The Dutch Hunger Winter

The best data that we have on the effects of star­va­tion dur­ing preg­nan­cy came about as the result of a war crime. In retal­i­a­tion for a rail­road strike that under­mined the Ger­man military’s abil­i­ty to resist the advanc­ing Allied forces, the Ger­mans cut off food sup­plies to the still-occu­pied west­ern part of the Nether­lands in Octo­ber of 1944. Thus began a famine that last­ed until May of 1945. This appalling, crim­i­nal star­va­tion of a civil­ian pop­u­la­tion caused near­ly 20,000 excess deaths, main­ly in elder­ly men. It also had ter­ri­ble effects on the sur­vivors, includ­ing preg­nant women and their babies. The effects of the Dutch Hunger Win­ter on sur­vivors are still being stud­ied today.

From a sci­en­tif­ic stand­point, the data from the Dutch Hunger Win­ter are par­tic­u­lar­ly valu­able. Here was a pop­u­la­tion that went from being well-fed to being bad­ly starved and then went back to being well-fed. The pre­cise dates of the food depri­va­tion were known and could be cor­re­lat­ed with birth records. After the war, sci­en­tists stud­ied fam­i­lies that had been exposed to the famine. They paid par­tic­u­lar atten­tion to peo­ple who had been in their mother’s womb dur­ing the famine.

The main thing that we’ve learned from the Dutch Hunger Win­ter is that star­va­tion is bad, espe­cial­ly for preg­nant women. The next time you hear of some­one advo­cat­ing some pol­i­cy that would end up starv­ing a civil­ian pop­u­la­tion, do what­ev­er you can to pre­vent or stop it.

The oth­er valu­able les­son learned from the Dutch Hunger Win­ter was the cause of celi­ac dis­ease. When wheat became scarce and peo­ple had to sub­sist on oth­er foods, such as tulip bulbs, chil­dren with celi­ac dis­ease improved dra­mat­i­cal­ly. Cur­rent­ly, a diet that is free of wheat, rye, and bar­ley is the stan­dard way to man­age celi­ac dis­ease.

Movie star Audrey Hep­burn, who sur­vived the Dutch Hunger Win­ter, served as Good­will Ambas­sador for the Unit­ed Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) from 1988 to the end of her life.

Pho­to by Eliza­Pey­ton

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