. McCarrison concludedthis part of his lecture by stating, "Indeed, their buoyant abdominal healthhas, since my return to the West, provided a remarkable contrast with the dyspepticand colonic lamentations of our highly civilized communities."
Those pregnant words should have electrified the professional audience before whichhe pronounced them. The learned medicos should have been instantly galvanized intoa program of action to examine the ominous significance of those statements that,unfortunately, were being spoken in simple words by this great man. Without thinkingof applying his disclosures to their own local conditions, however, the medical savantsmerely nodded their heads sagely and dispersed, just as they had gone away from othermeetings on other occasions, entertained and mentally stimulated with merely anotherbit added to their store of over- generalized medical wisdom.
Twenty-five years have elapsed since that lecture was delivered in smoky Pittsburgh,but as yet no medical expedition has set forth to ascertain the cause of the Hunzas'dynamic health. It is rather ironic that Pittsburgh, a city in the highest bracketsof cancer deaths, should have been chosen for this distinguished lecture, thoughit is not to the credit of the physicians who convened there that they did not availthemselves of this unequalled opportunity to delve into the causes of the latent,insidious ill health of their day.
PLATE 2: RAKAPOSHI FROM ALIBAD
Travelers who have lived and worked with the Hunzas are unanimous in praising theirgeneral charm, intelligence, and physical stamina. The Royal Geographical Societyin a report in June 1928, Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, Vol.LXXI, No. 6, said: "The Hunza men were with us two months, continuously on themove, over what is probably some of the worst country in the world for laden men.Always ready to turn their hand to anything, they were the most cheerful and willingset of men with whom we have ever traveled."
General Bruce, who climbed Mount Everest, said, that as slab-climbers the Hunzaswere incomparable, besides being "most charming and perfectly companionable."One writer, R. C. F. Schomberg, commented, "It is quite the usual thing fora Hunza man to walk sixty miles at one stretch, up and down the face of precipicesto do his business and return direct." This author passed through the Hunzacountry many times. He describes how his Hunza servant went after a stolen horse"and kept up the pursuit in drenching rain over mountains for nearly two dayswith bare feet." Schomberg also tells of seeing a Hunza in mid-winter make twoholes in an icepond, repeatedly dive into one and come out at the other, with asmuch unconcern as a polar bear.
Sir Aurel Stein records a trip of 200 miles made on foot by a Hunza messenger, ajourney that imposed the obstacle of crossing a mountain as high as Mont Blanc. Thetrip was accomplished in seven days and the messenger returned fresh looking anduntired, as if it had been a common, everyday occurrence. The word "tired"does not seem to exist in their lexicon. In the Journal of the Royal Society ofArts for January 2, 1925, Sir Robert McCarrison wrote: "The powers of enduranceof these people are extraordinary; to see a man of this race throw off his scantygarments, revealing a figure which would delight the eye of a Rodin, and plunge intoa glacier-fed river in the middle of the winter, as easily as most of us would takea tepid bath, is to realize that perfection of physique and great physical enduranceare attainable on the simplest of foods, provided these be of the right kind."
But McCarrison did not depend on the quality of foods as the sole factor in the Hunzahealth equation. He postulated three other reasons in explanation of their fabuloushealth. I think it both interesting and advisable to give them all in his own words.He said:
" (1) Infants are reared as Nature intended them to be reared--at the breast.If this source of nourishment fails, they die; and at least they are spared the futuregastro-intestinal miseries which so often have their origin in the first bottle.
" (2) The people live on the unsophisticated foods of Nature: milk, eggs, grains,fruits and vegetables. I don't suppose that one in every thousand of them has everseen a tinned salmon, a chocolate or a patent infant food, nor that as much sugaris imported into their country in a year as is used in a moderately sized hotel ofthis city in a single day.
" (3) Their religion prohibits alcohol, and although they do not always leadin this respect a strictly religious life, nevertheless they are eminently a teetotallingrace.
" (4) Their manner of life requires the vigorous exercise of their bodies."
Item (1), breast nursing, is discussed elsewhere in this book. With regard to items(3) and (4), temperance and physical exercise, there is no question about their fundamentalimportance, but they aren't one-tenth as significant as number two: namely, livingon the unsophisticated foods of Nature. If you eat artificial foods that are deficientin essential nutritional elements, you can exercise from morning till night and stillwon't become a healthy physical specimen. You can be a teetotaler, a non-smoker anda non- drinker of coffee, but unless there is a foundation of vital food, your chanceof attaining optimum health is greatly reduced. Colonel Lorimer says that the Hunzasoccasionally drink a little wine at festivals. Alcohol is not forbidden to MaulaiMohammedans, but in Hunza the distilling of alcohol has been prohibited in recentyears, since McCarrison's time. So it is obvious that the quantity they drink ongala occasions is negligible.
McCarrison places the factor of vital food before all others when he says in hisbook Nutrition and National Health: "I know of nothing so potent in maintaininggood health in laboratory animals as perfectly constituted food: I know of nothingso potent in producing ill health as improperly constituted food. This, too, is theexperience of stockbreeders. Is man an exception to a rule so universally applicableto the higher animals?" To develop this point he embarked on an ingenious seriesof experiments with albino rats at Coonoor in 1927. At this time he was directorof Nutrition Research for the entire country of India, an assignment which gave himworld-wide recognition as an authority on nutrition.
He decided to find out if rats could be endowed with health equal to that enjoyedby the Hunzas through feeding the rodents on a similar diet. One group was, consequently,fed the diet upon which the Hunzukuts and other healthy peoples of Northern India,such as the Sikhs, Pathans and Mahrattas, subsist. On the other hand, another groupof rats were fed the poor diet of the Southern India rice-eaters, the Bengali andMadrassi. In his aforementioned book, McCarrison referred to a nutritional authority,McCay, who twenty-five years before had written "As we pass from the Northwestregion of the Punjab down the Gangetic Plain to the coast of Bengal, there is a gradualfall in the stature, body weight, stamina and efficiency of the people. In accordancewith this decline in manly characteristics it is of the utmost significance thatthere is an accompanying gradual fall in the nutritive value of the dietaries."And so McCarrison found it.
A third group of rats was subjected to the diet of the lower classes of England,containing white bread, margarine, sweetened tea, a little boiled milk, cabbage andpotatoes, tinned meats and jam. The results were startling. McCarrison describedthe first group as being hunzarized. "During the past two and a quarter years,"he stated, "there has been no case of illness in this 'universe' of albino rats,no death from natural causes in the adult stock, and but-for a few accidental deaths,no infantile mortality. Both clinically and at post-mortem examination this stockhas been shown to be remarkably free from disease. The Bengali group of rats sufferedfrom a wide variety of diseases which involved every organ of the body such as thenose, eyes, ears, heart, stomach, lungs, bladder, kidneys, intestines, the blood,glands, nerves and reproductive organs. In addition, they suffered from loss of hair,malformed and crooked spines, poor teeth, ulcers, boils and became vicious and irritable."
The "English" rats also developed most of these troubles. They were nervousand apt to bite their attendants; they lived unhappily together and by the sixtiethday of the experiment they began to kill and eat the weaker ones amongst them.
You would think that the demonstration of the fact that the practically completeelimination of disease in an entire group could be effected by the mere eating ofproper foods would create a tremendous stir in medical circles, would crystallizea demand that the mechanism be immediately created for carrying these findings intoactual practice! It didn't even produce a tiny ripple in the pond of medical inertia.The doctor is too much involved in the morasses of disease and physic, to be ableto give much time to the question of health. And the general public either doesn'tgive a hoot or is too poorly organized to demand its right to be shown how to acquirea healthy body. Consequently, except for the occasional and morbid valetudinariansin our midst, chronics obsessed by the drive to describe and compare symptoms evenover dinner-tables, most of us, ostrich-like, ignore the subject of health completely.But it is there and can be disregarded only at an exorbitant eventual cost. Thismyopic attitude tends to encourage procrastination, and then, unfortunately the ambulancehas to make an emergency trip. A friend of mine recently expressed this prevailingattitude of indifference to health by saying, "I'll take care of my cancer andyou take care of yours." In other words, all of us are prone to an epicureanpolicy of enjoying things blithely while we may, heedless of the morrow. As a ladyfacilely said, "I think of health only when I'm sick."