Fat Like Us

The real face of diet culture.

My Valentine to the King of Diet Culture

The legacy of Dr. Walter J. Kempner and rise of Duke University Medical Center

On this Valentine's Day, I thought I would write about the man who saved my heart: physically, emotionally, and psychologically—the late Dr. Walter J. Kemper of Duke University Medical Center.

In 1934, Frederic Hanes, chairman of medicine at the new medical school at Duke, set out to make Duke University a world-class medical center.  His first step was to obtain an international faculty.  While Dr. Hanes was trying to get the Medical Center off the ground, Dr. Kempner was at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Cellular Physiology in Berlin-Dahlen, working with Dr. Otto Warburg, the 1931 Nobel laureate in biochemistry.  Dr. Kempner made a name for himself in Europe with his research in diabetes and kidney disease.  Dr. Hanes went to Germany and hired Dr. Kempner as the first salaried member of the Department of Medicine.  Kempner's, responsibilities were teaching and medical research.  Dr. Kempner's conditions were that he have free rein to conduct his research as he saw fit, and that he be allowed three months off each summer to return to Europe.  These unusual conditions attest to Dr. Kempner's many eccentricities and the power of his personalityRumor has it that Dr. Hanes smuggled money into Germany in the gas tank of a car so Kempner could escape before the Second World War.  Duke was hoping that, in Kempner, they were getting a future Nobel prize in medicine recipient; instead, they got the King of Diet Culture.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Wherever Dr. Kempner went there was controversy.  Dr. Kempner never taught a class or attended a meeting while at Duke.  He was demanding, rude, honest, and uncompromising.  In 1939, Dr. Kempner originated the basic rice diet which consisted of nothing but fruit, rice, and sugar.  He treated his very ill patients with a short course of the diet.  In 1942, a major breakthrough occurred by accident.  According to the founding legend of the Rice Diet, recounted by Ricers, doctors, and publications since the 1940s, Dr. Kempner instructed one of his patients to eat rice and fruit for two weeks and return to him for a follow-up treatment.  The patient, a North Carolina farmer's widow, did not understand Dr. Kempner's thick German accent and thought he had said two months instead of the instructed two weeks.  At the end of the two months, the widow returned with dramatic results.  Her disease was gone, her heart size was normal, her blood pressure stabilized, and most importantly to the future of the Rice Diet, she had lost 60 pounds.  While the medical community played down Dr. Kempner's results, the mass media pick up stories of fantastic weight loss and restored health happening in a town down in North Carolina.  Soon, people from all over the world came to Durham. 

I stumbled onto those well-worn steps leading up to the Rice House on August 15, 1988.  I piled everything I owned into my old Toyota Tercel and drove across country from Sacramento, CA to Durham, NC because I heard that weight loss miracles took place on the sacred ground of the Rice House.   When I met Dr. Kempner it was like being granted an audience with the great Oz.  The wizened old man dressed in white pants and a navy blue blazer took my hand in his and said "you have an enlarged heart, a broken heart.  How old were you when you were raped 12 or 14?"  I burst into tears.  How did he know?  I was 14 when I was raped.  I thought I handled it so well; that I had overcome all of that, but the body remembers.  My body remembered.  Dr. Kempner just patted my hand.   Over the next few months through being in a culture of people just like me, and eating rice and fruit, I lost weight, my heart returned to normal size, and the shame I carried around like a millstone around my neck faded away.  Dr. Kempner retired from the Rice House in 1992 in his 90th year.  He died in 1997 in Durham, NC.  

 

 

Jean Anspaugh studies the folklore of dieting. She is the author of Fat Like Us.

more...

Subscribe to Fat Like Us

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?