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Fermenting their way to survival: botanists, medics and internment camp nutrition

James Wearn & Claire Frankland
28 July 2014

Kew botanist/historian James Wearn and London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine assistant archivist Claire Frankland reveal how botanists and medics used their knowledge of local plants to save lives in internment camps during the Second World War.

Vitamins are an essential component of our diet and we take them for granted.  But what would you do if faced with a deficiency so severe that you could not stave off disease?  The answer: make your own – not only for yourself but enough to help your 2,500 comrades!  This is the story of the ‘yeast makers’.

A quest for survival

Day-to-day survival in a prisoner-of-war (PoW) / internment camp in the tropics was hard enough during the Second World War, but the efforts of a few men, who not only survived but used their pre-war scientific training to enhance the lives of those around them, greatly surpassed any expectations. Our research has brought together the parallel activities of two different professional groups within different camps across eastern Asia.

Wartime reports held in the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine Archive show that shortages of nutrients were very erratic, depending on quantities and types of food available, and reflective of the progression of the war. Often, only half of the recommended daily intake of calories was available and vitamins were woefully lacking in basic rations. For example, in 1942, there were on average 2,650 internees at the Stanley Internment Camp, Hong Kong. During June alone, 215 cases of Beriberi (a disease resulting from a lack of Vitamin B1) were reported, and almost a third of internees showed some form of deficiency manifestation. When talking to his men within the Tandjong Priok Camp, Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) officer Colonel Macey said they “should endeavour by all means to keep reasonably well, because of the difficulties and convalescence from sickness”. However, such data demonstrates that this was a considerable struggle.

The 'Yeast makers'

British ‘Camp Nutrition Officer’ Dr Dean Smith and his semi-formalised set of helpers were not going to allow this to continue, and two men were given the title ‘Yeast maker’. There were also designated gardeners, toiling to increase crop production. A fascinating typed yeast recipe sheet survives within LSHTM’s Archive (Nutrition 11/06, box 2):

Photo of ‘Prophylactic Yeast for 2500 Persons’ recipe sheet, courtesy of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine Archive

Just across the water in Indonesia, British botanist turned Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve officer Lesley Audus (1911-2011) and Dutch botanist Johan ten Houten (1911-1993) turned their knowledge of plants and fungi into life-saving remedies in a similar way to the medics at Stanley. Having escaped from Singapore, Audus was captured in Java in March 1942, while ten Houten was captured in the nearby Molucca Islands. During their time in PoW camps, both men devised ways of making yeast (a rich source of B-vitamins) from raw plant materials available to them. Audus’ remarkable ventures, and teamwork with the largely Dutch PoWs in eastern Indonesia, are chronicled in the book Spice Island Slaves (Audus, 1996). A copy of this scarce, out-of-print narrative is held in Kew’s Library.

Photo of the front cover of Lesley Audus book Spice Island Slaves

Alternative vitamin sources

Whilst a PoW in Jaarmarkt Camp at Surubaya, Java, Audus was able to produce yeast from maize grains by scraping together makeshift apparatus within the camp. This alone was an achievement, but when transferred to a camp on Haruku Island, he found there was no maize available, and had to use his ingenuity to find an alternative. Isolation of a fungus and fermentation of soya beans provided vitamins and an easily digestible protein source on a scale large enough to supplement PoW diets. Their success is measureable by the death rate, which dropped from “334 in five months to just 52 in the last nine months before liberation” (Chaloner & Bentley, 2012). Both men survived to become respected professors of plant physiology and plant pathology respectively. 

Our Archive and Library collections help to keep alive the outstanding achievements of these few remarkable men who used their scientific skills against all odds.

- James & Claire -

This blog is in collaboration with the London School of Hygiene Tropical Medicine’s current exhibition: ‘Improving Health in Wartime’.


References

  • Audus, L.J. (1996) Spice island slaves: a history of Japanese prisoner-of-war camps in Eastern Indonesia May 1943 – August 1945. Alma Publishers, Richmond, UK.
  • Chaloner, B. & Bentley, L. (2012) Obituary. Professor Leslie Audus. The Linnean 28: 50-53.

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