Pellagra, Families and Education: What Mrs. Matheson reveals about life in 1940s North Carolina

By: Emily Pirozzolo

Mrs. MA Matheson lived in Newton, North Carolina, and was an invalid suffering from pellagra. Her story was recorded by the Federal Writers’ Project, a part of the New Deal (see figure 1). Her story helped to reveal the prevalence of pellagra, inaccessibility to education, and high fertility rates in the south during this time. While these stories give insight to what life was like, the biases in these interviews should be considered when looking at them.

Figure 1: FDR's New Deal provided many unemployed people with jobs during the Great Depression.
Figure 2: A poster for the Works Progress Administration, one of FDR's biggest New Deal Agencies, which helped to employ many people, including the people who wrote these interviews in the Federal Writers' Project.

Mrs. Matheson's Story

Mrs. MA Matheson* was born in Henderson County, NC, and her father "was well to do" and very religious (Deal and Crawford 1). She was one of twelve children, and she worked a lot in the cornfields when she was a child. She only went to school three months out of the year, and never got further than the “fourth reader” (2). At 19, She married her husband, Mark Matheson. After their marriage, Mark got his education and taught for a while, and then became a minister. During this time, although it is not clear when, she had 11 children.

At The Time This Was Written....

Mrs. Matheson lived in Newton, NC. She was 66 years old, suffering from a sickness called pellagra. She and her husband didn’t live together anymore, and of their 11 children, nine were still living. It was hard for Mark to get work, even though he worked for the WPA (see figure 2).

Pellagra: Gone, and Forgotten.

Figure 3: A man suffering from pellagra, showing one of the "Three D's" that help define this disease - dermatitis.

Mrs. Matheson suffered from pellagra, a disease that was very prevalent in the early 20th century in the American South. The symptoms of this disease are usually classified by “the three D’s: dermatitis, diarrhea, and dementia” (Akst 72). It was “striking some 200,000 people a year” in the late 1920s (Beardsley par. 1), and because the cause of the disease was unknown, the victims were “shunned like lepers” causing the disease to be “a national scandal” (Akst 72).

Figure 4: There were so many pellagra outbreaks in the south that US Public Health Service built this hospital in Spartanburg, South Carolina

A man named Joseph Goldberger tried to solve the underlying causes of the disease; his hypothesis, after observing the lack of nutritious foods in the southerners' diets, was that the disease wasn’t “caused by something people ate. [He] knew instinctively it was from something they didn't eat” (Akst 76). While his claim was true, it wasn’t confirmed until later that the disease was caused by a niacin (vitamin B) deficiency. Staple crops in the south, specifically corn, caused a niacin deficiency, while milk and other foods that could restore niacin levels were not as accessible, especially to the poorer individuals. Mrs. Matheson lived alone, probably as a result of the stigma of this disease, and in her life history she even talked about working in her family's cornfields, which would indicate her reliance on corn as a staple crop.

Beyond the Fourth Reader: Education and its Inaccessibility.

Figure 5: A one room schoolhouse in Columbus County, North Carolina, a schoolhouse similar to the one Mrs. Matheson would have gone to

In her life history, Mrs. Matheson mentioned that in school she didn’t get passed the fourth reader, and that when she could go to school, she only went three months out of the year. During this time, education in North Carolina was abominable. According to Harry McKown, in North Carolina during the last years of the 19th century, “nearly one third of its citizens were illiterate; school attendance rates were well behind that of the nation as a whole” and “North Carolina had the lowest per pupil expenditure rate in the nation” (McKown para. 2). While there were many reforms in the educational system in the American South during this time to try and fix the miserable situation, “factors of race, gender, and class largely determined the nature and the extent of [the] reform” (McCandless 18). Even as the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 1891 was created as the first public school for women to receive higher education (McKown para. 1), women were still expected to perform their domestic duties, which made it difficult for them to advance in education even when there were radical reforms taking place.

Eleven Children and One of Twelve: Fertility Rates in the South.

Mrs. Matheson was one of twelve and had 11 children, which was an expected family size during this time in the South. However, also during this time there was a huge difference in family size between the North and the South, with the northerners having many fewer children.

Figure 6: The second page of Mrs. Matheson's Life history, where she discusses the implications of being one of twelve.

Steward Tolnay described the reasons for these high fertility rates by two models: the structural model and the diffusion innovation model. In the structural model, there exists the “pretransition setting” where “high fertility is a rational response to prevailing conditions. Children are able to contribute to the family economy at an early age while costing the family relatively little” (Tolnay 617). In the “diffusion innovation” model, which involves the spread of new ideas, there is a spread of “the knowledge of birth control and legitimates its use in marital unions” (Tolnay 618). However, because the south was more rural, the spread of new ideas was virtually nonexistent, resulting in higher fertility rates. Mrs. Matheson helped out on her family farm, so it must have benefitted her family to have so many children as labor. In addition, she briefly, and rather comically, mentions that birth control “didn’t bother people where [she] lived,” illustrating what the social norms were during that time.

Accurate Artifacts?

The Federal Writers’ Project left the United States with the histories of people, like Mrs. Matheson, that would have been otherwise forgotten. However, while these artifacts are very interesting, they must be analyzed carefully because of the intended or unintended biases.

Figure 7: A Federal Writers' Project stand

Leonard Rapport, a man who participated in the Southern Writers’ Project, argued against the validity of the stories in the Federal Writers’ Project. He pointed out how the staff of the Southern Historical collection “require[ed] of their students a ‘rigorous and unrelenting scrutiny of historical evidence,’” yet they accepted the stories “as if they were tape recordings of words uttered forty years ago” (Rapport 8). In addition, he made the argument that the people who were certified to write weren’t fit for the job, and said, “persons who consider themselves writers, or who are told they are writers, in their heart of hearts begin to think of themselves as creative writers,” (Rapport 14) which would then make these histories, that are supposed to be truthful, more like works of fiction. While this may be true, it is hard to argue that Mrs. Matheson's issues with pellagra, inaccessibility to education, and having a large family are false, because of the research that supports the idea that these kinds of things happened to many people, not just Mrs. Matheson.

*Note: I have decided to use the original names of the places and people, as this provides more truth and clarity, and because enough time has passed where the parties who were written about won't be affected.

Works Cited

Akst, Daniel. "The Forgotten Plague." American Heritage, vol. 51, no. 8, Dec 2001, pp. 72-79. ProQuest Central, Accessed 31 January 2017.

Beardsley, Ed. Pellagra. South Carolina Encyclopedia, 20 June 2016. 7 February 2017.

Deal and Crawford (interviewers): Untitled, Folder 353 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Hill, Michael. Federal Writers’ Project. NCpedia, 2006. 7 February 2017.

McCandless, Amy Thompson. The Past In The Present : Women's Higher Education In The Twentieth-Century American South. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999. Ebook.

McKown, Harry. “February 1891: Founding of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.” North Carolina Miscellany, 1 Feb. 2009,

Rapport, Leonard. “How Valid Are the Federal Writers' Project Life Stories: An Iconoclast among the True Believers.” The Oral History Review, vol. 7, 1979, pp. 6–17. url:

Tolnay, Stewart E., and Patricia J. Glynn. “The Persistence of High Fertility in the American South on the Eve of the Baby Boom.” Demography, vol. 31, no. 4, 1994, pp. 615–631. JSTOR. Web. 31 January 2017. doi:

Picture Citations

Figure 1: The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “New Deal” Encyclopedia Britannica, 4 May 1999. 8 February 2017.

Figure 2: “Works Progress Administration.” Wikipedia, 9 Jan. 2017, 8 February 2017.

Figure 3: Beardsley, Ed. Pellagra. South Carolina Encyclopedia, 20 June 2016. 7 February 2017.

Figure 4: “The Slave Diet Low in Niacin Causes Pellagra Disease.” US Slave, 25 Jan. 2012, 8 February 2017

Figure 5: “Public Schools Prospered under Calvin Wiley.” NC Natural and Cultural Resources, 7 Jan. 2016, 8 February 2017.

Figure 6: Deal and Crawford (interviewers): Untitled, Folder 353 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Figure 6: Weiser, Kathy. “The Federal Writers’ Project.” Legends of America, July 2015, 9 February 2017.

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