Letter: The strange case of 'Bengal famine gruel'

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Sir: It was with some astonishment that I learnt from Anne Symonds's afterword (Gazette, 23 January) to the obituary of Dame Janet Vaughan that the distinguished doctor claimed that thousands of British prisoners of war returning from the Far East in 1945, and also the victims of the Belsen concentration camp, owe their lives to a simple solution of powdered milk with a few additives prescribed by herself.

I cannot comment on Dame Janet's claim to have achieved such success in the Far East, because I was never in that theatre of war, but as leader of the British Red Cross team in the Belsen horror camp who was responsible for the preparation and distribution of this magical elixir, my recollection is of an operation that was a total failure.

I was told that the recipe for what was then called 'Bengal famine gruel' had been given to Dame Janet by a Professor Meiklejohn, an eminent dietician who had accompanied her during their brief visit. The gruel was a mixture of powdered milk dissolved in boiling water, laced with enormous quantities of white sugar and flour generously donated by the British army from their own supplies. In appearance, the mixture resembled a thick, white soup, its taste, excessively sweet. It was universally rejected.

Those among the pathetic, skeletal inmates who had sufficient strength to talk to us found it strange that we did not understand how a long period of starvation can engender an intense loathing for almost any sweet substance. The universal cry was for vinegar] 'Essig, bitte] Essig - essig]' This astonished all my team. It was suggested to me, many years later, that the pleading for vinegar may have been due to the majority of the camp's victims being Jews from central and Eastern Europe who had been accustomed to a good deal of this acid liquid in their normal diet. We were not able to give them the much-requested vinegar, but we did supply large quantities of hot, unsweetened green tea, which they seemed to regard as an acceptable substitute: the army had uncovered a large local source of this beverage which they 'liberated' on behalf of our patients.

Nevertheless, we tried for several days to persuade all of them of the nutritional value of the gruel and, at nightfall, would leave a full churn in every hut in the hope that they would help themselves and each other. This only resulted in the most active among them lugging the churn out into the darkness and tipping the contents over the ground.

At first light when we re-entered the camp, each hut would be partly encircled by a lake of gleaming, white gruel. The occupants of the huts complained bitterly that the smell made them feel more unwell than the stench of death and excrement in which they had for so long existed.

With the departure of Dame Janet and the professor (they were with us for only a few days and were never seen by any of us to enter the actual horror camp) we stopped our attempt to inflict this concoction upon the many thousands whom we thought had already suffered enough.

Yours faithfully,

ANTHONY ASPINALL

London, SW3

27 January

The writer was with the British Red Cross Society - Order of St John Relief Team 113.

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