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“P” is for Pellagra

“P” is for Pellagra. During the first three decades of the twentieth century, pellagra once posed a threat to hundreds of thousands of Southerners. Though death claimed only about three percent of the cases, the ravages of the disease were horrible. Known as the sickness of the four D’s—diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia, and death—its first sign was a reddening of areas commonly exposed to sun. Over time, general malaise became serious depression, and in the worst cases dementia. Pellagra’s root cause was not biological; it was economic. Southerners fell ill because they were poor and ate a diet heavy on salt pork, molasses, grits, and cornmeal—foods lacking in niacin (a B vitamin). In 1925 the discovery of the miraculous curative powers of inexpensive brewer’s yeast led to the eradication of pellagra as a health menace.

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Dr. Walter Edgar has two programs on South Carolina Public Radio: Walter Edgar's Journal, and South Carolina from A to Z. Dr. Edgar received his B.A. degree from Davidson College in 1965 and his Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina in 1969. After two years in the army (including a tour of duty in Vietnam), he returned to USC as a post-doctoral fellow of the National Archives, assigned to the Papers of Henry Laurens.