The Great Goldfish Swallowing Craze of 1939 Never Really Ended

A Harvard undergrad’s $10 bet set off a sensation among college students that still echoes on the Internet today

Lothrop Withington, Jr.
On March 3, 1939, Harvard freshman Lothrop Withington, Jr., swallows a, live, squirming goldfish to win a ten dollar bet. He reportedly practiced the feat for days before by swallowing baby goldfish and tadpoles. Bettmann/CORBIS

One of the weirdest, most revolting fads of the last century, started with a boast and a bet.

In 1939, a freshman named Lothrop Withington, Jr., reportedly bragged to his friends that he had once eaten a live fish. So, they bet him 10 bucks he couldn’t do it again. Like most young college students would, he took the challenge.

The moment of truth came on March 3, within the hallowed halls of Harvard. Standing in front of a crowd of grinning classmates and at least one Boston reporter, Withington dropped an ill-fated 3-inch goldfish into his mouth, gave a couple chews and swallowed. “The scales,” he later remarked, “caught a bit on my throat as it went down.”

It could have just been a gag-inducing footnote in Harvard’s yearbook—Crazy Coed Gulps a Guppy!—but the presence of the press meant that word of the stunt spread far and wide. Even LIFE magazine covered the story. The result was a goldfish-swallowing competitive craze that swept the nation’s colleges. 

Goldfish girl
In April 1939, University of Missouri School of Journalism student Marie Hensen became the first woman widely known to join the goldfish swallowing craze. Bettmann/CORBIS

Over at the University of Pennsylvania, a student downed 25 while a guy at MIT briefly became the “new Intercollegiate Goldfish Swallowing Champion” with a count of 42. As the spring progressed, some girls joined in, and rivalries emerged between schools. According to one source, the final winner may have been Clark University’s Joseph Deliberato, who in April of that year gulped up a stomach-turning 89 goldfish in one sitting.

Eventually, as the popularity of the craze began to ebb, Massachusetts State Senator George Krapf filed a bill, according to the Harvard Crimson, "to preserve the fish from cruel and wanton consumption." Further pressure from The Animal Rescue League helped dampen the trend.

But, of course, the fad never really went away. Today, Withington’s bet has evolved into the Goldfish Challenge, generating thousands of super-gross YouTube videos and the loss of countless adolescent summer afternoons. PETA has voiced their disapproval, however, citing evidence that the act causes the animals needless pain.

In the U.K., you can actually face legal troubles by taking the “challenge." Last year, a 20-year-old from Suffolk was fined £200 and banned from owning animals for a year after a video surfaced showing him swallowing down two live goldfish. Both swimmers lived, however, after the kid threw them up. They now reportedly live a happy life with his grandmother, which is more than can be said of the hundreds of marine casualties of 1939.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.