Obituary: Henry Scholberg knew hunger and saw the world

  • Article by: JACKIE CROSBY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 11, 2012 - 10:07 PM

Henry Scholberg and wife, Phyllis.

Henry Scholberg starved himself for the good of science. He was 25 years old, a pacifist and a conscientious objector during World War II when he signed up as a test subject for a pioneering University of Minnesota study in November 1944. He wanted to serve his country, but not with a gun.

Funded by the U.S. War Department, scientists were researching how to help people recover from malnourishment. In the process, researchers also gained groundbreaking insight into what happens to the mind and body when people are deprived of food.

"It was a significant event in his life," said his daughter, Naomi Jones, of Columbia Heights. "He was proud of that. Proud of that contribution."

Scholberg died Aug. 4, six years after a bicycle accident caused severe head injuries. He was 91.

Scholberg was one of 36 men who volunteered as guinea pigs for the yearlong hunger study, which was led by Ancel Keys. All but four made it to the end: Two cheated and sneaked in food, another got tuberculosis and a fourth chopped off three fingers in hopes of getting kicked out of the study.

As Scholberg's weight dropped from 145 pounds to 117, he sat on towels to cushion his hip bones. As a result of the experience, he always cleaned his plate, he said.

It was the first -- and perhaps only -- experiment conducted on starvation, coming at a time when no medical ethics standards existed for human experimentation, Todd Tucker, author of "The Great Starvation Experiment," said in a 2006 interview with the Star Tribune. The research is still used today.

Scholberg was born in India as the son of American Methodist missionaries and didn't move to the United States permanently until after high school. He considered English his second language.

In the last year of his life, nursing home aides from Nepal spoke to him in Hindi, bringing him "great comfort," said his wife of 61 years, Phyllis.

The Scholbergs traveled to more than 40 countries, often with their three children. The family lived in India in 1964 and 1976, and had two lengthy stays in Paris in 1967 and 1969, where Henry made use of his fluent French. They spent a summer at a hotel overlooking London's Trafalgar Square in 1965 and sailed home on the Queen Mary.

"We rode camels to the pyramids and elephants in India ... we floated in the Dead Sea," Phyllis said. "If you can point, smile and cry, you can get around the world."

In 1961, Scholberg became the curator and librarian of the U's Ames Library of South Asia when businessman Charles Ames' personal collection had outgrown his carriage house and other outbuildings. Ames was an early leader of West Publishing and a founding father of the Science Museum of Minnesota.

Scholberg ran the library until he retired in 1986, writing and editing a number of books, journals and papers that he presented at international conferences.

He also is survived by sister Helen Ammons of San Francisco; sons Andrew Scholberg of Chicago and Daniel Scholberg of Longview, Wash., and foster daughter, Hena Dutta of Calcutta.

Services have been held.

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335

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