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Studying the historical role of food in health and in war: a case of undernourishment?
  1. Emily Mayhew
  1. Department of Humanities, Imperial College, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Emily Mayhew, Department of Humanities, Imperial College, London SW7 2AZ, UK; e.mayhew{at}

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It isn't difficult to find books that study the history of food. A quick stop in any bookshop or library will reveal plenty of material, from medieval recipe books to biographies of the great chefs. One can study the Roman diet and try out the recipes, just as one can admire the healthfulness of Second World War rations and have a go at playing housewife in the 1940s. All of this is good, useful stuff. But then step back for a moment. Look at where these volumes are kept. Not in the History section with all the serious books, but in the Cookery section, along with Sport and Leisure. And there's the problem in a nutshell. Food and its history are simply not seen as something quite worthy of intellectual analysis. It's local colour or historical novelty; definitely not to be mixed up with the serious stuff, such as history of society, of sickness and of war.

Yet what could be more serious than this? The history of food is nothing less than a history of human need and human dependency. All human beings are dependent on others for food at some point in their lives. The most obvious phase of dependency is childhood, but it is not the only one. There are times in our adult lives when others provide for us, keep us alive. In these cases we are usually confined in some way. Confinement can be benevolent, when we are ill or injured and are cared for in hospital, or it can be an act of malevolence, when we are captured and imprisoned by an enemy in a time of war. In these contexts of confinement and dependency, food becomes far more than just ingredients in recipes. Above all, food provision represents choices made by those in power about the value and quality of human life. That doesn't mean one should forget about ingredients. In serious analysis, it is not enough to simply say ‘food’ and give no detail. Understanding its components, its quantities, its preparation and its withholding is as essential as understanding government policy and international convention.

So, it seems that in order to produce a serious history of food, we must first make our way to a serious place—context, before subject, is all. Two articles in this month's issue of Medical Humanities do exactly that. Their analyses are located in two very serious spaces of confinement: the hospital (specifically the paediatric ward) and the prisoner of war (PoW) camp. The authority structures in both institutions are explored solely in terms of their ability and commitment in providing food for their dependents. The results of the investigations show that this is not just an appropriate or adequate historiographical and methodological choice by the authors, it is a successful one. The results are rich and compelling in detail as well as being original and stimulating for future research.

In ‘Nutrition in warfare: a retrospective evaluation of undernourishment in RAF prisoners of war during World War II’,1 we see immediately just how useful this approach can be in a variety of historiographical contexts. This is particularly true in the case of histories of PoWs in the Second World War. This field is dominated (and limited) by two narratives: escapes and the horror of imprisonment in Japan. The former is exciting and the latter appalling, but neither is representative of the experience of the vast majority of young men taken prisoner between 1939 and 1945. Furthermore, because of the abominable treatment of PoWs in the Far East, where starvation was the norm, more regular provision of food in European camps is deemed less dramatic and therefore less worthy of study. From the outset, the author of ‘Nutrition in warfare’ takes issue with this approach. He makes clear the important distinction between starvation and undernourishment. He chases down the detail of the PoW diet, its amounts and components (proteins, fats, carbohydrates). From there he is able to draw conclusions about the physical wellbeing of the PoWs, their ability to work and their relationships with their captors. We see a more complex, nuanced reading of the PoW setting; how it was often more fluid than we imagine, with supplementary food provision becoming not only nutritionally valuable but also a kind of currency with the outside world and war.

The authors of ‘Historical and contemporary perspectives on children's diets: is choice always in the patients' best interest?’2 also choose to reject blanket assumptions that 19th century diets in hospitals were inferior to those of today. Their emphasis on dietetic detail and its relation to treatment and recovery draw unexpected conclusions about patient care and also shed light on the elements of authority and confinement practice within the 19th century hospital. There are metanarratives that speak theoretically of discipline and control in the hospitals of the new industrial age, but few are able to draw upon the real analytical power of the detail in this paper. It wasn't just PoW camps where food was withheld if confinees didn't behave themselves.

Both sets of authors have struck out into relatively unexplored territory with their research. The richness and variety of their results mean that their work is provides not only a starting point but also a model for future analysis. They show how ideas about the state, authority, control and discipline can be understood in that most basic of the forms by which we survive as human beings—the provision of food. They show what happens to us when our individuality is compromised by our dependence. Understanding our food is to understand what makes us human. Simple ideas, but full of meaning—and plenty to chew on.


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  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.

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