The Death of Alonzo Hamilton Packer

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

it was.


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

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

gangrene.


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

arteries.


Interstitial Nephritis

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

medications).



Dennis G. Crandall, MD

Clinical Professor, University of Arizona School of Medicine- Phoenix

Adjunct Associate Professor, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science




Further Reading:

1. https://u.demog.berkeley.edu/~andrew/1918/figure2.html

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.

4. Mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/arteriosclerosis-atherosclerosis

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.