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The year was 1945, and 2-year-old Lindy Thomson had been given a few weeks to live. She suffered from diarrhea and projectile vomiting, and she was so thin and weak, she could no longer walk. Her parents had taken her from doctor to doctor. Finally, Dr. Douglas Arnold in Buffalo, N.Y., offered a most unusual prescription: She was to eat bananas.
"At least seven bananas a day," recalls the patient, who now goes by her married name, Lindy Redmond.
"To whom it may concern," the doctor wrote on a prescription pad that Lindy still has as a keepsake. Lindy Thomson "has celiac disease (a nutritional disorder)."
Arnold recommended that Lindy move to the clean mountain air in California and follow a high-calorie, banana-based diet invented by Dr. Sidney Haas in 1924. The diet forbade starches but included numerous daily bananas, along with milk, cottage cheese, meat and vegetables. It was so effective in patients with celiac disease that in the 1930s, the University of Maryland endorsed the diet, according to pediatric gastroenterologist Alessio Fasano, chair of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a specialist in celiac disease.
"At that time, around 30 percent of children with celiac died. Parents were instructed to drop their children off at the hospital for six months," says Fasano. If the children survived and thrived on the banana-based diet, the parents could then "pick them up and take them home."
We now know that celiac is an autoimmune disorder that strikes genetically predisposed people. It's triggered by gluten in grains such as wheat, barley and rye. In the presence of gluten, the immune system of people with celiac disease attacks the small intestine, damaging the precious, fingerlike projections called villi that line it. This damage can lead to malnutrition, as well as a panoply of problems — from gas and bloating to fatigue, anemia, osteoporosis and an increased risk of certain cancers. The disease is estimated to affect 1 in 100 people worldwide.
But in 1924, decades before gluten was discovered to be the culprit, celiac disease was a black box of mystery.
"The diet was unintentionally gluten-free and also incredibly high in calories," explains Tricia Thompson, founder of Gluten Free Watchdog. "It is incredible what the mothers and fathers did, going down to the docks to meet the ships and buy multiple bananas hanging on branches. So many people were so very grateful to him," she says of Haas. "He saved their lives."
Haas arrived at his banana diet through an honest error — one that, unfortunately, had serious repercussions for people with celiac disease. In his 1924 paper, he wrote of a town in Puerto Rico where "dwellers who eat much bread suffer from [celiac] sprue while the farmers who live largely on bananas never."
Haas skipped over the role of wheat and focused instead on the exotic bananas, which he thought held curative powers. (Not unlike the esteem in which exotic "superfruits" such as mangosteen and acai berry are held today.) "Dr. Haas' approach," says Fasano, "was based on the fact that bananas had the best characteristics to counterbalance the purging diarrhea that was the typical clinical presentation of celiac disease at that time."
Parents and children came to Haas from all over the U.S. He eventually treated over 600 people who had celiac disease. One of his "banana babies" wrote down her memories for Gluten Free Watchdog's site, recalling how Haas' "office was filled with children of all ages and many I remember looked like they came from the concentration camps ... with their sunken eyes and swollen stomachs." Once on the diet, the children recovered.
For a time, belief in the healing properties of the banana was widespread and extended beyond celiac disease. Mothers were told to feed their infants bananas starting at 4 weeks. And at Johns Hopkins University, a doctor named George Harrop tried a version of the banana diet on people with diabetes and found that it helped them lose weight.
"The public went bananas," says Alan Levinovitz, a religion professor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., and author of The Gluten Lie: And Other Myths About What You Eat.
But Haas' honest error led to serious consequences. As the children recovered, wheat was reintroduced.
"All my life I have told doctors I had celiac as a child," says Lindy Redmond, "and that I grew out of it. And all my life I have eaten wheat." It was only when she was 66 that her doctor gave her a test and took seven intestinal biopsies.
"My intestine was very damaged," she reports. "My doctor said she didn't know if it would ever recover."
It was then that Redmond wondered about the possible connection between lifelong, untreated celiac disease and her two miscarriages, frequent bouts of colds and bronchitis, and interminable constipation. Now 74 and off gluten, Redmond says the colds and constipation are gone.
It was a Dutch pediatrician, Willem Karel Dicke, who first realized that wheat might be linked to celiac disease. He noticed that in the last few years of World War II, when bread was unavailable in the Netherlands, the mortality rate from celiac disease dropped to zero. In 1952, Dicke and his colleagues identified gluten as the trigger for celiac disease, and the gluten-free diet was born.
But Haas railed against the gluten-free diet and went on promoting his banana-based cure, according to Levinovitz.
"Haas saw these miraculous reversals," explains Levinovitz, "and didn't want to give up his status as a trailblazing savior."
Only the banana diet, Haas claimed, could achieve "a cure which is permanent."
As a result, says Levinovitz, celiac disease was taken more seriously in Europe and continued to be "massively underdiagnosed here in the U.S."
Jill Neimark is an award-winning science journalist and an author of adult and children's books.