In the mid-19th century, Elizabeth Gregory, a New England ship captain’s mother, made a deep-fried dough that used her son’s spice cargo of nutmeg and cinnamon, along with lemon rind. Some say she made it so son Hanson and his crew could store a pastry on long voyages, one that might help ward off scurvy and colds. Gregory put hazelnuts or walnuts in the center, where the dough might not cook through, and called them doughnuts.
Her son claimed credit for putting the hole in the doughnut. According to the History Channel, after eating the doughnuts, many of the crew became sick, and Captain Gregory dug into the doughnut to find that the dough indeed did not cook through, so he cut out the middles. The Smithsonian cites an interview with the Boston Post at the turn of the century in which Captain Gregory said he used the top of a round tin pepper box to cut into the middle of a doughnut, and it was “the first doughnut hole ever seen by mortal eyes.”