Quick! Get me a Glass of Glass

We are obsessed with food. Whenever we visit a new place we are always curious to try the cuisine there. Of course before that we do have to post a picture of the food on Instagram or SnapChat. But what would happen if you hated food or the thought of food makes you cringe?

Fredrick Hoelzel was born in 1889. His interest in the process of digestion and food substitutes began in 1907. He was eighteen at the time. It was during that time that he suffered a few episodes of severe stomach aches. Somehow, he convinced himself that the cause of these pains was the food that he ate. So, he decided to starve himself or find alternate sources to fulfil his hunger.

He started trying substances that would curb his hunger and also help him sustain life. But he found it very difficult to find the right item to replace his food. He tried charcoal initially but that wasn’t filling enough for him. Next, he tried sand mixed with salt. He found that it reduced his hunger but the next day he felt like he was passing sandpaper in his stools. Then he tried rounded glass objects, but he passed them out within a couple of hours making him even more hungry.

Finally he tried cotton cut into small pieces. He considered it to be the best among all the items that he tried, and it became a main part of his diet. In the beginning he started by dipping cotton in maple syrup before eating and later in orange juice. But once he was accustomed to it, he began eating it without any additives.

Hoelzel contacted a number of researchers and conveyed to them his theories of digestion but obviously they rebuffed him. I mean, who wouldn’t? He continued his amateur experiments with sawdust, feathers, hair, wool, sponge, rubber, chalk silk, rayon. Finally, he was noticed by a researcher named Carlson who took him under his wing and put him on scientific experiments which would contribute to his research. Hoelzel was not a doctor but contributed to a number of journals like Scienceand the American Journal of Physiology.

There was a theory at the time, that if you fasted for a long enough period, after a while you will lose your feeling of being hungry. Carlson wanted to put this theory to test. So he began his first experiment with Hoelzel in 1917 by putting him on a 15 day fast. There is a photograph of Hoelzel at the beginning of the experiment looking lean and downcast in his underwear. After 15 days he was only skin and bones with his underwear hanging loosely but he looked happier. Hoelzel was happy to continue the experiment but Carlson saw no point in it because even after 15 days Hoelzel’s hunger hadn’t gone away. After eating for the first time in 15 days Hoezel wrote “Food does not taste as good as I anticipated.” In fact, he never enjoyed his food and instead preferred fasting.

In 1924 Hoelzel continued his bizarre eating habits and recording them. He ate a variety of substances and calculated the time required to pass them in his stools. Glass beads came out the fastest in forty hours. He then scooped gravel from the road, ate it and found that it takes much longer i.e. fifty-two hours to come out. Steel ball bearings and silver wires came out in eighty hours clanging into the toilet. Gold pellets were the slowest to pass through the intestines and came out after twenty-two days!

He made these objects his staple diet taking a break only during Christmas where he ate something digestible.

Carlson made Hoelzel a guinea pig for his experiments since he was so enthusiastic about it. He gave him a room to live, which was attached to his lab. He didn’t receive any money for the experiments conducted on him. Hoezel didn’t have much of a life other than in the lab. Once in a while he would go for walks in the park. In scientific publications he described himself as an “Assistant In Physiology” at the University of Chicago. This kind of lifestyle obviously took its toll on him. A reporter who visited Carlson’s lab in 1933 wrote –

 “His hands are like those of an invalid, white, blue linen and bony, his Adam’s apple stands out from his scrawny neck and his skin is colorless except for fine blue lines, especially under his eyes”

In 1947 Hoelzel co-authored a paper with Carlson demonstrating that periods of intermittent fasting appeared to prolong the life span of rats. In 1954, he wrote that overeating was the number one problem of our civilization. Thanks to his ambiguous contribution in science, he became known in his times as “The Human Billy Goat”:

Hoelzel died in 1963 at the age of seventy-three.

Reference – The Electrified Sheep by Alex Boese

This post is a part of the #AToZChallenge-2018My theme for this month is DOCTORS & SCIENTISTS WHO SELF EXPERIMENTED. You can read all other posts here


  1. I am not sure whether to go, “WOW!”, or “UGHHH!” 😀
    This is one of the most interesting stories — real-life stories — I have read in ages!
    Thank you, Ryan, for the information as well as for the entertainment! 🙂

Leave a Reply