What do you know about the man who invented goldfish swallowing?

For a couple of months in the 1930s, goldfish swallowing became a national craze. It began on March 3, 1939, when Lothrop Withington Jr. took a ten dollar bet to swallow a fish. Reports say the fish measured between three and four inches, and everyone says he swallowed it in front of a crowd. But it was more than just a bet. It became a sensation. International Goldfish Swallowing societies sprang up, and less than a month later an MIT undergrad claimed the record for “piscene deglutition.” Students started swallowing hundreds of fish all across the country.

Lothrop Withington could take credit for making it happen.

Going to Harvard…and learning to swallow fish

Named for a great-uncle who died in the wreck of the Lusitania, Withington came to Harvard to make friends, play sports, and learn. Partly educated in Hawaii, he said he was familiar with fish-swallowing from his time there. He trained before his big swallow by gulping down smaller fish in the privacy of his dorm. Unlike future fish-swallowers, he decided to chew instead of swallowing the fish whole, since that required an iced tea chaser to kill the animal.

So why did goldfish swallowing become a craze? It helped that goldfish swallowing wasn’t born at a backwater institution. Withington, class of ’42, came from a family that had previously walked Harvard’s halls and, in the case of some relatives, run its football fields. On the day of the bet, Harvard’s Union hall was crowded with many young Harvard men and a few Boston reporters (that last part was key to the fad’s spread). Harvard’s cachet helped news of goldfish swallowing spread far and wide in the media, and students began to see just how many fish they could swallow. By March 20th, Withington was in Life magazine, swallowing goldfish next to an ad for cigars.

The war after the stunts

“In what more subtle way can an educated New Englander express his criticism of the economic system than by publicly eating live goldfish at ten bucks a throw?”It sounds like a carefree time, until you remember what year it was. In that 1939 issue of Life magazine, Withington’s article followed one about Joseph Goebbels. The country’s undergrads were facing greater pressures than their final exams. When the New Yorker commented on the goldfish eating incident, they focused on the difficulty of being young in 1939: “In an intricate and rather beautiful manner young Withington represents the despair of the American undergraduate. Life has grown too hard, too complex, too competitive. In what more subtle way can an educated New Englander express his criticism of the economic system than by publicly eating live goldfish at ten bucks a throw?” The world was on the brink of war and, to some, goldfish swallowing was part of the panic.

Withington was pulled into the war along with the rest of the world. He left college to join the army after a stint in MIT’s aeronautical school. In a feat that’s far more impressive than downing fish, he was the first man to fly a helicopter from both seats and the first to make a lift with a helicopter. His pioneering role in aviation was thanks to Igor Sikorsky, the engineer who invented modern helicopters. After the war, Withington returned safely to the United States and became a businessman, living a very Massachusetts-esque life (later, he was interviewed about his collection of antique spoon molds).

Once a goldfish swallower, always a goldfish swallower

Withington begins the goldfish swallowing fad

Withington swallowing goldfish

Withington enjoyed some celebrity after the war, largely due to his goldfish swallowing feat. He made appearances on To Tell the Truth, What’s My Line, and I’ve Got A Secret. In 1952, he told a Harvard Crimson reporter that he was philosophical about his fame. “I’ve never been able to duck it, but I certainly don’t regret it,” he said. And by all reports, he was able to accomplish a lot away from the aquarium. His obituary says that when he died at 96, he was still driving around town and using his exercise bike. Let’s hope doctors will discover that the occasional goldfish swallow is good for your health.

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