Born in 1905 in Dordrecht, Netherlands, Willem Karel Dicke was a remarkable physician and observant researcher. At just 31, he became the medical director at the Juliana Children’s Hospital in The Hague. He had suspicions that wheat aggravated celiac disease, at this point known more commonly as Gee-Herter’s disease (Christian Herter was an American contemporary of Samuel Gee). There are two stories about when he first started to suspect wheat:
One, that a young mother told Dicke that “her coeliac child’s rash improved if she removed bread from the diet” (Thompson 41). The other is that he “heard a report about a patient relapsing into diarrhoea after resuming the consumption of bread” (Friesen 31). It’s possible both occurrences are true and equally important for Dicke to become more confident in his diagnoses.
Winter of Starvation
The Winter of Starvation or The Hunger Winter refers to a famine in the Netherlands during the winter of 1944-1945. The German army created a famine by placing an embargo on occupied areas of the Netherlands, in retribution to a successful railway strike by the resistance. Food shortages quickly set in, especially in the cities and suddenly bread was much more scarce, affecting the children in the hospital Dicke worked at. Some children with intestinal distress seemed to improve without bread, and their symptoms only returned when the bread did after the war. Up until this point, the best diet was considered an all-banana diet, (the Haas diet) or all fruit and vegetable diet (the Fanconi diet). These all became extremely scarce during the winter of starvation, and their absence helped Dicke and his collaborators realise that less restrictive diets would still work as long as they didn’t have wheat or rye flour.
In 1950, further experiments in the diets of patients narrowed the search down to the wheat protein, gliadin, specifically. It would take until the invention of the intestinal biopsy technique to fully win over all experts. It’s thanks to Willem Dicke that celiac disease patients weren’t stuck on an all-banana diet for the rest of their lives. Dicke was considered for the 1962 Nobel Prize in Medicine, but his death that year made the discussion moot as the prizes are not awarded posthumously. That year, they awarded the prize to Watson, Crick and Wilkins for their on discovering DNA, without which celiac disease is impossible to fully understand.
- Friesen, Jeanine. “P. 28-31.” The Everything Guide to Living Gluten-free: The Ultimate Cooking, Diet, and Lifestyle Guide for Gluten-free Families! Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2013. N. pag. Print.
- Prof.dr. W.K. Dicke (1905 – 1962).” Catalogus Professorum. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Sept. 2016.<https://profs.library.uu.nl/index.php/profrec/getprofdata/478/38/108/0>.
- Thompson, G. R. “Ch. 3.” Pioneers of Medicine without a Nobel Prize. London: Imperial College, 2014. N. pag. Print.
- “Verzetsmuseum Amsterdam.” Verzetsmuseum | The Hunger Winter. Dutch Resistance Museum, n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.