During the peak of his professional life Norman Childers was an esteemed professor of horticulture, eighteen years the head of department at Rutgers University. Around age 50 he developed arthritis and diverticulitis requiring a colostomy. Eventually he realized that nightshades triggered his arthritis pain, often within less than an hour of consumption. He assumed he had a rare allergy, but over the course of almost 20 years he talked up his experience and learned that others had similar reactions. Suspecting he wasn’t alone, nightshades and health became a late-life crusade. He lobbied colleagues, published a newsletter and several books, and even presented his ideas at professional meetings.
If you’re used to reading modern biomedical papers, you’re not likely to be impressed with Childers’ publishing history on the topic. The papers are thin, the journals ephemeral, the methods not particularly powerful. His review of related animal science and conjecture on possible mechanisms in human health is limited. Compared to modern digestive disease literature, it’s particularly easy to dismiss Childers’ work as quackery.
But if you look closer at his life, you’ll see a dedicated scientific professional, respected in his field. When he died, a glowing obituary recounted his wide expertise as a fruit grower. His Modern Fruit Science: Orchard and Small Fruit Culture went through at least ten editions, and he wrote and edited numerous other books. The American Society for Horticultural Science was where he found his community—over 65 years he missed only three meetings. In other words, he knew something about observing cause and effect in the natural world, and teaching others to do the same in environments filled with subtle natural differences. There are definite parallels here with diet and health.
I first read Childers with a digestive research lens, and I chuckled at the methods he used in his most widely available paper. I puzzled when he described “announcements placed in the horticultural media.” But that’s just how he reached his volunteers to evaluate nightshade avoidance for the control of arthritis. He went to his people, and there were significant benefits to this population: They were avid gardeners, very motivated to find solutions for their arthritis. And he could trust that they knew what nightshades were. His methods were comparable to the horticultural methodologies of his day.
To my mind, Childers’ most significant contribution is establishing that nightshade sensitivity is not so rare that you can’t find it if you ask the right questions. In 1977 the first edition of his book included a post-card-survey, and by 1979 he reported 763 of 2453 book buyers had responded. Almost three-quarters of these used nightshade avoidance to some benefit. “[I]mmobile joints became mobile, and canes, walkers, and wheelchairs were discarded,” Childers claimed, though it feels hyperbolic. Another edition—Childers’ Diet To Stop Arthritis—followed in 1981, and in 1985 and 1986 surveys went out to 5000 new readers. The 4-page questionnaire drew 434 responses, and 94% reported complete or substantial relief from symptoms.
All of this ‘data’ has to be taken with several huge grains of salt. As Childers admitted, that last survey “inadvertently omitted [tobacco] … which could have had some impact on data.” Indeed, because tobacco is a widely-used nightshade, that’s a significant error. Furthermore, any kind of statistical analysis of his data would be fundamentally flawed because he was actively gathering information from a self-selected population of people who already believed they might be nightshade sensitive. We can draw no conclusions about the prevalence of nightshade sensitivity, and only general conclusions about the reality of it.
Indeed when Childers reported on his project before his beloved American Society for Horticultural Science, it created an unhappy stir that some attendees were able to recall decades later. Tomatoes are quite beloved of gardeners, and his findings were unpopular. It’s easy to imagine his methodology under fire.
Ultimately I believe Childers’ work provides a compelling anecdotal foundation. It doesn’t get us any closer to understanding how or why. But it’s notable that he was able to locate thousands of people who experienced problems with nightshades, and found relief when they removed them from their diet. It doesn’t suggest widespread prevalence, but it’s nice to learn you’re not alone.
Dr. Childers died in 2011 at the age of 100.
Arthritis: What Works, the least famous book by Dava Sobel
Arthritis: What Works was first published in 1988 by the (then) husband-and-wife publishing team of Arthur Klein and Dava Sobel. (Sobel, who later found publishing fame with the nonfiction best-seller Longitude, was a career science writer, including a stint at the New York Times.) Klein got into self-help publishing when he developed back problems and embarked on an exhaustive journey to find relief, producing a book about what he learned. Arthritis: What Works grew from the same model. The authors developed a survey on arthritis management, and 1051 people responded. Of that total, 48 avoided nightshades to help control their arthritis. Their one page on the subject references Norman Childers, so his thinking is likely the source of the question. But that’s the full extent of nightshade intel in the book. Dava Sobel did not reply to an email request for any further information. Arthur Klein is deceased.1