Alonzo Packer died at the age 75 in 1917. He had spent his life working as a
farmer, most of it in a small farming community in the Gila Valley in Southeast Arizona.
His death certificate lists his causes of death as “Atherosclerosis, interstitial nephritis”.
Life expectancy for males in 1917 was 48 years old, down from a high in 1915 of 52
years of age. The drop from 1915 to 1917 was related to the US involvement in World
War I. By 1921 and through the 1930’s, the average age of male lifespan in the US
climbed to 60 years.
Calorie counting and its relevance to good health was first introduced by scientists to
the masses in the 1910’s. In 1917, Lulu Hunt Peters, A.B.M.D., a newspaper columnist
and physician published her best-selling book, Diet and Health with Key to the Calories.
She was the first to associate weight loss with a decreased caloric intake. At age 75,
Alonzo had far exceeded the average lifespan for his time, and it is highly unlikely at his
advanced age that he would have been influenced by this new thinking. He was thin as
As a farmer, it is presumed that Alonzo would have been used to a diet consisting of
homegrown vegetables, home produced dairy products, eggs, and probably poultry and
beef. Due to the limited economy in frontier America, it is unlikely that all of these food
options were always available in abundance. It also seems unlikely that he would have
had access to fish as a big part of his diet, though he certainly could have caught native
Gila or Apache Trout from the surrounding perennial creeks and streams and from the
Gila River itself. The area lakes were mostly man-made after his lifetime.
Alonzo’s entire adult life was filled with daily physical labor. Farmers work was hard
work. In the frontier West, farming and ranching were among the most common
occupations. Survival meant reliance on what a person could physically grow, produce,
or acquire to feed his family. Alonzo would have been able to actively exercise as a
matter of his daily routine. He appears thin in the photographs that have survived, which
suggests that his exercise probably offset all of his caloric intake, as a generalization.
Atherosclerosis is listed on Alonzo’s death certificate as a cause of death.
Atherosclerosis or arteriosclerosis as it is more often called simply means clogging of
the arteries. Fats and cholesterol can build up on the lining of arteries and limit the
blood supply that is delivered. Usually, the first symptoms of arteriosclerosis occur
when the blood vessels are already so occluded that there is damage to the organs or
other parts of the body that are starving for an oxygenated blood supply. In the case of
the heart, it can cause a heart attack. In the brain and neck, it causes a stroke. When it
occurs in the abdomen and legs, it can be very painful and lead to infections such as
Risk factors for developing arteriosclerosis include high blood pressure, high cholesterol
and fats in the diet, tobacco use, inflammatory diseases such as lupus or rheumatoid
arthritis (not osteoarthritis), and insulin resistance associated with diabetes and obesity.
Of these factors, the only one that pertains to Alonzo is the dietary habits that impose
risk. He likely spent his life eating foods that were available from the farm, which were
high in fats (dairy) and cholesterol (beef). However, living to age 75, well beyond the
average of his peers seems to indicate that he was not prematurely or significantly
affected. The amount of coronary artery disease he had at the time of his death was
likely the equivalent of “dying of old age”, though the actual cause of death was
probably a heart attack or fatal cardiac arrhythmia caused by blockages in his coronary
Interstitial Nephritis is also listed as a cause of death. This is a disease of the kidneys
caused by inflammation and impairment of the filtration function of the kidneys that
cleans the blood, regulates electrolytes, balances blood pressure, and stimulated red
blood cell production is impaired. The most common cause in the early 1900’s would
have been infection. Today in the modern era of antibiotics which control infections,
around 90% of cases are due to adverse reaction to certain medicines (antibiotics,
diuretics, anti-seizure medications, anti-inflammatory medications, and ulcer
Dennis G. Crandall, MD
Clinical Professor, University of Arizona School of Medicine- Phoenix
Adjunct Associate Professor, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science
2. Peters, Lulu Hunt. Diet and Health with Key to the Calories. Originally published
1917. Subsequent editions are available in paperback, hardcover, and in digital form.
3. Willis A. Gortner. Nutrition in the United States, 1900 to 1974. CANCER
RESEARCH 35, 3246-3253, November 1975.
5. Clarkson M, Giblin L, O'Connell F, O'Kelly P, Walshe J, Conlon P, O'Meara Y, Dormon A, Campbell E, Donohoe J (2004). "Acute interstitial nephritis: clinical features and response to corticosteroid therapy". Nephrol Dial Transplant. 19 (11): 2778–83. doi:10.1093/ndt/gfh485. PMID 15340098.