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The blues and pellagra: a public health detective story

BMJ 1999; 319 doi: (Published 30 October 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:1209
  1. John Middleton, director of pubic health (
  1. Sandwell Health Authority

    Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee made popular the blues song, “I don't want no cornbread, meat and black molasses.” Sonny learnt the song as prison “holler.” The song arose from one of the great, but little celebrated public health detective stories.

    Over time people began to relapse from the regimen

    Joseph Goldberger, an epidemiologist with the American public health service in the early part of the century, was assigned to investigate the fearful prevalence of pellagra among poor black people in the deep south. Pellagra killed 7000 people every year; 50 000 were affected by it. The disease is characterised by dermatitis, diarrhoea, and dementia. Popular wisdom said that this was an infectious disease, promulgated in poverty and poor hygiene.

    Goldberger became convinced that pellagra was caused by dietary deficiency He persuaded 16 other members of the American public health service to join him and his wife as …

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