Happy Humphrey

A while back I was writing about the mysteries of adherence, that is, why some people manage to discipline themselves in ways that they need to while others do not. I want to return here to that theme to relate a fable — but a true fable.

The man in the photograph above is William Joseph Cobb, better known in his wrestling days as Happy Humphrey. He was a very famous wrestler, though perhaps not as famous as the almost-equally-massive Haystacks Calhoun, whom he sometimes wrestled. Happy Humphrey weighed as much as 900 pounds, and his weight proved not to be good for his health. After years of trying to lose weight, and in fear of imminent death from the heart condition that had forced his retirement from wrestling, he decided to turn himself over to researchers at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. That is, they rather than he became responsible for his adherence to a diet.

For two years, from 1963 to 1965, Humphrey lived at the clinic, where the researchers confined him to 1000 calories per day. They cycled him through high-protein, high-carb, and high fat diets, and came to the conclusion that he lost pretty much the same about of weight on each, though he lost more actual fat on the high-protein diet, and felt much better also. At the end of the two years Humphrey, who had weighed over 800 pounds when he checked into the clinic, weighed in at a sleek 232.

It’s important to note that during those two years Humphrey was completely confined to the clinic, and remained under supervision at all times. Also, by the time Humphrey died from a heart attack in 1989, he once more weighed over 600 pounds.

Something else caught my eye: it appears that when Humphrey left the clinic he stayed in Augusta and worked at a shoe-repair shop. Some of the websites I consulted in reading about Humphrey say that he was originally from Macon, Georgia, so he wasn’t too far from home territory, but I still can’t help wondering whether he wanted to remain near the place and the people who had done for him what he couldn’t do for himself. As though some aura of will-power lingered in the neighborhood.

And I also can’t help wondering how Humphrey felt about leaving the clinic. Was he desperate to recapture the freedoms of ordinary life? Or did he miss the peacefulness of an environment in which vital decisions were made for him? Did he ever long to return? Did he ever ask to return? How “happy” was he, really? And when?