Asheville Archives: Sugar-free theory for curing polio elicits harsh criticism, 1948

PUT DOWN THAT CAKE: In 1948, as a polio outbreak continued to spread in Buncombe County, one local nutritionist urged residents to give up sugar and starches as a way to combat the virus. Photo courtesy of Mani Dreyfuss

In August 1948, amid a citywide shutdown due to a polio outbreak, Dr. Benjamin P. Sandler made a name for himself. A staff member of the VA Hospital at Oteen  (today’s Charles George VA Medical Center), Sandler insisted that diet alone could prevent a person from contracting the virus.

“The crisis is here and hours have become precious,” Sandler told The Asheville Citizen on Aug. 5. “I have been impelled to bring this directly to the newspapers because of my profound conviction that, through community cooperation and general acceptance of a diet low in sugars and starches, this epidemic can be got under control in about two weeks time.”

Sandler’s theory stemmed from his 1938 research with rabbits. At the time, the scientific community thought the creatures were immune to the virus. But according to the Aug. 5, 1948, edition of The Asheville Citizen, Sandler infected a number of these animals by lowering their blood sugar levels.

In the following day’s paper, The Asheville Citizen presented Sandler’s theory to Dr. Roy Norton, state health officer, who was visiting Asheville to assess the city’s current health crisis. While Norton said he could not reject Sandler’s claims, he noted that he could not endorse them either without additional research.

Not everyone was as diplomatic. On Aug. 8, 1948, The Asheville Citizen reported that Dr. James H. Cherry, president of the Buncombe County Medical Society and the chief of staff of the Asheville Orthopedic Home, called Sandler’s theory “ridiculous.” Cherry’s criticism, the paper continued, was part of an official statement made on behalf of both organizations the doctor represented.

“We feel Dr. Sandler’s theory is absolutely without foundation,” Cherry continued. “We do not feel that reducing the intake of soft drinks, pastries, and other sweets has been proved to have any effect on the immunity of the human body against polio.”

In an Aug. 11 letter to the editor, Sandler rebuked Cherry’s comments, writing:

“In the history of science and medicine many discoveries were so new and radical when first introduced, that antagonists, for reasons of their own, ridiculed both the ideas and the men who produced them. In the Dark Ages, the discoverers were burned at the stake, or put in chains, or made to recant. Mankind has advanced somewhat and today the discoverer is merely ridiculed. Our age isn’t dark, it’s just still dim.”

Sandler went on to write that if Cherry “had taken pains to read my scientific papers and the papers of others who support me, he would not have made such rash remarks.”

Unfortunately for Sandler, other medical professionals who had reviewed his research agreed with Cherry, albeit in far kinder terms. In the Aug. 15, 1948, Sunday edition of the Asheville Citizen-Times, The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis provided background on Sandler’s research. According to the organization, the majority of the rabbits Sandler worked with did not contract polio, and those that did exhibited symptoms not exclusive to the virus.

The foundation also reported that the University of Michigan had attempted to duplicate Sandler’s findings in 1941, but without success. “So far as we are aware there are no published data from any other source that would be regarded as convincing evidence in his support,” the foundation concluded.

Despite all of this, Sandler appears to have been unfazed. In 1951, the Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research published his book Diet Prevents Polio. And while there are no known reviews of the work, Sandler’s ideas and contributions made a lasting impression.

“Dr. Benjamin P. Sandler, who specialized in preventive nutrition, died Friday in Asheville, N.C., after a long illness,”  The New York Times reported on May 23, 1979. “He was 77 years old and a resident of Asheville.”

The Times continued:

“Dr. Sandler gained attention in the 1940’s when he began to publish his controversial theories linking refined sugars and starches to the development of diseases, specifically tuberculosis, polio and heart disease. He believed that a diet low in sugars and starches and high in proteins would decrease the body’s susceptibility to disease. Dr. Sandler wrote two books developing his theories, ‘Diet Prevents Polio,’ and ‘How to Prevent Heart Attacks.’ He also wrote numerous articles on nutrition, some of which appeared in the diet and health magazine, Prevention.”

Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series exploring the 1948 polio outbreak. Previous articles can be found at avl.mx/760, avl.mx/77k and avl.mx/79e. Punctuation and spelling are preserved from the original documents.

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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