It is one of the ironies of nature that while Malta currently tops the world obesity record, exactly a century ago, a Maltese ‘professor’, Agostino Levanzin, was strutting the world stage in a blaze of international publicity, particularly in scientific journals, in the aftermath of his world-record fast performed at the prestigious Carnegie Nutrition Laboratory in Boston, US.
Levanzin was a rebel, actively engaged in the hot controversies of his day- Lino Bugeja
Levanzin underwent a 31-day fast in April-May, 1912, under strict observation, determined to contribute substantially to research on metabolism in prolonged fasting. He was invited to Carnegie after building an international reputation for his belief that moderate fasting markedly increased physical health as well as mental acuity.
Of course, he was not advocating prolonged fasting as a way of life as this could result in the dreaded disorder of anorexia nervosa; he was offering himself as a guinea pig to prove the limit of survival without food. In fact, he is still quoted profusely in established encyclopaedias of physical culture all over the world.
There is much more to Levanzin than the official world record for prolonged fasting, whose findings are still recorded in medical scientific studies. Recently, he was included in a seminal book, Hunger: The Biology and Politics of Starvation, by John Butterly and Jack Shepherd, as well as in a relatively recent highly erudite thesis entitled The History of Diabetes Mellitus – A Maltese Perspective by Prof. Charles Savona Ventura.
But there was much more to Levanzin than that. He remains one of the earliest stalwarts in the defence of the workers and the downtrodden for whom he was tried for seditious libel in Malta’s criminal courts and, arguing in his own defence, he was acquitted. In the early 1900s, he is reputed to have founded the first Malta Trade Union with 700 members, but in his unpublished autobiography he states that “political intrigue not to encourage a labour party” resulted in its dissolution.
Levanzin also left his indelible mark in journalism when, still in his teens, in his paper Il Cottonera, he uncovered rampant nepotism, bribery and corruption at the Malta Dockyard. Again he was tried for seditious libel by the Admiralty but was acquitted once again.
He boasted that he always yearned to “defend the cause of thousands of leech-bled victims against a few vampires” and gained a reputation as a staunch critic attacking head on the capitalist values of his day.
Born in Cospicua on May 23, 1872, Levanzin was immensely proud that he was related to the famous sea captain Vincenzo Barbara, who “was the right-hand man of Napoleon to plot and rescue Malta from the yoke of the Knights of St John”. He read widely and brooded on the society around him, seeing an unjust clique which he attacked viciously in his journal In-Naħla (1908), resulting in the best-selling novel of that period Is-Saħħar Falzun.
Undoubtedly Levanzin was a rebel, actively engaged in the hot controversies of his day, with scathing attacks on the ultra-conservative establishment which so frequently ostracised him.
Levanzin was all the time diligently searching for the truth, as paradoxically shown when he abandoned his priestly vocation after four years, saying it was “through matters of conviction and bigoted tyranny of the superiors”. To the chagrin of his mother, who at an early age had brought him up as a strict Catholic, teaching him the cadences of the Bible verses at her knee, this was a bitter blow.
From that time on, he embarked ruthlessly on various professional careers in which he not only excelled but displayed the willingness to take an unwavering moral stand.
In the medical sphere he distinguished himself internationally as an authority on fasting, and locally, as an acclaimed researcher particularly on diabetes and related illnesses; in fact, in 1928 he published a series of papers on this subject wherein he distinguishes between true diabetes and glucosuria.
In the legal sphere, as a lawyer, he militated in the interest of workers.
Levanzin also left his mark as a pioneer in the field of journalism and literary criticism on several cultures, being an accomplished polyglot (he spoke English, Italian, French and Spanish) and was the pioneer of Esperanto in Malta.
His inclusion among the most outstanding Maltese literary figures by the prestigious Akkademja tal-Malti testifies to his literary works in the vernacular, particularly with his highly successful and best-selling novel Is-Saħħar Falzun. His sole aim was “to educate and enlighten the working classes that live in miserable conditions”.
Before his departure from Malta in late February 1912 for the prestigious Carnegie Nutrition Laboratory in Boston, Levanzin was examined on November 7, 1911, by Dr P.P. Agius of Sliema, who certified that he “has already fasted for a long period without suffering serious bad after-effects”.
Subsequently, another certificate dated January 10, 1912, by Dr Robert Samut (the composer of the Maltese national anthem), a professor of physiology at the University of Malta, was submitted to the Carnegie Nutrition Laboratory testifying to Levanzin’s physical and mental fitness to endure a prolonged fast.
Levanzin stopped in Rome, where he consulted his friend Prof. Luciano, a famous specialist in physiological studies, who recommended him to undergo the strenuous test in the US. After visits to Florence, Paris and London, Levanzin proceeded to Liverpool, arriving in Boston on April 10, 1912.
The prolonged fast of 31 days, an experiment in physiological studies under strict supervision, ended on May 14 amid a blaze of publicity, particularly in the American press, hailing this record-breaking fast as a milestone in medical history, proving that man can survive total starvation successfully.
Unfortunately, Levanzin felt he was not properly treated after his ordeal and even accused the Carnegie Institute of brutality.
In an interview he gave to The New York Times of May 22, 1912, Levanzin complained that he had been squeezed like a lemon and then unceremoniously expelled from the Carnegie Institute. He further accused this prestigious nutritional laboratory of nearly killing him by sulphuric acid.
It is most unfortunate that in spite of Levanzin’s total compliance with the stringent demands of the institute and the high esteem in which it held him for his erudition, his mastery of languages, and proficiency in international literature as well as his knowledge and familiarity with physiological and related subjects, matters should end on such a sour note.
However, as the Maltese Biographies of the 20th Century (2009) rightly points out, Levanzin remains a man “with a complex character and a staunch defender of workers” among many other accomplishments.
Since this year marks the centenary of Levanzin’s world fasting record on May 14, 1912, this event should not go unnoticed.
In spite of his many outstanding feats in many fields, nobody seems interested in his achievements, which goes to prove that for some, centennials are only an accident of the calendar.
If centennials have any value then they at least should provide an opportunity to set the record straight by rescuing forgotten figures from languishing on the dust heap of unfashionable righteousness.