(The Long-Forgotten Tale of the Anti-Hunger Crusader)
Before the War on Terror and the War on Drugs, Beaufort County waged a War on Hunger. The man who fired the first shot was Dr. Donald Gatch.
While practicing medicine in Beaufort County in the 1960s and ’70s, Gatch exposed staggering levels of malnutrition and hunger in the coastal South Carolina area — hunger few people knew still existed in the 20th century. His revelations made him unpopular among health officials and local media. For example, a Beaufort Gazette editorial in November 1967 said the doctor’s testimony on hunger amounted to little more than Gatch”running his mouth.”
He was threatened by locals, forced to close his practice in Beaufort and investigated by local public officials. Nonetheless, the doctor’s work changed the way community health is practiced in Beaufort County, say health care workers and those who knew him.
Gatch moved from Nebraska to Bluffton in 1962, when the town’s population was 300 to 500 and predominantly black. Tourism and affluence were coming to Beaufort County, particularly Hilton Head Island, yet Gatch saw conditions that were almost Third-World. He treated indigent patients other doctors would not because of their inability to pay. Many were dying of pellagra, a disease thought to have been eradicated in the United States. He saw a woman who died of a full-body infestation of maggots. He found 70 percent of black children in the county ages 5 and younger suffered parasitic infestations that drained their energy and stunted their growth.
The root cause? Malnutrition and unsanitary conditions, the latter of which meant patients who received treatment constantly were re-infected.