In the 1920s, one pediatrician ran an “orphanage” like no other. It’s single purpose was a detailed, long-running, and bizarre experiment. Let babies figure out what they wanted to eat.
Through much of the 1920s, Chicago was host to an experiment on children that is still being discussed today. At the time many women, especially widows, didn’t have enough food to feed their children. In desperation, they enrolled them in a housing and feeding program conducted by Clara Davis, a Canadian pediatrician. Her program was only open to babies that had just been weaned, and had had no exposure to food of any kind. The kids were given a decent place to sleep at night, and were cared for in a normal, if regimented, facility during the day. The only weird time was meals.
At meal times, the kids were brought into a room where nurses sat in a chair and observed them. Each child was presented with a selection of foods, each one on a plate, a couple of glasses of milk, and some spoons. The children, far too young to understand anything, sometimes gnawed on the spoons and plates before they worked out what they could eat.
What was on offer was a selection of 34 healthy foods. The kids got a choice of water, sweet milk, sour (lactic) milk, and orange juice. They got a selection of vegetables, like beets, peas, carrots, and spinach. They got their choice of cereals like barley meal, corn meal, and “ry-crisp.” And they got proteins, including organ meats, chicken and beef flesh, bone marrow, and fish. They were free to pick and choice at every meal, and the nurses recorded what they ate, left, and spilled. Some kids left the study relatively quickly as their parents’ fortunes improved or they moved in with other couples. Some were in for multiple years. One boy ended up having every meal for four-and-a-half years recorded.
Fifteen children were in the study. As a group, there were certain favorite foods. Davis recorded that the kids loved bone marrow and quite liked brains. They weren’t fans of any vegetables or of the pineapple. Within those limits, though, each kid chose a different diet, and despite their dislike of greens, every kid grew well and stayed healthy as long as they were in the study.
Today, that’s not a surprise. The kids got healthy foods and ate as much as they wanted to. By the time Davis started giving lectures on her results in the 1930s, “Results of Self-Selection of Diets by Young Children,” was a major departure from the norm. Ideal parenting was a very “in” concept, and various doctors had books out with specific diet plans. From the cradle, each kid was supposed to eat a certain food, and a specific amount of it at each meal. Sometimes it got out of hand. One woman recalled reading child-raising advice books from her youth that specified formula amounts to the quarter-of-an-ounce. If children didn’t want oatmeal for breakfast every day, some doctors advised parents to starve them on tiny meals until they would eat what they were given. This showed that babies would thrive even if they were allowed to follow their own tastes, provided they were given healthy foods.
Davis’ experiment is still being discussed in both scientific and popular literature. Her study had its problems—including the fact that the amount of data she said she collected varied considerably, and the fact that at the time any kind of nutrition was poorly-understood. (Multiple vitamins hadn’t even been discovered yet.) She did, however, demonstrate that many different diets could produce equally healthy children, and that kids, when given healthy food, won’t eat themselves to death.